Here is an amazing fact. On 18 September, Rupert Murdoch launches his first newspaper in this country. Hitherto, he has specialised in acquiring titles cheaply and, wherever possible, making them profitable. In six weeks' time, he is producing one of his own.
The new paper - a freesheet called thelondonpaper - is directly aimed at the London Evening Standard, which is owned by Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail. (I should again remind readers that I write a column for the Mail.) The two most successful newspaper groups in Britain will be locked in battle. Mr Murdoch cannot afford to fail. In fact, it is a safe bet that he won't. But nor can Associated allow him to weaken the Evening Standard, far less let him drive it off the streets.
The trouble is that the Evening Standard is already quite low in the water. It is losing perhaps £9m a year, though, as a result of successive cost-cutting, this figure is less than it was. The flight of classified advertising (on which the paper has had an unusually heavy dependence) to the internet has hit it very hard. Sales are also in decline. In the month before Robert Maxwell launched his short-lived London Daily News in 1987, the Evening Standard sold 511,000 copies a day. Its average daily circulation in June was 310,000.
For almost 20 years, sales have been slowly slipping away, though there was a brief pick-up in the early 1990s. Over the past few years, the rate of decline has quickened. Paid-for afternoon newspapers have been going downhill almost everywhere. Further sales have been lost to the freesheet Metro, which Associated launched seven years ago. (Perhaps somewhat ironically, Metro is making about as much money as the Standard is losing). Over the past decade or so, the Standard has also slightly lost its way editorially, though there have been recent improvements to the City and comment pages, and the paper is now conveniently stapled.
One might have thought that launching a new title into a shrinking market was not a very clever thing to do. Mr Murdoch's executives at News International see things differently. They believe that there is a gap for an afternoon freesheet aimed at younger readers, who are not being catered for by the Standard. Dummies of a full-colour 48-page paper are already being shown to media agencies, and, as dummies generally do, they are attracting favourable comments. Thelondonpaper will be more downmarket than the Standard, though it is described as being less bland than Metro, and with more "attitude".
Do Associated Newspapers and the Evening Standard have much to fear? Thelondonpaper will have only 40 journalists, and so will find it difficult to compete with the Standard, which even after cutbacks has far greater editorial resources. Nor is it clear that thelondonpaper is driving its tanks straight into the Standard's heartlands. Some 400,000 copies (at least to start with) will be distributed by hand outside commuter points in the capital. (News International is also bidding for exclusive distribution rights at both London Underground and mainline railway stations). But thelondonpaper will not be given away until about 4.30pm, and only in central London, which leaves the Evening Standard, whose first edition appears in the morning, with a lot of territory of its own.
Still, one can see that were the launch of thelondonpaper to deprive the Standard of only 25,000 sales, that would, in the circumstances, be a heavy blow. Retaliation is certain. When Maxwell launched his London Daily News, Associated cleverly muddied the waters by briefly resuscitating the Evening News, and selling it for only 10p. Maxwell's paper (which was actually quite good) lasted six months. Mr Murdoch is a much more formidable rival, and he won't be seen off by a similar ruse. My guess is that Associated will increase the print-run of its giveaway Standard Lite, a boiled-down version of the newspaper obtainable between noon and 2pm, but it would be most unwise to slash the cover price of the Evening Standard. Surely the point of the paper is that it is not a freesheet.
The Standard, which has a high ABC1 readership, should play to its strengths as a quality paper publishing the sort of articles that are not available in freesheets. But it has to face realities. Paid-for afternoon newspapers that try to cover the waterfront do seem to be in ineluctable decline. Metro has been nibbling at the Standard's morning sales, and thelondonpaper may have a larger bite in the afternoon. I expect it will be very good in its way, and, because it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, it cannot be seen to fail. One way or another, the Evening Standard will have to adjust itself to a lower circulation in the longer term.
But why not regard this as a challenge rather than a defeat? The Evening Standard's future lies as a quality tabloid, principally of the City and the West End, offering unrivalled financial, arts and political coverage. If sales are going to be lower, so costs will have to be, and I fear there will have to be further editorial cutbacks in inessential areas. There are also savings to be had if the Standard restricts its area of distribution. My suggestion is that, rather than feeling it is on the ropes, and in continual retreat, the Evening Standard should seize the initiative, and subtly reposition itself as London's only quality newspaper.
May I offer the Guardian Media Group some friendly advice?
In 2005, for the second year running, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, was paid a bonus of £175,000 "in recognition of his leading role in the successful launch of the new-format Guardian and Observer newspapers". This has goneinto his pension pot, along with a further employer's contribution of £134,000. His salary rose from £272,000 to £312,000.
These hand-outs are causing angst on the shop floor. Few would dispute that Mr Rusbridger has been a successful editor. But the £100m relaunch of The Guardian has won precious few new readers, and the paper is making an operational loss quite apart from the cost of new presses. In such circumstances, a properly commercial company would not hand out bonuses.
My suggestion is that the GMG should pay Mr Rusbridger a salary commensurate with his job, and a decent pension, and not make unjustifiable extra payments that only enrage employees.
The Sun sees itself as the squaddies' newspaper. It is also uncritically in favour of bashing up America's perceived enemies wherever and whenever possible. None the less, its celebration of "the Taliban Terminator" last Friday came as a shock.
At a time when many people are wondering whether British forces in Afghanistan are not overextended, The Sun chose to splash with a story about an unnamed British soldier who had allegedly killed 39 Taliban fighters on his own. The heroic tone inside ("the man who never misses") was that of one of those combat magazines read by saddoes.
Is Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, suffering from a madness-inducing form of sunstroke?