'Standard' may fight decline with free edition

The Evening Standard has drawn up plans to launch a free afternoon newspaper in the capital to combat falling circulation and as a pre-emptive strike against Richard Desmond's plans to publish a rival free-sheet.

The Evening Standard has drawn up plans to launch a free afternoon newspaper in the capital to combat falling circulation and as a pre-emptive strike against Richard Desmond's plans to publish a rival free-sheet.

A slimline version of the newspaper - known as a Standard-lite - could be distributed in London as soon as next month, either given away or with a reduced cover price.

It is expected to be available between 12pm and 2pm so that it does not eat into the circulation of the Standard, circulated in the afternoon, or the Metro, the capital's free morning newspaper, which is also published by Associated Newspapers.

The proposal went before Kevin Beatty, the new managing director of Associated Newspapers, earlier this month. Sources said that it has been greeted enthusiastically, but has not yet necessarily been given the green light. A spokeswoman for the Standard said talk of a free edition was "pure speculation". She said: "Like any go-ahead publisher, Associated Newspapers has considered a number of initiatives for the Evening Standard and its editions."

But the idea was one of the main subjects of discussion at a recent conference attended by senior management from the commercial and editorial teams on the Standard.

The London newspaper market is one of the main areas that Mr Beatty has to address since he took over two months ago from Murdoch MacLennan, who is now chief executive of the Telegraph Group.

The plans for a Standard-lite are believed to have been influenced more by a desire to tackle falling sales in the capital than as a direct response to Mr Desmond's plans to launch a free London evening newspaper.

In the year to September, the circulation of the Standard under its editor, Veronica Wadley, fell nearly 8 per cent to 367,844.

It is believed that Associated Newspapers would opt for a "soft launch", publishing a limited number of free editions and carefully monitoring the effect on sales to assess whether the new launch was shoring up the Standard's falling circulation or damaging it further.

Mr Desmond, the owner of Express Newspapers and a long-time foe of Associated, announced plans for an evening free-sheet provisionally titled London i two years ago. But his hopes of rivalling the Standard have been put on ice while the Office of Fair Trading investigates his complaint that Associated's exclusive distribution deal with London railway stations is anti-competitive.

In an interview with The Independent earlier this week, Mr Desmond said that if the OFT ruled in his favour, he could have the free newspaper on the streets within weeks. He also dismissed speculation that Associated would distribute the Standard free, at least for the period of his launch. "I'd like that," he said. "It will cost them £40m. That would give me huge pleasure - and then they'd lose another £20m in advertising."

Under the plans being considered by Associated, the Standard would remain a paid-for newspaper during the later part of the day, but it could give away its early afternoon edition.

When Robert Maxwell tried to break into the London market in 1987 by launching the London Daily News, the Standard's publishers revived the Evening News and slashed its cover price to 10p. Maxwell's newspaper folded six months later.

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