Media: Manchester goes to war

The circulation war has returned to the North with strong launches by Guardian Media and Associated. But can local news carry the day?

IF ANYTHING moved in Manchester last Friday, the locals would not have missed it. The city awoke to two new colour tabloids, both free and almost impossible to evade at train, bus and tram stations.

Guardian Media Group offered Manchester MetroNews. Associated Newspapers countered with Metro North-West. Then, by lunchtime, Guardian Media's Manchester Evening News (MEN), hit the streets at a discounted price of 10p. By the evening, the free local weekly was also awaiting commuters.

The new morning titles plunge the city into a circulation war. Associated wants to replicate the success of its London Metro which has a daily circulation of 350,000 but MEN managing director Ian Ashcroft said locals would see Associated's free as a "London imposition". He rushed out his Manchester MetroNews 48 hours after getting wind of the rival during a "chance conversation". He had originally planned five test issues before Christmas and a launch in January. "We had contingencies for this situation but hoped we would not need them," he said. Metro North-West, added Mr Ashcroft, offered minimal local news and the little it did carry was lifted from the previous evening's MEN.

Mike Anderson, deputy MD of London Metro, was more abstract. "Metro- ness," he countered, was "a media moment and not local." The people of Manchester were too "well-travelled" to be parochial. While Associated can call on distribution experience acquired in London, Mr Ashcroft admitted: "This is a new delivery system for us."

Both sides have invested substantially. Mr Ashcroft has taken on 15 production journalists, Associated has a staff of 25 in editorial and advertising to produce the Metro North-West at its base in the city.

It's quite a sea-change for a city which must search back to 1960, and the old Manchester Guardian, for the last morning newspaper to carry its name.

The new title from Associated is not its first expression of renewed interest in Manchester. It has played down its move to new offices in the city but there are strong indications that it is beefing up its operation. There is talk of four pages of regional news and sport being produced from the city. The Mirror has already taken the regional route with front- page editionising for Liverpool and Manchester and its North West briefs. Associated believes it can capture 100,000 ABC1 readers a day with its new title.

For its own part, Guardian Media - which courts ABC1s with its pink, pull-out MEN business pages - had been preparing to add a paid-for morning to its stable when the pre-emptive strike against Associated's free became a priority. A morning title was waiting to happen - Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle all have their own.

Economically, the territory is fertile. The IRA bomb which devastated Manchester three years ago has been the catalyst for a spectacular rebuild which has seen investment amounting to four times the cost of the bomb damage. The world's largest Marks & Spencer store, the centrepiece of this reincarnation, opens in two weeks and Harvey Nichols is also believed to be looking at the city. A five-star hotel is being created out of the old Free Trade Hall and the Great Northern Experience, a classy retail and leisure development, is being created from an old warehouse.

Amid all this activity, the MEN reports a 3 to 4 per cent rise in year- on-year advertising, even though extra readers have been hard to find. The paper has used heavy discounting for two years to boost Friday sales by 50,000, but sales overall have been stable.

If the first day of the "war" is anything to go by, Guardian Media must be hoping that local news will be the key for readers. Though both new titles made the Irish peace process their lead story on Friday, Manchester MetroNews ran a column of brief Northern stories on its front and included considerable local news inside. Metro North-West, a near replica of the London Metro, carried almost exclusively national news. Yesterday, MetroNews splashed on a local story.

The battle leaves Guardian Media with a delicate balancing act. It is raiding MEN resources to generate local news content for its new title but it dare not undermine MEN sales by offering more than a 40 per cent quota of local news. If it does to little local coverage it loses a key selling point over Associated's paper, which offers all the polish of Daily Mail design.

The MEN has already hailed its new stablemate. "You loved it," the paper told its own readers. But painful experience tells Guardian Media what a threat Associated's new title poses. Which paper did London Metro knock from its position as Britain's top circulation free when it recorded a certified daily circulation of 321,272 in August? Guardian Media's weekly Manchester Metro News.

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