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Tabloid price war cripples 'Today'

RUPERT Murdoch's News International has shot itself in the foot in the newspaper circulation war it started last Monday - with a 5p cut in the Sun's cover price to 20p - by seriously weakening Today, the most vulnerable title in the Murdoch stable.

Industry figures, which have yet to be independently verified, indicate that Today has come off worst in the price war, losing between 5 and 7 per cent of its sales and seeing its sales on Friday down 26,000 on the Friday before. The figures also show that the Sun has increased its sales by between 180,000 and 200,000. This is costing the paper pounds 900,000 a week in lost cover price revenue.

The Daily Mirror, which was assumed to be the main target of the Sun price cut, held its own for most of the week. It cut its price to 10p for one day only on Monday, adding 500,000 copies. On Tuesday, when its price reverted to 27p, it was up 26,000, but it was dropping through the week and on Friday its sales fell to 14,000 below where they had been the previous week.

Today is already losing large amounts of money - the City estimates its loss last year was in the region of pounds 9m - and has never made money in the six years since News International bought it from Lonrho. In that time Mr Murdoch has tried various initiatives to turn the paper around - including draconian cost-cutting, an attempted sale to its management and threatened closure.

The most recent initiative was to hire Richard Stott, who was deposed as editor of the Daily Mirror when former Today editor David Montgomery became chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers last November. He has brought in a number of leading Mirror journalists, including political editor Alastair Campbell and taken Today both downmarket and more to the left.

This had appeared to be successful, with Today's sales in the first half of this year up 10.3 per cent at 533,000. But the price war is threatening to take Today's circulation below the psychologically significant 500,000 barrier.

News International would not comment on the figures and a senior executive at Today disputed their veracity. However, industry sources have said that Mr Stott is angry that the price war has backfired on Today.

Today is not the only sufferer. The Daily Star, published by United Newspapers, which also owns the Daily Express and Yorkshire Post, lost 23,000 copies, and during the week has seen its sales drop by nearly 4 per cent.

It is also loss-making - City estimates are that it was pounds 13m in the red last year.