'Lite' it or not, Associated don't get much wrong

And they might well have seen the future with their free lunchtime edition of the 'Evening Standard'. Other newspaper groups will take note

So the year ends with another of those possibly landmark developments in newspapers, the free London evening paper. Standard Lite went on the streets of the capital last Tuesday, the first paper, I imagine, ever to use an invented word in its titlepiece. And beer begat a free newspaper.

There has of course been a mass of comment - most of it concentrating on the circulation decline of Standard "heavy", the traditional paid-for product still available for 40p. Whatever they say in public, there is in private a degree of awe felt towards Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, the Metro series of free morning newspapers, and the London Evening Standard. Associated tends to get things right. The Mail, over the years, has bucked the circulation decline which has afflicted most papers. Its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, is not loved by all, but he is deeply respected. His relationship with the latest Lord Rothermere is strong, and this is a group driven by editorial imperatives rather than simply the bottom line.

It is the one surviving newspaper dynasty that dates back to the establishment of the national press as we know it. The Northcliffe/Rothermere dynasty started the Mail in 1896 and the Daily Mirror in 1903. They owned great newspapers such as The Times and The Observer along the way, titles that, like the Mirror, passed into other hands. Their history has contained its dark side, but in publishing terms it has always been innovative and usually successful. Who would have thought that the Metro titles, found on public transport in major cities, would have been so successful?

Once the paper of the capital's cultural, financial and social elite, selling 750,000 and more copies a day, the Standard now sells about 370,000. Changing work patterns, changing demographics, and changing media brought about declining sales for the one surviving London evening. This pattern is reflected in evening papers (or, more accurately, afternoon papers) nationwide. This is a sector of the newspaper market where "managing decline" is the term used in the boardroom.

So can Standard Lite save the Standard? Will Lite lead to all Standards being free? Veronica Wadley, the editor, says no, but then she has to. You can be sure that publishers of evening newspapers around the country will monitor the "lite" experiment intensely. London today; Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds tomorrow?

At present Standard Lite is presented as an alternative or complementary product to the paid-for title. It is on sale for a limited period in limited areas of London. It is targeted at younger readers who are probably "lite" on newspaper reading in general. It excludes the main columnists and add-ons of the paid-for paper. And its stories are short and pacey, with more celebrity and more women's interest. Metro's influence is strong.

There is widespread agreement that it is a rather impressive product, for which credit is given to Martin Clarke, who is leading the project. There is less agreement that Lite readers are likely to migrate to the paid-for Standard, or acquire two forms of Standard a day. But Lite distribution will feed into the Standard's audited circulation figure which will provide a short-term massage, however contrived.

But simultaneous broadsheet and compact publication of The Independent and Times was short-lived. There are examples out of London - Wigan is one - where free and paid-for titles from the same publisher co-exist. In London now we have four from the same publisher. Read your Mail over your muesli. Your Metro on the train. Lite over lunch. And trad Standard on the way home. Dream on, Associated.

I bemoan the fact that Lite is free. Newspapers are worth paying for and are good value. And a free newspaper - they exist of course all over the country and many are very profitable - with advertising as its only source of revenue feels to me less of a "proper" newspaper. But I fear this is just nostalgia for my own London evening days - on both the Standard and the deceased Evening News - when the Standard occupied a prominent place on the London landscape. And sold twice as many copies.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield.

Comments