When Rupert Murdoch's News International unveils thelondonpaper on Monday (4 September), the capital will see a bloody and old-fashioned newspaper war. The afternoon freesheet will be the first serious challenge to Associated Newspapers' Evening Standard since Robert Maxwell squandered £40m on the short-lived London Daily News in 1987.
Thelondonpaper is aggressively targeting readers of the Standard, with its distribution timed to coincide with that of the final edition of Londoners' favourite paper. With a print-run of 400,000, the new title will be distributed by 700 people in central London and Canary Wharf.
Associated's response has been dramatic: Standard Lite (the slimmed-down free version of the Standard's first edition, which launched in late 2004 and has a circulation of 79,000), has been scrapped and replaced by London Lite.
The revamped offshoot, preview copies of which appeared late last week, will have a similar print-run to thelondonpaper, and will also be distributed by hand in central London.
Associated also plans to reposition the Standard as a more upmarket paper, with an increase in its cover price from 40p to 50p. The paper is a long-term loss-maker.
The verbal jousting between News International and Associated has already been fierce, with the former even accusing the latter of plagiarism in elements of London Lite, according to Sunday's Observer.
‘It is not clear if the strategy behind Murdoch's launch is to make money or just to knock out the Standard - I suspect it is a bit of both,' opines Harrison Cowley head of consumer Daniel Cohen.
News International executives remain understandably tightlipped about their strategy - and the contents of what will be a 48-page tabloid - ahead of its first edition. But various details of the paper's editorial plans have emerged. The editorial team is led by editor Stefano Hatfield - a former editor of PRWeek sister title Campaign.
Content-wise, the paper will focus on lifestyle-led news and target 18 to 34-year-old ABC1 commuters. The title will be ‘light-hearted' as well as ‘upbeat', plus ‘interactive' and ‘pictorially-led'.
Explaining its launch, News International says: ‘Free newspapers are now part of the mainstream - and only 36 per cent of Londoners read papers on the way home, compared with 60 per cent in the morning.'
Thelondonpaper will keep coverage of serious issues, beyond Metro-style news, to a single page and is intended to be a 25-minute read. Online and mobile platforms will also be used.
The fact that News International is using consumer agency Frank PR and its sister experiential marketing
agency Sneeze (see News) also hints at youth-oriented, lively editorial (after all, Frank has worked on titles such as Emap's Zoo Weekly).
The launch of thelondonpaper is clearly likely to affect the Standard's already fragile circulation, which has been in steady decline since the 1990s. In July 2000, it sold 435,000 copies; this July that figure had fallen to 300,900.
Thelondonpaper may also be seeking to capitalise on the Standard's decision to drop Thursday entertainment supplement Metro Life last summer, a move that cost Associated dearly, according to Cohen.
‘That was a huge mistake and cost the Standard 40,000 readers in that edition. A free listing sheet would create opportunities for restaurant, bar, food and wine and entertainment PROs,' he argues.
Some, though, have questioned whether Londonders need another freesheet: thelondonpaper will be the capital's fourth. The others are morning paper Metro, which launched in 1999 and has a circulation of 550,000; business daily City AM, which debuted last September and boasts a circulation of 88,000; and London Lite.
Top end or low brow?
Luke Blair, director at London Communications Agency, says: ‘With thelondonpaper we will be getting more opportunities for coverage - but if it drives down quality in search of circulation, it will be harder to tackle serious issues. Unless it plans to "celebritise" every story, of course.
‘Paris Hilton could champion London's economic development strategy, perhaps, or Big Brother contestants could host seminars on the need for Crossrail,' he quips.
The Communication Group CEO Michael Hayman argues that declining readership of newspapers generally, and the rise in internet use, particularly among thelondonpaper's target market, makes the timing of the launch particularly brave.
Elsewhere, Golley Slater group PR director Nick Brown welcomes the launch. ‘Newspaper wars are good for PROs as there are more opportunities to sell in a story. Journalists will be more aware that if they don't run a story, their rival could do instead.'
It is certainly the case that thelondonpaper will offer additional mass-market column spaces for PROs to target.
But until that crucial first edition next Monday, Londoners will just have to wait and see what News International and thelondonpaper's new editorial team have planned.
EDITORIAL CONTACTS at thelondonpaper
01. Robert Hands, Associate Editor, 020 7782 4865
02. Stefano Hatfield, Editor (1680)
03. Bridget Harrison, Deputy editor (5527)
04. Carrie Gorman, Style and shopping editor (4830)
05. Dominic Midgley, Features editor (4838)
06. Ella Stimson, Features assistant (4863)
07. James Law, Online editor (7924)
08. Michal Dzierzal, Deputy online editor (4849)
09. Kim Taylor Bennett, Online reporter (4882)
10. Katherine Hibbert, Reporter (4844)
11. Julia Buckley, Features writer (4867)
12. Lottie Moggach, Arts and events editor (4836)
13. Luke Blackall, Reporter (4877)
14. Malcolm Mackenzie, Music editor (5606)
15. Stuart McGurk, TV and film editor (4868)
16. Widiane Moussa, Social affairs editor (4861)
17. Zoe Griffin, Gossip editor (4876)
(to change when website launches)