For many in the media community, especially those with long memories, the manner in which Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers is squaring up to Associated Newspapers in an imminent battle for the hearts and minds of Londoners is spookily familiar.
We've known for two years now that Desmond intends to launch a free evening newspaper in the capital - a counterpart to Metro, the morning freesheet from Associated. Express Newspapers says its launch has been delayed by Associated's control of distribution via the London transport system.
But that monopoly is being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading and a decision is believed to be imminent. Observers say it is likely to go against Associated.
If that's the case, we could be weeks away from the launch of the Desmond title, which will probably be called London i.
So it was perhaps no surprise to see Associated preparing to get its retaliation in first, with plans to launch a free lunchtime version of the Evening Standard, as revealed by Campaign last week. This "Standard-lite" edition would have fewer pages than its paid-for sister and would be available from noon, then withdrawn at 2pm so as not to damage sales of the Standard's late editions.
All of which will prompt students of media history to recall a previous London newspaper war, when Associated saw off Robert Maxwell's London Daily News in the late 80s, largely by relaunching the London Evening News as a trashy spoiler.
It had eight pages and all the production values of a church fete flyer, but it confused the marketplace and foiled any chance of the London Daily News establishing itself as a coherent brand.
However, some observers say it's unlikely we'll see history repeating itself - largely because it is unclear which of the existing Associated titles a "Standard-lite" would be designed to defend.
1. The Evening Standard is in a far weaker position than it was back in the late 80s - for instance, its circulation in September was down 8 per cent year on year to 367,844. It has been losing money for a couple of years now and there are signs that it has been damaged by its Metro stablemate.
That's not the only threat though. These days, office workers tend to grab the latest news off the internet before leaving work. The screaming headlines on the Standard's newsstand boards contain few shocks or surprises these days.
And that's equally true of listings information - meanwhile, media planners say there's compelling evidence that upmarket readers are not throwing away the compact papers they buy in the morning, but are keeping them to read on the journey home too.
2. Metro's staff will view the prospect of a spoiler with trepidation too. It has built a London circulation of 494, 261 and there have already been tensions at Associated as the management looks at ways of establishing a balance between Metro and the Standard. And some agencies would like to see Metro's distribution scaled back. But it's hard to draw conclusions about the market dynamics - there's not enough insightful research being produced.
Steve Goodman, the group press director of MediaCom, says a spoiling tactic will be a matter for extremely fine judgment from Associated this time around. "When you launch a spoiler, the most established existing product is the one that's usually least damaged." In other words, though Desmond would be hurt, so would Metro.
3. Express Newspapers argues that the world is now very different to the one stalked by Maxwell in the late 80s. In particular, it maintains that the Evening Standard's decline is terminal - London, in effect, can no longer sustain a paid-for title.
It also points out that "predatory pricing" of the sort that blew away Maxwell's LDN is no longer an option. After all, the company's regional counterpart, Northcliffe Newspapers, has already fallen foul of new legislation covering this area - and has been fined heavily.
4. The Office of Fair Trading is vital to the London newspaper battle. The distribution issue is crucial. No matter how determined Desmond is to stick it to Associated, even he would baulk at the costs of setting up a rival distribution network from scratch. A decision is due any day now and advertisers, who want more competition in London, would welcome anything that would encourage Associated's rivals.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- A free early-afternoon newspaper may work to bring in new, younger readers to the Standard's paid-for editions while confusing the market ahead of an Express Newspapers free title launch.
- However, the risks are high. A free newspaper with a Standard masthead could undermine the paid-for title's brand values. Even worse, it could cannibalise its sale.
- Regardless of the Standard's "lite" plans, there are signs that Associated has the option of launching a Metro PM title in the event of Desmond going ahead with his London i product.
- Though Metro's national circulation has just broken through the one-million barrier, it is facing pressure from its Associated stablemates, the Daily Mail and the Standard, to cut back on its London distribution to avoid further damage to their circulations.
- Resolve seems to have strengthened at Express Newspapers. Some Express sources don't really believe Associated will go ahead with a spoiler and that this is merely flimsy rhetoric designed, at best, to keep people guessing.
- It claims that its title will offer something different to Londoners, arguing that Associated doesn't have its finger on the pulse of metropolitan London. All of which would tend to suggest it has a celebrity-driven title up its sleeve.
- The Office of Fair Trading decision on London Transport distribution is important to Express Newspapers. Sources at the Express say that it will press on with the freesheet launch no matter what, but it would be far more costly to distribute using teams of people on streets rather than bins in stations.