Media: A moment with Marquis

Always get your retaliation in first, they say. Associated Newspapers certainly thinks so, because isn't this how the Standard Lite launch is panning out?

Anyone considering elbowing their way on to the London newspaper scene is going to have to think very hard indeed to build a successful business in a market already bulging at the seams with a flourishing Metro and a cleverly put-together Standard Lite as well as the "full fat" Evening Standard.

Associated isn't daft, and has come to realise that Richard Desmond is not the bumbling joke it had hoped when he first got into newspapers. Desmond has breathed life into the Express and the Star after years of decline, and has the balls and the cunning to have a real crack at the London market.

But Standard Lite is a good product and a canny pre-emptive move. Everyone at the Standard is saying that Lite is the snack that will whet the reader's appetite for the paid-for feast later in the day. Maybe.

If it works out that way, Associated won't believe its luck. A much more likely scenario is that Lite will gradually supplant the paid-for version, hastening its sales decline but shoring up Associated's dominant share of the London market.

At first sight, introducing a product that makes things worse, not better, for the Standard looks barking mad. But it isn't because Associated sees the Standard as a brand, and a brand worth fighting for, worth investing in and worth innovating. It doesn't matter to Associated what format it comes in as long as it freezes out competitors and remains a viable brand.

This is good marketing and it is good business. The company has looked at Londoners and seen how dramatically their habits have changed in a generation. How the young won't part with cash on a regular basis for a newspaper, how quick the news fix has to be, how at the point of delivery almost every source of news is free - internet, TV, radio, mobile. In this new reality, a paid-for newspaper owner has to accept that things ain't what they used to be.

2005 is going to be a fascinating year for newspapers. Anyone writing off the printed word as old-fashioned and doomed is reckoning without the wiliness of the publishers and their ability to reinvigorate their brands, even if it takes an entirely different business model. The Telegraph going compact? The launch of a new upmarket national? A major shake-out in London? Don't discount any of them. A dull year it won't be.