Media Forum: Is the Standard under threat?

Will the Standard lose the most when the London paper launches, Alasdair Reid asks.

You could argue that News International's new London freesheet (see Headliner opposite) is bound to be a class act - after all, it got its marketing director from Harrods. On the other hand, its determination to subvert the normal rules of punctuation does not bode well. If a title that calls itself thelondonpaper pushes a creative use of the space bar to its ultimate conclusions, then it mightbeveryhardtoread.

We'll soon see, obviously - but you suspect that this very definitely isn't going to be an accident-prone launch. It is, according to some sources, one of the most thoroughly researched publishing projects ever undertaken, having been road-tested in countless different formats, layouts and editorial styles on a series of focus groups.

From 18 September, 400,000 copies of thelondonpaper will be distributed between 4.30pm and 7.30pm by 700 uniformed distributors positioned outside Zone One Tube stations, at bus stops and around various watering holes such as coffee chains. It will be aimed at young, upmarket Londoners and is said to be optimistic in tone.

All of which must be contributing to a profound sinking feeling over at Associated Newspapers; and, of its three London products - Metro, the Evening Standard and Standard Lite - it's the Standard that arguably has the most to fear. It will now be the only paid-for title in a mainly free market that offers huge amounts of choice, especially if you add City AM to the equation.

It is often pointed out that the Standard successfully resisted a major invasion of its turf more than a decade ago, when it destroyed Robert Maxwell's London Daily News through the use of a devilish cocktail of spoilers, black propaganda and news vendor fisticuffs. But the world has changed since then.

Can the Standard survive? Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, argues that its best strategy will be to avoid a head- on clash with the new title. Instead, it should focus on its strengths. He says: "Metro identified a new type of audience and successfully developed a product to serve this audience. The new title will do the same with what is, again, a very different product. The Standard will survive by focusing on its own strengths. The publishing market right across the board is about market segments and delivering exactly what your target audience wants. It is not about fighting battles across all fronts - which in this case would prove expensive."

Goodman says it would make sense to raise the coverprice and target an older, more affluent commuter. He suspects, though, that Associated will not be able to resist throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at News International in an attempt to stop it gaining a London foothold. So it could be a while before a coherent strategy emerges.

Chris Spalding, the vice-president, logistics at Metro International, used to work on the Evening Standard. He sees it as a head-on clash and says you can bet that Associated will come out fighting. "In the past, they've always pulled something out of the bag. On the other hand, if you could have a choice of opponents, News International would probably be bottom of your list. The reassuring thing from the Standard's point of view is that more than 50 per cent of its sales come from outside of central London so a big chunk of its business will be unaffected."

And arguably, says Mark Gallagher, the press director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, Metro has just as much or more to lose, because both Metro and thelondonpaper will be chasing the same younger, affluent readers. So advertisers that previously placed five insertions in Metro could now split their budgets across the two titles, with maybe a 3:2 ratio in favour of thelondonpaper. "Competition between the two will have an impact on rates too," he forecasts. "Meanwhile, although the Standard's coverprice revenues may decline, its advertising revenue may prove surprisingly robust."

Not so, Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, counters - free titles are the future, he argues. "Everyone has to think about their strategy now," he says. "The editorial quality of paid-for titles is better, clearly, and though Metro does a fantastic job it's not exactly a taxing read. So paid-fors definitely have a place but in a market that seems to be moving so strongly towards free titles - and London is merely the most intense example of this - the paid-fors really have to reassess how they approach the marketplace."

MAYBE - Steve Goodman, managing director, print trading, Group M

"As long as it keeps adapting, the Standard has a future. It has to focus on the fact that it is a different product to Metro or thelondonpaper. It offers a more in-depth read for a different audience and it can survive as long as it remembers that."

NO - Chris Spalding, vice-president, logistics, Metro International

"Competition should be viewed as just as much of an opportunity as a threat. It should put everyone on their toes. The Standard might come out of this a better product - and no-one knows more about the London market than Associated."

NO - Mark Gallagher, press director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"The Standard's coverprice revenues might be affected, but its ad revenues may hold up. Thelondonpaper will put the spotlight on how Metro looks. People will make direct comparisons and realise Metro now looks a bit old-fashioned."

YES - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"All paid-for newspapers are in the firing line. It's no accident that since Metro has come along, national newspapers in general have been struggling. Free newspapers fundamentally change people's attitudes to newspapers."

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