Murdoch drops plan to ambush `Mail' freesheet

PLANS BY News International to spike the launch of London's first new newspaper for more than a decade appeared yesterday to have been put on ice.

Rupert Murdoch's east London-based corporation is believed to have delayed plans for a daily capital-wide freesheet in competition with London Metro, a new giveaway launched today by Associated Newspapers.

News International (NI) had been considering reviving its dormant Today title for a free paper that would have not only undermined Metro's launch but also attacked the advertising underbelly of the Evening Standard, Associated's principal London title. The project would have cost at least pounds 15m, money which NI executives in the end felt would be better spent on beefing up The Sun and News of the World.

This decision means that a repeat of the newspaper war which followed the last new title launch in London 12 years ago now looks unlikely.

London Metro, Associated's first newspaper launch for 17 years, will be distributed from bins on the London Underground in a 10-year deal that could net the transport company more than pounds 1.5m a year. It represents the first real test of the pairing of Paul Dacre, editor in chief of Associated Newspapers, and the new Lord Rothermere Jonathan Harmsworth, who took over as chairman following his father's death last year.

The desire for the project to succeed at all costs became clear last month when Metro's first editor, Kim Chapman, was forced to step down. Mr Dacre claimed her dummy editions were not sufficiently sophisticated for the relatively young (under 35), affluent commuters of the target readership.

Mr Dacre has since drafted in some of his most trusted lieutenants from the Daily Mail. Ian MacGregor, the Mail's associate editor (news), has taken over as editor, while Alastair Sinclair, deputy editor of the Mail, moved across for several weeks. The result is a 40-page print version of GMTV - celebrity-heavy, middle market and glamorous.

The paper will be available in 72 underground stations. As distribution broadens to 261 stations, the print run will expand from its initial 100,000 to 300,000, the figure Associated hopes will bring in pounds 13m in advertising revenue, and a profit.

Associated's primary motive is defensive. It has decided to produce a daily freesheet before a rival does, taking the view that if any title is going to damage the Evening Standard, then better one of its own. Associated is hoping to minimise the impact on the Standard by steering the freesheet's news content away from a strong London agenda and by ensuring that while the Standard's early editions are on sale from 9am, Metro is not available until after 10am.