Expert eye: The London free papers

So it’s a year since the evening freesheet battle began, and if you consider the ABC numbers then there’s one clear winner – Rupert Murdoch’s thelondonpaper has stormed ahead of its Associated rival London Lite. But how do they match up on quality?

On Tuesday last week both papers led on that young scoundrel Pete Doherty walking out of court a free man after yet another scuffle with the law. It’s a great example showing how thelondonpaper’s page one design gives it a far more mature and classy look compared to London Lite’s colour explosion of a front page.

Frankly, London Lite’s front is a mess. Same story, almost identical headlines, but thelondonpaper treats it in a more pleasing way. Its picture choice is sharper and captures the moment far better than London Lite. But when it comes to the copy itself, then things change.

Unashamedly redtop in its approach, London Lite’s article provides drama and intrigue, whereas thelondonpaper’s effort is somewhat more pedestrian. And that’s a theme that continues through the papers.

Turn inside and we’re hit with two dating stories. thelondonpaper goes with Sienna Miller’s latest squeeze, Rhys Ifans. London Lite goes with Ingrid Tarrant moving on from her split from Chris. The Sienna story is a clear winner.

However, opposite this winning story on page two is something that has always puzzled me about thelondonpaper. First, why bother with a newspaper round-up? This is an evening paper, everyone’s checked the papers they want to check by the time thelondonpaper hits the street. At CityA.M. we give a round-up of today’s papers at 6.30am. That’s helpful; thelondonpaper’s effort is not.

The thing that gets me most wound-up about thelondonpaper is the ’24hrs in pictures’slot. Why do we have pictures utterly irrelevant to Londoners or commuters? We’ve got Tony Wilson’s funeral in Manchester, a pig in muck in Hampshire, and firefighters and Robbie Williams in California. Just what does any of that have to do with London life? Nothing, it’s a waste of space.

In from the full-page ads on both backs, thelondonpaper’s sport section, at four pages, is simply not as comprehensive as London Lite’s five. Lite is actually more readable and easier on the eye. While thelondonpaper’s front page is a design success, inside the paper gets messy, with too many titbits, sidebars and box-outs. London Lite does the opposite. Its front page is a mess but inside, especially in sport, the design is clean and easy to navigate. Again, its sport copy is crisper and more relevant to Londoners and commuters than thelondonpaper’s.

A huge role both papers attempt to play is to tell their readers what to do tonight. The reviews and going-out guides have to be good. Coincidentally, both papers have a curry review. With excellent TV guides, both papers score points on that front. But, and this may be the real key to thelondonpaper’s number one spot, London Lite doesn’t have the depth of going-out or staying-in info its rival has. Lite’s 10 pages of nightlife info is dwarfed by thelondonpaper’s far more comprehensive 13 pages. It’s a big plus in thelondonpaper’s favour.

So which one is the better paper? Design-wise, and only because of the front pages, thelondonpaper edges it, despite the mess that greets you inside and those terrible page 2 pictures. Editorially, London Lite is a better read with a sharper edge and tone to thelondonpaper’s slightly pedestrian pace. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. For me, I believe its superior entertainment section means thelondonpaper just about grabs top spot.

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