Rival London paper will have a tough job to beatthe Standard

The battle for ownership of the London newspaper market is hotting up. The Evening Standard has had some pretty fierce brushes with the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and now the Mayor's office is running a tender for the distribution of a London freesheet that could dent the Standard's already falling circulation.

Not that Veronica Wadley, the Standard's editor for the past four-and-a-half years, seems concerned about the prospect of competition. She's putting the finishing touches to some nip-tuck surgery on the Standard that should see the light of day in the next week. She is so confident about things that she even has some kind words for Ken: "We have a healthy relationship. All journalists should be sceptical of people in power but if you look at Ken's response to 7/7, that's when he really grew into the role."

The Standard will start to use more colour, following Associated Newspapers' investment last year in colour presses, and there will also be more news pages and a section colour-coding system similar to those introduced by magazines such as Easy Living.

You could take the view that it's a difficult time for Wadley and her newspaper. Circulation of the paid-for editions continues to decline, down 6.4 per cent year on year in March to 324,123 copies. If you include Standard Lite, the Standard can still claim a circulation of more than 400,000, but the titles are essentially different products.

Wadley is proud of the evolution of the Standard and is unflappable in the face of tough market conditions (Associated's ad revenues for the five months to February were down 9 per cent). "The market is pretty stable, we have an extremely good ABC1 profile and our paper sales compared with the nationals in London are very strong," she argues.

But is she worried about potential competition? "The Standard has led the way with Standard Lite and shown what a free paper can do. We also have a very loyal readership," she says, suggesting that a free rival would find it difficult to dislodge these regular readers.

Agencies welcome the Standard's investment in editorial but question how relevant the title can remain when there are so many other sources of information and entertainment available. Upscaling news may address this, while the introduction of a more "magaziney" feel may keep younger, female readers.

While Wadley will not be drawn on whether Associated will go into the freesheet pitch with a Standard-branded product, it is possible in any case that the Mayor's office would seek to stimulate competition by handing the contract to a rival publisher. One thing's for sure, though - Associated is still investing heavily in supporting the Standard, so it's going to be no easy target.

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