Associated Newspapers is plotting to launch a free lunchtime version of the Evening Standard in a bid to bring in new readers and build share as the London evening market braces itself for a free Express Newspapers paper.
The free edition, a Standard-lite containing fewer pages than the paid-for editions of the Standard, is expected to launch in November and to be available from 12pm to 2pm, coming off distribution before paid-for editions appear.
Associated, which also publishes the morning freesheet Metro, could now be the first publisher to have a London afternoon freesheet, ahead of Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers. Desmond has talked for two years about launching a free paper in the evenings and has registered London i as a possible title.
Associated has stopped short of launching a free evening title, partly because of the damage this could do to the Standard. The Standard's falling circulation is an issue for Associated - its paid-for September sale is down 8 per cent year on year to 367,844.
The idea for the Standard-lite launch was pitched to Associated's managing director, Kevin Beatty, in the past month. The Standard's senior commercial and editorial management also attended a recent awayday, where the title's future was discussed.
The London market is a major challenge for Beatty, who is two months into the job after replacing Murdoch MacLennan. Associated is attempting to shore up its London circulations with the prospect of more competition entering the market.
Express Newspapers has challenged Associated's exclusive London Transport deal, which allows it to distribute titles in London stations. The Office of Fair Trading has yet to reach a decision.
A spokeswoman for the Standard said of the launch: "This is pure speculation."
- Comment, p52.