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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Murdoch versus Evening Standard
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

London Lite newspaper
The new London Lite is targeted at the under-35s
London's long-awaited free newspaper battle is set to finally break out, with the launch of thelondonpaper.

Rupert Murdoch's News International is challenging the afternoon monopoly of the paid-for Evening Standard.

It is the first time the group has launched a paper in the UK, as it acquired its existing titles - the Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times - through takeovers.

But last week it found itself pre-empted by the Standard's publisher, Associated Newspapers, which brought out its own free paper, London Lite.

Three-way battle

From Monday, commuters in the capital will now have a choice of three papers to occupy them on their journey home. It is not the first time.

Almost 20 years ago, a battle royal broke out in London when the Standard's monopoly was challenged by the publisher Robert Maxwell.

Denis Griffiths, a former director of Associated, wrote the history of the Standard and remembers the battle well: "Maxwell launched The London Daily News, a 24-hour paper.

"To counteract it, the Standard's proprietor Lord Rothermere decided to relaunch the old London Evening News at a much lower price, and there was a three-way battle for the London market."

Robert Maxwell was dismissive when he heard about the cut-price Evening News.

'Evening Standard scared'

He told the BBC: "The Evening Standard and Lord Rothermere are so worried about their monopoly - which the London Daily News is finally breaking - and so scared about the huge demand for our paper, that they've brought out a cheapo Evening News, which is really a joke."

The joke was on him. A few months later Maxwell withdrew from the fray and the London Daily News was closed - followed shortly by the Evening News, which had done its job.

The Standard's monopoly was intact again.

Since then, various publishers have pondered how to take on the Standard.

For several years, Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers - the main rival to Associated Newspapers, which also owns the Mail titles - was thought to be planning a rival. It never emerged.

'More than a spoiler'

Now Rupert Murdoch's company has taken up the challenge and Lord Rothermere's son Jonathan, the current lord, is leading the fight to repel it.

In an echo of the relaunch of the Evening News 20 years ago, Associated has launched London Lite - but this time it insists the paper is more than just a spoiler and would have been published even if the Murdoch title had not been.

Both publishers will be distributing around 400,000 copies of their papers, funded by advertising and aimed primarily at those under 35 who want a short, bright read on their journey home.

But why are they so keen to risk millions of pounds in a market that has proved a publishers' graveyard?

The economics of it are that you can reach a lucrative London audience who aren't willing to buy newspapers but are willing to pick them up
Dominic Ponsford, Press Gazette

Sales of the Standard have been declining, and the advertising market has been depressed, with many companies switching money to the internet.

The reason can be summed up in one word - Metro, the free morning paper that has shown you can reach young people with a newspaper provided they don't have to pay for it.

Dominic Ponsford, news editor of the Press Gazette, says there are still big rewards in breaking the Standard's monopoly of London-wide newspaper advertising.

"The economics of it are that you can reach a lucrative London audience who aren't willing to buy newspapers but are willing to pick them up."

News International and Associated Newspapers are widely regarded as Britain's most formidable newspaper publishers. They have deep pockets and deeper determination.

If either succeeds, more free evening papers could follow across the UK.

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