Alexander Lebedev: Genius buccaneer or quixotic gambler?

Tackling the monster that is the London newspaper market, Lord Rothermere must at times feel like a character in one of the Friday the Thirteenth films trying to dispatch the unstoppable Jason.

No sooner has he buried six bullets in the chest of thelondonpaper, than a new foe rises up in the form of Alexander Lebedev and his bid to turn the Evening Standard into a free daily with a circulation of 600,000 from Monday.

It means that Rothermere’s hard-fought battle to make London Lite London’s only free evening paper will have earned it monopoly status for just three weeks.

The nature of the ongoing relationship between London Lite and The Standard is far from clear – there is a rolling contract, which could be ended at any time, for The Standard to provide Lite with editorial content.

But from outward appearances at least, it seems that Associated Newspapers’ Lite and Lebedev’s Standard are set to do battle.

It is the latest twist in what has been one of the most fascinating periods in London’s seldom dull newspaper publishing history.

It comes three years after Associated Newspapers and News International embarked on a fight to create a free evening newspaper for London, with London Lite and thelondonpaper duking it out at a combined cost likely to be well in excess of £50m.

If Rupert Murdoch couldn’t make a go of running a free London daily, after pulling the plug on thelondonpaper last month, can anyone?

We’ll find out next week whether Lebedev is a genius buccaneer businessman who has played an extraordinarily clever game after buying 75 per cent of the Standard from Associated for a nominal fee in January, or whether he is a quixotic billionaire playing at being a newspaper man.

I think he could just make a success of a free daily Evening Standard.

There are good reasons why Rothermere and Murdoch tried so hard to establish a new free London daily, and threw so many millions at it. London is the perfect place to launch a free daily. Every day around a million commuters, many of them extremely well off, converge on around a dozen pinch points around the city – making distribution relatively cheap.

London Lite and thelondonpaper have already done the hard part of establishing a market. Londoners are now in the habit of reading a paper in the evenings which they expect to pick up for free. An advertising market has also been established.

Whether or not Lebedev succeeds in large part depends on what Associated decides to do next.

The London Lite versus thelondonpaper battle has proved that London does not have room for two evening frees. Only one can survive.

Will Rothermere decide, like Murdoch, that discretion is finally the better part of valour.

Or, to use a poker expression, will he judge that he is ‘pot committed’– having thrown so much cash into the middle of the table on this one, maybe it is worth shelling out yet more to see one last card from the dealer.

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