Peter Cole On The Press

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This week there will be gifts for those who tread the capital's pavements during the afternoon. And next week ... further gifts. These will be in the form of free newspapers from two generous men, Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, owners of News International and Associated Newspapers respectively.

Conventional wisdom suggests this battle is based on madness - seeking a new marketplace where the present one is dying. Already blows are being traded, with accusations flying of seeing the rival's business plan and mirroring the other's distribution times.

Early in my career I worked for the two London evening newspapers then publishing. The first, the Evening News, was selling 1,250,000 copies a day. The second, the Evening Standard, was selling 750,000. That's two million London evening papers purchased every day. This was more than 30 years ago. Today's one surviving London evening newspaper is near to dropping below 300,000.

The evidence suggests that the propensity to buy evening papers in London has not so much declined as collapsed, just as it has in most large towns and cities across the land. While the car dominates elsewhere, London still has its public transport on which people could read an evening paper. But few do.

So Londoners are now to be offered two new newspapers to satisfy the demand that clearly does not exist. Rupert Murdoch will provide 400,000 copies of thelondonpaper; Jonathan Harmsworth, the latest of the Rothermere dynasty to run Associated, a similar number of copies of London Lite.

There are already three other free titles being distributed - Standard Lite, which will cease publication as London Lite comes from the same publisher; City A.M. and Metro, the London edition of the successful Associated free morning paper.

When the two new ones are on the streets, Londoners will have around 1.5 million free newspapers available to them - five times the number they presently buy.

Newspaper publishers, including News International and Associated, have spent most of this year bemoaning the decline in advertising revenues. Partly this is to do with the state of the economy, partly with the departure of advertising to other media, particularly the internet. Free newspapers depend solely on advertising revenue.

Only the Evening Standard will continue to generate the two traditional forms of newspaper revenue - advertising and purchase price. There is talk that Associated will increase the price from 40p to 50p, which will further reduce sales.

The editors on the new papers - Stefano Hatfield of thelondonpaper and Martin Clarke of London Lite - are as bullish as all editors of soon-to-be-launched newspapers must be. They have similar readers in their sights. Blending the various descriptions offered by Hatfield and Clarke, their senior managements and the media buyers, the target comes out like this: "Young, urbanite, ABC1, upbeat, optimistic, time-starved, with active social lives, visiting pubs, restaurants and the cinema, 18-35, never read a national newspaper, difficult to reach through traditional media, much sought after by advertisers."

The 800,000 of these typical young Londoners who will find new newspapers in their hands over the next couple of weeks, will have a "quick, bright, entertainment- and celebrity-focused read, bringing a dynamic, fresh and punchy approach to the capital's news, a paper populated by happy young people".

If so many of them never read a newspaper, why should they start now? Is the iPod no longer satisfying? Is the decisive factor that the new products will be free or different? And since free newspapers are picked up and often discarded on bus, train or Tube, whereas the Standard is taken home, how will the advertisers decide they are getting their money's worth and reaching the audience they seek? The commitment to and engagement in a free newspaper is harder to measure than a monetary transaction, but there are established measures in place. Metro is considered a success, and frees exist in capital cities around the world.

My scepticism about what is about to be launched on London is checked by two factors: Murdoch and Rothermere. Neither is given to romantic or whimsical ventures. Neither takes other than hard-headed business decisions. Each runs a highly profitable publishing operation in Britain. But I cannot see more than one of them - and possibly fewer - winning this war. On track record one would back old Murdoch against young Rothermere. And it is hard to spot a future for the Evening Standard.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield