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.’