Hatfield dismisses 'spoiler' rival as NI prepares launch of thelondonpaper

The editor of News International's forthcoming free London paper has dismissed Associated Newspapers' rival free London Lite as "just a spoiler", and sought to play down competition between his paper and the Evening Standard.

In his first interview, thelondondpaper editor Stefano Hatfield also revealed that he thinks big-name columnists "don't mean anything to the readers we are aiming at", that existing sports coverage in London is "a bit dry", and that he has no time for "miserable old git journalists".

When asked about the threat posed by Associated's rival free afternoon paper, Hatfield said: "London Lite's just a spoiler, same as the Standard Lite, same as the Evening News back in [1987] and [it] no longer exists."

He added: "We're not setting out to take on the Standard at its own game. We don't have the huge editorial resource and therefore cost base of the Standard, and if you want to take the Standard on at its own game, I think that'd be a very, very different thing.

"There is a huge gaping hole editorially, a massive hole for a paper like thelondonpaper in the afternoon. The Standard reaches relatively very few people, particularly in the age and social demographic that we're aiming for."

Hatfield has been working on the new title since last September and produced the first dummy in early spring.

The official launch date, announced at the start of this month as 18 September, was moved forward this week by a fortnight.

He said that the new paper will be much more London-focused than anything else in the market.

He said: "We heard from a lot of research that we did that [people] want a paper that doesn't put London down, but that celebrates London. That's the request from the general public. It's more upbeat. There's a desire for an upbeat read in the afternoon."

Out of the team of 70 staff at thelondonpaper, roughly 40 will be journalists.

When asked if he will be sharing copy from other NI titles, Hatfield said: "I think we'll share less copy than the Metro, the Standard and the Mail, because we're aiming it at a distinct and different readership."

Describing his target readers, Hatfield said: "They go out and enjoy London a lot, they know all the downsides of London, but they still love the city.

They choose to work and play in it. We know they work hard and they play hard too, and we're going to try to cater for both sides of their lives."

He added: "The idea is that it's not for the suburbs."

Hatfield said pagination of the main paper won't be more than 48, unlike Associated-owned Metro — which has gone as high as 72.

He said: "In many ways they're a victim of their own success, but it's very clear to us that people don't want to read too much in the evening. They want a concise, fun, light package if the idea of this is to be a 20- to 25-minute read."

When asked about what he learnt from free newspapers in the US, where he launched New York's Metro and later became editor-in-chief of Metro USA, Hatfield said: "The one thing I have learnt is that you have to learn the value of ‘free' — just because something is free doesn't mean people are going to take it. Metro has proved the value of free here. Metro has done a lot of the hard work for us, and so has City AM actually."

Hatfield declined to be drawn on many editorial specifics, but said that sport would be "a large percentage" of the mix. "I think a lot of the sport coverage in London is a bit dry," he added.

"I think that we'll have an attitude that sport can be fun and we're going to have a much more London-focused sports coverage.

"I don't know why you would do match reports in the afternoon. It's also to ignore the fact that we're in the digital age."

Speaking in more general terms about the content of the paper, Hatfield said: "It's 2006 and we're lucky enough to be able to start with a blank sheet of paper. How would you design a newspaper online, offline, what technology can we take advantage of, what new trends should you be monitoring and including in the paper? Why should a paper in 2006 look and be constructed like a paper was in 1896?"

Despite some reports to the contrary, he said there will be business coverage in thelondonpaper and that he admires the "refreshing" approach of London's free morning business daily City AM.

He said: "The most you can ever expect if you create a paper from scratch is what they've achieved, which is grudging respect from their peer group."

Although Hatfield would not reveal the names of any columnists lined up for the paper, he said he wanted to develop a whole new range of voices.

He said: "You see so many columnists moving round for big fat salaries not making a blind bit of difference for the sales of the paper that has either lost them or hired them. You go and ask people on the streets of London the name of those columnists and I'm afraid they won't know.

"People in our [target] demographic just simply do not know who they are.

A lot of the people we're aiming at don't read newspapers, so why would I hire the same columnists?"

Hatfield's ultimate boss Rupert Murdoch has seen a presentation of the newspaper and has overall sign off on the project. But NI executive chairman Les Hinton has been more closely involved.

Hatfield said of his relationship with Hinton: "I tried to ignore his advice, but I end up doing what he wants somehow by osmosis. It's weird that it just happens. He sort of says, ‘why don't you try this?' and you end up doing it because it makes sense. To be honest, Les is definitely around, but I've been very much day to day with [group managing director] Clive Milner."

Thelondonpaper is not yet allowed to speak to London Mayor Ken Livingstone because of rules that govern the ongoing tender process for the licence to distribute an afternoon newspaper at London train and Tube stations.

But Hatfield said the paper will not have a knee-jerk antipathy towards Livingstone, who has had a rocky relationship with the Standard.

Regarding the new paper's web strategy, Hatfield said: "I'm very clear I'm not going to just reproduce the paper online. The website is going to be very much entertainment- and going-out-in- London-focused. There'll be listings in the paper, but there'll be even more listings online.

"Online and offline I think we need to give ownership of our product, we need to get away from the idea of journalists sitting in their ivory towers dispensing our wisdom to a grateful public.

All of that's gone. It doesn't resonate with the target group we're aiming for — they're going to have a greater sense of ownership both of our paper and our digital offer."

He added: "Maybe we will reflect some of the creativity that comes up from the streets of London rather than waiting for it to be imposed on us from the top down."

Hatfield revealed there were still "a couple" of editorial vacancies at thelondonpaper, and said that what he looks for is "flair and enthusiasm to go the extra mile".

He said: "Talent in London is amazing, but I can't be done with miserable old git journalists."

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