Battle lines drawn for Fleet Street's finest

Forget the Ashes, this autumn could see one of the bitterest newspaper circulation wars for years

This time it's the most important autumn for years. It usually is. New initiatives are being taken. There has been activity in the transfer market. No paper has changed ownership over the past year; there has been only one high-profile change of editor, Dominic Lawson replaced by Sarah Sands at The Sunday Telegraph; no paper changed size. A quiet year. Only it wasn't; it was ferociously competitive. It usually is.

As we look forward, it is again the serious end of the national daily market that grabs attention. The Sun retains leadership at the tabloid end, out of sight of the once dominant Mirror. In the mid market, the Daily Mail can disregard the once-mighty Express, now so lacking the flair of its rival and selling a third as many copies.

But at the former broadsheet end of the spectrum, sales decline is not a given (see Independent and Times). For nearly two years, since the dramatic launch of the compact Independent, soon followed by The Times, competition has been fierce and format debate intense. Now we are about to go through another burst of innovation, as The Guardian relaunches a week tomorrow in midway, smaller than broadsheet, bigger than tabloid, format. (The size is called Berliner and the typefaceis called Egyptian - I doubt Daily Mail readers would tolerate such foreign intrusion.)

We will consider the success or failure of this radical change - to a newspaper that has been losing sales - when it appears. The rival editors, knowing it is coming, have had to determine whether a response is needed. Whatever they do, it will never be described as a response, always as "a planned series of developments to the paper to provide a better product for readers".

It has been the style of The Times's reflective editor, Robert Thomson, to develop his compact paper progressively. Two important things are happening at this start of the editorial year. The second section of the paper is being revamped and the price is going up.

T2 is becoming Times2 - that should get them rushing to the news stands. The redesigned supplement will provide "knowledge for the knowing", I read, which shows the marketing people have not lost their touch. They describe their audience as The Times's "renaissance readers". Which is one way of describing the women readers they are so keen to attract.

It is more than 10 years since the serious newspapers competed from the same price base, but tomorrow Times, Guardian and Telegraph will cost 60p (The Independent is 5p more). For years rivals have cried foul over Rupert Murdoch's so-called price war with his rivals. Now we will be able to see the effect of the level playing field.

Not that it is ever as simple as that. The Telegraph's version of price cutting, which continues and allows The Times to say that it sells more full-price copies than its rivals, is selling cut-price copies through a voucher system. And, of course, sales figures are distorted by the "bulks", the copies we pick up for free in our hotels and on the train.

The Independent has brought back Helen Fielding and Bridget Jones, and says it has further plans under wraps. Much has been made of the Telegraph taking 36-year-old Will Lewis from The Sunday Times as its city editor, and developments to that area of its coverage will follow. Although The Telegraph is still not downsizing - I think wisely - it is changing quite radically.

Martin Newland, its editor, has the reputation of being a man preoccupied with news, always the core strength of his newspaper. Yet in recent weeks, without fanfare or talk of redesign or relaunch, I have found it a very different product. The content is ever frothier, more lavishly presented with large colour pictures. I know they are trying to bury their association with the Cheltenham colonels but I do wonder what their solidly conservative middle-class audience makes of a page on "Swazi king has his pick of 50,000 virgins", many of them pictured not over-clothed. Or of the huge front-page billing for Victoria Beckham talking about her reading habits. Or successive home news pages, in colour, on Jools Holland's wedding and Michael Owen's transfer. Things are not as they were.

Look out for many more opportunities to increase your DVD collection or download some more tracks. Look for a surge in TV advertising. Once again it is gloves off for the new season. It is as competitive as an Ashes series.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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