Free newspaper war has left both sides weakened

Three years on what exactly has Rupert Murdoch achieved with the London free newspaper war?

Thelondonpaper, which closed today, proved that tech-savvy twenty-somethings will read a newspaper if it is thrust into their hands.

Thelondonpaper and London Lite launched within days of each other and have established solid circulations. While thelondonpaper manages to give more copies away, at 500,000 a day, London Lite claims more readers (according to the National Readership Survey) despite a lower circulation of 400,000.

But other than attracting many new readers it is a battle which has left both News International and Associated Newspapers (publisher of rival free daily London Lite) many millions poorer and somewhat weaker.

In the face of a savage recession, Murdoch’s son James (who announced the proposed closure today) could see no prospect of thelondonpaper’s £12.9m losses changing into a profit in the near future.

The free newspaper war was characterised as a fight between Britain’s two richest newspaper publishers: Rupert Murdoch and Viscount Rothermere.

In one sense, Murdoch is the one who has backed down – but only after inflicting a near fatal blow on Rothermere’s Evening Standard.

The Standard’s circulation was savaged by having two free rivals on its doorstep. As one punter memorably told Press Gazette at the outset of this battle: “If it’s free versus 50p, you’re going to go for free every time.”

The free newspaper war left Rothermere with little prospect of making the Standard profitable – forcing him to sell it in January to Alexander Lebedev for what was believed to be a nominal fee.

London Lite remains. Published by Associated Newspapers and fed by news bought from Lebedev’s Standard, it could yet survive.

Associated’s free morning title Metro has proved that free dailies can be profitable in the UK. With the way now clear, London Lite could yet reach profit.

Murdoch has previously been apparently happy to run loss-making newspapers for decades on end.

It could be that his new thinking over charging for online content – has made him reconsider the whole concept of giving news away for free.

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