Week one of the London free paper wars, and only the T-shirt makers are winning

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The Independent Online

This is the way it used to be, the streets alive to the sound of news vendors. Now they're younger; they're seldom cockney; they're dealing with only one title; and mostly they're giving it away. "Evening News, Star and Standard!" was once the cry. Now it's, "Londonpaper, Lite and Standard!" Never mind the quality, feel the volume.

News International's the-londonpaper joined Associated Newspapers' London Lite, which had a launched a week earlier, last Monday and the battle for the non-newspaper reading young Londoner was under way. The colour was purple: deep, ecclesiastical purple T-shirts for the distributors of London Lite, brighter, in-your- face purple for those giving out Murdoch's thelondonpaper. The distributors - we cannot call them vendors - were Polish, Nigerian, Sri Lankan and Brazilian, to give but a few examples.

In three areas patrolled - London Bridge, Embankment to Charing Cross, and Tottenham Court Road - London Lite staff outnumbered those of thelondonpaper by 3:2 or even 2:1.

The London Lite staff were shouting out their paper's name. They said they had been asked to announce it forcefully. Some of thelondonpaper's distributors said they were told not to shout. One entrance to London Bridge Tube station had 10 people handing out one or other title; com-muters had only a narrow gap to get through the press of purple.

An Evening Standard seller inside the station was looking a bit gloomy. He estimated his sales were down 10 per cent and talked of other sellers who had seen sales fall by over a third. A cleaner at the bottom of the escalators was filling a rubbish bag with discarded free newspapers.

Dipstick sampling on the Tube showed more passengers reading London Lite than its rival. The secretaries seemed to be inclined to read this paper, while those who looked more like students chose thelondonpaper.

But what of the papers themselves? Both - thelondonpaper more emphatically - claim to be targeting readers from their late teens to mid-30s. Both believe the way to do it is with short stories, busy pages, plenty of celebrities and nothing too earnest. Both crowd their front pages with trailers for soft material inside. London Lite is repackaging Evening Standard stories. The Standard interview in which Charles Clarke attacked Gordon Brown was played strongly on the front; the reporters are often recognisably Standard reporters.

Thelondonpaper does not have this ready source of material. Sun and Times copy is not what the Murdoch free needs. While it has a cleaner design than its rival, it has already made some odd choices of story, such as the front page lead about voyeuristic perverts lurking in central London. And leading on the capital's cocaine epidemic before the paper is a week old seemed a little desperate.

Both publishers are proudly claiming a take-up of around 400,000 copies. They say this rather in the manner of boasting of sales; perhaps they have forgotten that they are not. Associated is claiming no loss of sale for the 50p Evening Standard, but the message after just one week of head-to-head competition between the frees is believe no claims.

One thing we can say for certain. Nobody, apart from makers of purple T-shirts, has made any money. Profits for either Associated Newspapers or News International will remain a long way off for a long while to come.

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