Murdoch: one; Rothermere: nil, in freesheet war

On The Press: They're part of the London landscape now, but over at the paid-for 'Evening Standard', there's only urban desolation in the sales figures

Two senior newspaper people have plenty on their minds in the coming week: Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror; and Veronica Wadley, editor of the London Evening Standard. Both will have looked at the latest audited circulation figures and quickly turned away in horror. Both face tough times ahead - as challenging as any they have experienced in their successful media careers.

Let us deal with the latest fall-out from London's "free-wars". There are, Veronica, winners and losers in life - and as far as the battle for the afternoon sale in the capital is concerned, you are not in the first category. After three months of London Lite and thelondonpaper, the frenzy has died down and the free newspapers have become part of the landscape.

Indeed there is every indication that they have consolidated their position. It seems odd to say a free newspaper has increased its circulation; after all, it would seem that in order to increase your figure, all you have to do is leave more around or pass out more. It is hardly the achievement of a sale.

But the true believers in the frees tell me not to be so old-fashioned. Distribution is a complex business; judging the number you seek to give away is a science, balancing production costs against the revenues you get from advertising for a certain verified distribution.

This is the nub. In their own way, frees are counted and audited properly too, just like sales. So we now have accepted figures for - how shall we put it? - copies of frees acquired by people who, mostly, then read them. And News International's thelondonpaper is now more than 30,000 copies ahead of Associated Newspapers' London Lite. One factor is the-londonpaper winning access to mainline railway stations.

So Londoners, or rather London workers, are taking 800,000 and more free newspapers. So far, the culture change is happening. And it is the same in Manchester, where the now-free (in the centre of the city) Manchester Evening News is moving up from 70,000 copies, where once 7,000 were paid for.

But for Ms Wadley and the Evening Standard there is nothing but pain. The decline in sales of her paper is much more calamitous than anticipated, even though many of us thought claims that it would hardly suffer from the onslaught of the frees were ludicrous- particularly when Associated Newspapers, the publisher she shares with London Lite, put the price of the Standard up to 50p to celebrate the arrival of the greatest competition it had ever had.

The November sale of the Standard was 272,500 in November, down 3.4 per cent on October. Starker, bleaker, more ominous is the year-on- year decline: the sale of the Standard is down a huge 21.4 per cent compared to the pre-free month of November 2005. This is serious.

Sly Bailey worries about sales too, but not half as much as she worries about the share price. Following the four-month review by Trinity Mirror's bankers, Rothschild, presented to the board last Monday, Ms Bailey is this weekend thinking ahead first to another board meeting and then, on Thursday, to a trading statement to the stock market.

Perhaps, surrounded by the spreadsheets, she has taken a moment to glance at some other figures, without a £ sign in front of them: the latest circulation figures for the company's national newspapers. She will have very quickly wished she hadn't.

Trinity Mirror, at this very significant moment in its relatively short history, has delivered the least sought-after double: the highest year-on-year falls in sales of a national daily newspaper and of a national Sunday newspaper. Step forward the Daily Mirror, down 7.3 per cent, and the People, down 12.2 per cent. The other title owned by the group, the Sunday Mirror, is down 6.2 per cent.

True, November was a depressing month all round, with almost all titles down. Of the dailies, only the Financial Times could post a year-on-year rise, of the Sundays only The Observer and Mail on Sunday; but the Trinity Mirror titles performed particularly badly.

Speculation is rife about what Ms Bailey will announce, and rumours range from putting either the regional titles or the national titles up for sale, to selling nothing and relying on a restructuring of the group to deliver a better performance than it has of late.

So to the descant of "is there any future for newspapers?" (answer: yes), potential bidders are making discreet enquiries. We can be sure that that if there is anything to buy, we shall again experience the paradox of considerable interest in buying businesses with "no future". Whether it is in buying the Mirror for reasons of vanity or self indulgence, or the regional titles for a yet stronger position in that ever-more consolidated sector, there will be interest.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

Hot-shot hacks

The UK Press Awards rarely pass without at least one good punch-up. Jeremy Clarkson, the unreconstructed motoring journalist, one year memorably lamped Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, after a long-running verbal spat. But the violence of Her Majesty's Press Corps still pales into insignificance compared with the antics of Aussie hacks. In the Down Under version of the Press Awards, held last week, a high-profile political columnist at one Rupert Murdoch-owned title shoved a fellow hack, who was presenting an award, off the stage. Mayhem duly ensued until the pair were forcibly separated. It is not the first time the Aussie press has shown its fighting colours. In July, a former reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald was alleged to have threatened a sub-editor at Murdoch's Daily Telegraph with a gun after an argument in a pub.

Legend in his lunchtime

An end of an era looms. Ian Watson, one of the last remaining "old school" business hacks in town, is finally calling it a day and stepping down from his role as editor of The Business magazine, née newspaper. "Wattie", as he is universally known, will still be penning the occasional article. However, he has decided, after decades of service to the newspaper industry, to spend more time with his wife and family. He leaves behind a number of protégés at various newspapers who still do their best to uphold the noble and age-old tradition of the five-hour lunch.

Reduced relaunch

But before he leaves, another set of accounts for The Business has just been filed - which means another set of losses. Last year, when it was still a newspaper, the publication lost £4.1m, but this was a slight improvement on the previous year (losses of £4.2m). Being a newspaper and losing money is no cause for shame: the two tend to go hand in hand these days. But the owners of The Business, the Barclay brothers, will hope that the magazine spends less of their money. A sign of things to come was possibly heralded by the party for the relaunch of the title as a magazine in October. Traditionally, Andrew Neil, editorial supremo, hosted Business bashes at the proprietors' own Ritz hotel every year. October's party was equally glamorous, but in the slightly less grand Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge.

Running scared

Congratulations to Arsenal Ladies FC, which has reached the final of the European Uefa Cup for the very first time. Flush with their semi-final success against Danish side Brondby, the north London gals challenged a team of football hacks to a match. After agreeing to play Arsenal Ladies, it dawned on a few back-page scribblers that they might get gubbed. Apparently, the journos are now appealing to the FA to cancel the fixture on the grounds that women shouldn't play against men.

Wilby's line of ire

What's got into Peter Wilby? In an acidic article in the Evening Standard on Wednesday, Wilby slams newspapers and magazines for pretending that their stories are more newsworthy than is actually the case. Included in the list of shameful publications worthy of Wilby's bile is none other than the New Statesman. Wilby was booted out of the editor's office at the magazine more than 18 months ago, with John Kampfner taking his place, but he remains a media columnist for the publication. After this latest piece for the Standard, will Kampfner take the view that Wilby's "objectivity" has gone too far?

Glory days underplayed

Noticed The Guardian's house ad for its anthology of writing about George Best? There's an example on page 28 of last Monday's main paper (in the business section, which is a funny place to put it, but there we are). The blurb refers to "the glory days of the 6-0 trouncing of Northampton", etc. Is it too Statto-like to point out that the result of the match referred to - an FA Cup tie in 1970 - was actually 8-2 to Manchester United, Best scoring six of the goals. We expect to be credited in The Guardian's corrections page in due course.

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