MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; THE INDEPENDENT: Has the Independent lost the plot in the paper price wars?

The Times’ price strategy has put the Independent in a spin.

The Times’ price strategy has put the Independent in a spin.

Just when you thought it was safe to climb out of the bunker, Rupert

Murdoch lobs another grenade. Most people had assumed that the cover-

price war was over. It was a long and punishing affair in which the only

real winner was the Times - it almost doubled its circulation, mainly at

the expense of the Telegraph and the Independent.

When the Times hiked its price again last September, rival publishers

and the advertising community thought that Murdoch had achieved all he

had set out to and that publishers could get back to some serious brand

development and investment in products.

Well, almost. The Times claims that the latest outbreak in hostilities

is in support of serious editorial investment. Its Monday cover-price

cut to 10p is designed to promote a new enlarged sports section, which

is taking on the Telegraph’s renowned Monday sports section in a head-

to-head battle for the loyalties of high-brow sports fans.

The Independent doesn’t see it that way, of course. In typically

paranoid fashion, it’s been running editorials accusing Murdoch of

bullying tactics and it has come up with one of the weirdest left-field

promotional ideas seen in recent history. Last Monday - and perhaps on

future Mondays too - purchasers of the Independent were offered the

Times for free.

Is the Independent right? Does the Times have a greater agenda? Or has

the Independent completely lost the plot? Would a renewed price war be

good for the newspaper market?

Colin Gottlieb, the managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, says he

is filled with admiration for News International’s tactics. ‘From a

morale point of view, it is inspired,’ he enthuses. ‘News International

continues to be the market maker - everyone else faffs around while it

creates the agenda. The Independent’s response was just ridiculous.’

Gottlieb argues that the Times’ strategy is clearly aimed at putting the

Telegraph on the back foot - not just on Monday but on Saturday too. The

Saturday Telegraph has been angling itself at the Saturday Times market

as well as the Sunday Times’ market - the classic ‘buy your Sunday paper

on Saturday’ strategy.

Gottlieb thinks a renewed price war would be good for advertisers as it

would keep publishers on their toes. ‘This type of competition is great

for the market. It encourages investment and, in a marketplace dominated

by talk of new media, it’s good when papers market themselves,’ he says.

Bob Offen, the managing director of Mediastar, says: ‘I’m not sure what

the Independent was up to. It may have thought, perversely, that it was

getting Times readers to try the Independent but I’m afraid it was the

other way around - it paid its readers to try out a rival. That’s a

terrible message to send to readers. It may feel it has to make a

radical move but something has clouded its judgment. The Times’ efforts

will always be targeted on the Telegraph and the Independent only

suffers what I think these days is called collateral damage. If it

doesn’t realise that, it will never be able to combat it.

‘Over the past two or three years, the Times has narrowed the gap in

circulation terms, which means the Telegraph hasn’t been able to command

the premium on ad rates it once did and that, in turn, has damaged

display ad revenues. I think Murdoch’s strategy will continue to be


Alan Brydon, media director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, is less sure.

‘During the last price war, the Guardian showed that some parts of the

market aren’t price sensitive. Readers of the Monday Telegraph’s sports

coverage are very committed. It’s a good section - intelligent yet

accessible, with top writers. It won’t be easy converting its devotees.’