Can a new rival to the 'FT' really do the business?

In a crowded market, the latest financial title might have its work cut out. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

Five years ago business journalism was thriving. The Financial Times's circulation was in overdrive. Sunday Business, as The Business was then called, put on 14 per cent in one year. Jeff Randall, then launch editor of Sunday Business and now the BBC's business editor, intoned: "We unearthed a market most people didn't believe existed because they misjudged the massive social shift in Britain towards interest in business and ownership of shares."

The Swedish newspaper giant Bonnier responded by launching business a.m., a Scottish business daily aimed at Edinburgh's dynamic financial services industry. The BBC invested energy and resources in programmes such as Working Lunch, and live broadcasts from the Square Mile seemed to be replacing foreign wars as the glamour end of television news. But the world changed again. Business a.m closed in December 2002 after accumulating losses of £22m. The Financial Times lost £32m in 2003 and £9m in 2004. Staffing at The Business was pared back to a bare-bones operation.

Optimists say a slight upturn may be detectable. Last week the London Evening Standard modernised its business coverage by replacing its separate section printed on pink paper. The FT trimmed its losses to just £2m in the first half of 2005. But insiders are perplexed by Muncaster's announcement of a title that seems designed to go head to head with FTpm - the FT's free afternoon business briefing launched in April.

Nick Theakstone, head of investment at the award-winning media agency Mindshare, says, "I think it will be a very tough job to stand out in what is a highly congested market. There is a plethora of opportunity to get this sort of news from established titles such as the FT, Times, Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard. The people who need business news are surrounded by screens that give them instant access to it."

Andrew Neil, chief executive of The Business, says, "I see no purpose for it. These days people who need business news need real-time news. That is why they are migrating online. We are putting a lot of effort into The Business online. If we break even it will be online." The Business lost £2.5m last year and Neil acknowledges that the print edition may never attain profitability.

"It has always been my ambition to make The Business an international brand name like The Economist or the FT, but if we do that we will only do it online."

Joanna Manning-Cooper, the FT's director of communications, says: "We do not have any great detail about the proposed 'London Business Daily' but, on the face of it, it seems very different from the FT." Insiders at the salmon pink title are less generous. One asks, "How will they distribute it? To win access to the Underground will take serious financial muscle. Every big player will bid for the afternoon slot. There is no point just wandering around handing it to people. That way, you have no idea who is taking it and business advertising is all about targeting."

But behind the bravado of potential rivals and the scepticism of market analysts there is interest in the project. Lawson Muncaster was vice-president of global sales at the Swedish company Metro International until last October. Metro International publishes 57 daily newspapers in 18 countries, although it does not yet have a foothold in Britain. Muncaster has also spent time as sales director at Scottish Television, Eurosport and CNN. It is widely accepted that he understands the burgeoning market in free newspapers, and rivals acknowledge that he may have something innovative up his sleeve.

In a statement, Muncaster confirmed that "London Business Daily" - to be edited by David Parsley, lately of the Sunday Express - is due to be launched "at the end of this year". He said: "London's business community has never been fully catered for. By launching 'London Business Daily' we aim to fill this gap in the market. We are in the process of building a strong editorial and commercial team, and are in discussions to secure secondary funding which will facilitate our launch."

Sources indicate that "London Business Daily" will be an evening newspaper, making it the third free afternoon title for London in less than a year, following Evening Standard Lite and FTpm. They say it will be distributed "on the transport network". Rivals question whether this means that Muncaster plans to bid for rights to distribute on the Underground or simply to hand out copies outside stations.