In one sense, I have no more interest in the fight between the two new London afternoon freesheets than I do in a battle between two prune manufacturers, or a scrap between rival makers of widgets. But I am told they are newspapers, and that either or both of them may be, in the fashionable new phrase, "rolled out" across the country. You had better watch out if you live outside London, since a new freesheet may be heading your way.
The first question is why Rupert Murdoch launched thelondonpaper, the first edition of which appeared last Monday. He must partly have wanted to biff the London Evening Standard, which has been losing readers alarmingly fast, as most afternoon papers have been doing. But he has more ambitious plans. He looks around the country - or his chief lieutenant Les Hinton does - and sees failing provincial papers. The plan, if the experiment in London succeeds, is to launch afternoon freesheets elsewhere. Trinity Mirror, which publishes many paid-for afternoon provincial titles, may be Mr Murdoch's principal target.
The second question is why Associated Newspapers (publisher of the Daily Mail, for which, I should remind readers, I write a column) should have pre-empted Mr Murdoch's new freesheet with one of its own five days earlier. The general view is that London Lite is a spoiler. Associated, however, claim it has been working on an afternoon freesheet as an adjunct to its morning title Metro, which is also given away.
In any event, it is plain that the main purpose of London Lite is not to defend the Evening Standard, whereas in 1987 that was precisely the point of Associated launching a spoiler to defuse Robert Maxwell's London Daily News. Like Mr Murdoch, Associated is interested in replicating its London afternoon freesheet elsewhere.
The Evening Standard, alas, is no longer central to anyone's game. This makes me, a quondam columnist on the paper, rather sad. Whatever you think of it, the Standard is a proper newspaper. On a desert island, you would seize it if it were the only available publication, whereas I would be tempted to throw thelondonpaper or London Lite on the fire. Nevertheless, we have to face the fact that the Standard has been losing readers, and a great deal of money. Associated's new strategy, which is surely correct, is to market the Standard as London's quality newspaper. But I doubt that raising the price by 10p to 50p will convince readers that it has suddenly acquired extra quality.
This price rise, and more particularly the presence of hundreds of thousands of free newspapers, is bound to affect the Standard's already flagging circulation. When, last Thursday, I approached a Standard vendor hoping for a copy of the paper, he spurned my 50p and thrust a copy of London Lite in my hand. Where is the sense in that? Reduced sales will inevitably lead to further editorial cutbacks. Rather than submit itself to the vagaries of fortune, the Standard would be wise to define itself more precisely as the upmarket newspaper of the City and the West End, providing the kind of analysis and comment and well-written pieces which freesheets, with their smaller editorial budgets, cannot afford.
You may be wondering which of the two new freesheets I prefer. I feel as though asked to distinguish between two sorts of nougat, which I cannot abide. If pushed, I suppose I lean towards London Lite, since it contains quite a few pieces carried by the Evening Standard and seems to have a few pretensions to be serious and grown-up. I should report, however, that the majority of people whose opinion I have canvassed prefer thelondonpaper. They go on about the listings, which admittedly do seem comprehensive. Perhaps they like the pieces about polar bears, or the stories about open-air sex and other forms of titillation in which thelondonpaper seems to specialise, making it sometimes resemble (if this can be imagined) a downmarket Daily Star.
Oh, God. But perhaps I should not get too upset. If there isn't a lot of evidence that freesheets encourage younger readers to graduate to paid-for titles, there is also little reason to think that freesheets are doing much more than nibbling at the sales of proper newspapers. Perhaps freesheets can thrive in a parallel universe, and everyone can be happy. But I do worry about the Evening Standard.
They're shedding staff - but will that help the 'Telegraph'?
On Tuesday The Daily Telegraph published a photograph of its amazing new "hub and spoke" office in Victoria, London. The designer of what is described as "the world's first wholly integrated multi-platform editorial office" has evidently been brought up on science fiction films. At the centre is a huge round table, or hub, at which editors will preside like time lords. Lesser mortals will sit along the spokes that fan out from the hub.
Except that there will be fewer drones than there were. On the same day the Telegraph informed us that "job losses are planned, although the extent of these is still under consideration". Translated, this meant that the number of redundancies had been worked out, but the paper did not want to sour the triumphant account of its fabulous new offices by revealing them. Two days later it was announced that 54 journalists, 24 administrators and 55 staff from non-editorial departments will be sacked.
Will Lewis, who was recently appointed managing director (editorial), is the Captain Kirk of this enterprise, and has been working closely with Aidan Barclay, chairman of the Telegraph Group. My dear friend Murdoch MacLennan, the company's chief executive, has been assuming a more hands-off role. Mr Lewis justifies the redundancies on the basis that reporters and, more particularly, sub-editors will be more productive in his new editorial system. I wonder how reporters and specialists will find the time to prepare decent stories if they are always having to break off to transmit audio and video for podcasts and vodcasts.
We'll see. No man is a greater believer in Progress than me. I am also sure there is what Mr Lewis might call "excess labour" at both Telegraph papers. The fact remains, though, that the Barclay brothers, who acquired the Telegraph Group in June 2004, are largely driven by a need to reduce costs. They are making perhaps half the profits they expected. Some 100 editorial posts went 18 months ago. Taking into account the new redundancies, the editorial complement of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph has been cut by more than a quarter since the Barclays took over.
Will this make for better journalism? Hardly. However many vodcasts and podcasts and other marvels Mr Lewis's new system may produce, the two printed newspapers will remain by far the most important part of the business. If they are weakened, there is no point in these innovations.
So I remain a sceptic, though I hope I am wrong. If ambitious young Will Lewis is to lose those brackets around the word "editorial" and become a fully fledged managing director and one day - who knows? - step into Mr MacLennan's shoes, his vision of the future will have to be seen to succeed.Reuse content