Newspaper industry insiders believe the Evening Standard is likely to go all or mostly free, in order to see off the threat of a free London evening paper set to be launched by News International in September.
The NI business model is similar to that of City AM, a daily free business paper which launched in London in September 2005 and has a circulation of 90,000 distributed by hand.
City AM editor David Parsley said he believes it is inevitable that the Evening Standard will have to go free.
He said: "We welcome it, because it shows that — while Metro did what it did — there is also a gap for a quality freesheet. We've always maintained that all new newspaper launches are going to have to consider going free.
"I wouldn't have been surprised if I arrived at work today and saw the Standard had gone free — otherwise, how else are they going to fight it?"
The new NI title is called thelondonpaper and will have a print run of 400,000, handed out by 700 distributors in Central London and Canary Wharf between 4.30pm and 7.30pm. It is expected to run to a maximum of 48 pages and have a team of 70 staff, journalists included.
Media analyst Paul Richards, from Numis, said he believes the Standard could follow the example of the Manchester Evening News, which earlier this year decided to go free in the City centre.
He said: "I wouldn't be surprised if the Evening Standard goes free in [London Underground] zone one and is then more expensive outside that."
NI has refused to go public about thelondonpaper's content, but it has let the ad-buying agencies — who will largely decide whether it lives or dies — have a sneak preview.
Claudine Collins, head of press at the UK's biggest ad-buying agency, Mediacom, said: "It's very impressive editorially. We are really excited about it. It's definitely something new in the marketplace — the people I have spoken to who have seen it are very excited about it."
NI has revealed that thelondonpaper will be aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds and be edited by Stefano Hatfield, a former editor of Campaign, who was most recently editorin- chief of Metro International's free daily newspapers in the United States.
He has revealed that he will attack the Evening Standard by saying, in a presentation to staff this week, that the Standard was "very West End and southwest [London] focused" and "left a lot of London uncatered for".
It is likely to be the biggest threat to the Standard's London evening newspaper monopoly since Robert Maxwell launched the London Daily News in February 1987.
That title died after just five months following a robust response from the Evening Standard which included reviving the longdefunct Evening News as a cut-price spoiler title to confuse the market.
In 1994, Yorkshire tumble-dryer manufacturer Derek Clee launched a free daily newspaper distributed by hand in London called Tonight, with a circulation of 100,000. It lasted seven months, before going weekly and then disappearing altogether.
NI owner Rupert Murdoch has deeper pockets even than Standard owner Lord Rothermere, and the stage is now set for a potentially brutal commercial battle between the two media giants.
Thelondonpaper is a threat not only to the circulation of the Evening Standard, but also to the advertising market of its now wellestablished morning free newspaper Metro, which has a distribution of more than 550,000 in London. After launching in 1999, Metro took several years to move into profit and is expected to make around £10 million this year.
News International Free Newspapers general manager Ian Clark indicated this week that if successful in London, other regional editions could be launched, presenting a further threat to Metro, which is distributed in 15 cities throughout the UK.
NI's free newspaper project pre-empts the two separate tender processes for a free newspaper to be distributed using Associated Newspapers' racks at London rail and tube stations.
The process was prompted by an Office of Fair Trading decision earlier this year, which will end Metro's free newspaper monopoly at Transport for London stations.
NI remains in the race for both the rail and Tube tenders, which are not due to be awarded for several months yet, as does DMGT.
According to Paul Richards at Numis, it is unlikely that a third player would risk entering the fray in the midst of a newspaper war between Rothermere and Murdoch.
Richards said: "If I was launching a free newspaper and my competitors were News International and the Daily Mail, I would think very hard before getting involved in that battle. I think it will be a real stretch for a third free evening newspaper to carve out a niche with those two involved."
The Evening Standard has one not-sosecret weapon in its armoury, which could prove invaluable.
"Caretaker" managing director Bert Hardy came out of retirement to return to the Standard in September 2005 and is still running the ship while a replacement is recruited. Hardy was MD of the Standard back in 1987 and is credited as being the strategic thinker who saw off the threat from Maxwell's Daily News in 1987.
In an interview with Press Gazette in May, Hardy questioned whether a new free paper for London would be viable, adding that afternoon papers were "in decline around the world".
Associated has declined to comment on the threat posed by NI. But it is understood to be already planning "something big", which it believes will come as a surprise to its rivals.
The Standard's ABC figure for June was 309,908 with an additional 78,594 copies of the free lunchtime Lite edition, which launched in December 2004.