The free paper: Can the 'Evening Standard' survive it?

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You wouldn't want to be Veronica Wadley just now. The editor of the Evening Standard is trying to maintain the sales of her newspaper while, to put it in horseracing terms, being saddled with a big handicap. That is the 800,000 copies of two new titles - one of them, London Lite, from her own publisher - being given away in the centre of her circulation area.

Perhaps thinking that a cover price of 40p in the face of free rivals was giving Ms Wadley too easy a ride, her management decided to increase it to 50p. So far her proprietors are not limiting sales of the Standard only to those who have the exact money, have passed an aptitude test and can pick the lock of the safe in which the vendor keeps his copies of the paper.

I doubt whether Ms Wadley's boss, Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, would find selling the Standard easy in such circumstances. Sale was declining anyway, rapidly and substantially, and the pressure on Ms Wadley was intense. Now she must patrol a newsroom in which the focus of attention is on the new kid, London Lite, and where the launch editor of that paper, Martin Clarke, enjoys a pretty good press for what has been achieved so far. Both are seen as tough editors who make enemies as well as acolytes and are fiercely ambitious. The idea of them both in one office, sharing staff, stories and attention is a beguiling one for students of conflict.

There is always as much spin in newspaper publishing as in politics, and when the battle involves Rupert's Murdoch's News International (thelondonpaper) and Rothermere's Associated (London Lite), as this one does, fought on the streets of London, regarded by the media elite as the centre of all that matters, then spin becomes typhoon. After nearly three weeks of Free Wars it is impossible to separate the facts from the propaganda, the reality from the Schadenfreude.

Associated Newspapers claims it is distributing nearly 400,000 copies of London Lite, as it set out to, which seems entirely credible, and that the impact of this on sales of the Evening Standard is a near-negligible 7,000 reduction, which is incredible. Industry sources believe the Standard slippage is much greater. Figures of a fall of up to 80,000 are bandied about by those with connections.

So we don't know, but we have little doubt it is not good for the Standard. Now Ms Wadley is known to get tremendously, and publicly, angry with anyone who suggests things are not going well with her paper or her editorship. So on with the flak-jacket. The strategy for the Standard following the launch of the Lite was that the old paper would nudge upmarket to hold on to its traditional, rather gracious lovers of London architecture, culture, restaurants and life, while the newcomer would be a bit of an iPod, cool, stylish, pacey - more celebrity focused, more bite-sized, more accessible.

And the reality? Take last Friday. The Standard comes out leading page one on super-skinny models and featuring inside fat waitresses, Bridget Jones knickers, Jonathan Ross, Robbie Williams, Ricky Gervais and money laundering in football. There was a theatre review - of The Alchemist - on page 27.

Later comes London Lite. Some stories are similar. The skinny models are on page five, with the front given over to house prices. The paper is sharper, more crisply designed than the Standard. But could you say that the free one for young non-newspaper readers is noticeably downmarket of the traditional product?

This is the problem. The sidewalk surfers are going to choose between the two offerings from the distributors in their different shades of purple T-shirts. At present the media village seems to think more highly of London Lite; the more hip on the street like thelondonpaper. Neither group wants to pay 50p for the Standard, unless they were already buying it before Free Wars.

Several commentators were worried about the future for the Standard when Free Wars began. Most, myself included, came from a point of great affection for the paper, which had featured so strongly in our lives. But we are of a certain age.

Associated responded when it became known that Murdoch was planning a free London paper. Some described London Lite as a spoiler for thelondonpaper. The way Associated has loaded the dice against the Standard, it looks more like that is the paper being spoiled. And Veronica Wadley may find herself reflecting on life's lack of fairness. Her playing field is far from level.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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