It has all the makings of a likely story. Media magnates Jonathan Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere) and Rupert Murdoch go out to play newspaper war to win the hearts and minds of a target market of white-collar office workers in the London ABC1 demographic aged between 18 and 34. They do this by throwing good money and even better journalism at them. One wins and gets all the spoils of media heaven. The other is destroyed: literally, figuratively and financially.

With less than four weeks before the players must lift their skirts, who is more likely to be the biggest loser (there can surely be no winners here unless someone blinks) in this ultimate game of extreme corporate show and tell? According to Forbes, Rupert’s pockets are deeper at US$6.5 billion. Jonathan is a relative pauper at US$1.4 billion.

Some smart money is already saying that this could be the great Sun King’s Waterloo. Jonathan’s London Lite and Rupert’s TheLondonPaper are both expected to begin at the same time and are following identical distribution and circulation strategies and tactics. But Jonathan is already considered the champion and defendant, while Rupert is deemed the challenger and plaintiff.

This is because Jonathan already holds the high ground in the British capital with the two biggest selling newspapers in the town (the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard) and the biggest freesheet in Metro. Rupert only has the downmarket Sun and the upmarket Times and no existing freesheet.

This is the one time when you don’t want to be the underdog, which is why Rupert is baying at Jonathan’s moon and demanding to feed/drink from the rivers of gold that flow every day into the great London trough. This is why Rupert is launching TheLondonPaper. This is why Jonathan is launching London Lite to foil him. His only other alternative was to roll over and die.

Young Jonathan is only 38 but he has been successfully flogging the morning Metro into this market since March 1999. One of Jonathan’s first acts when he became chairman of Associated Newspapers eight years ago was to rule that company directors must retire at 75. Old Rupert is 75 but he has a young wife and no intention of retiring. Rupert’s only experience is with mX in Melbourne and Sydney, which is hardly the same ball park.

Of course, these “yoof” nichepapers are happening all over the world. Newspaper executives have decided that if America’s youth, with their short attention spans, flagging interest in the news, and obsession with celebrity and sports, won’t come to newspapers, the papers will come to them.

Online Press Gazette reports (and provides the graphic above) TheLondonPaper’s offices were described by one insider as “manic” in the run-up to next month’s launch. And staff from the paper have approached recent journalism graduates in London to offer them unpaid writing work producing film, theatre, TV, music, book, exhibitions, bar and club reviews. Those who have seen a dummy of TheLondonPaper have described it as colourful and more like a magazine than a newspaper, with a youthful approach.

As D Day approaches, the H Hour is becoming more important. Rupert’s paper will be handed out to commuters going home between 4.30 and 7.30pm. Jonathan’s boys and girls will hand out Metro to commuters on their way into town in the mornings, then London Lite from midday. If Londoners want actual “news” in their evening newspaper, Jonathan will sell them a copy of the upmarket Evening Standard.

If you want to know the future you should buy a crystal ball – or watch this space in Crikey.

Peter Fray

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