'Thelondonpaper is just dumping copies'

Head of Associated Newspapers's free newspaper division Steve Auckland this week refused to rule out the possibility of the Evening Standard going completely free — or Associated Newspapers going down the part paid-for part-free model pioneered in Manchester and Liverpool.

"I'm a big fan of the Manchester [part-free] model," he said. "I think they do a good job, but I'm not in charge of the Standard. I would always say you can never rule anything in or out because you never know how things go. We have no plans to do that at this stage.

"The team there is dedicated to a paid-for evening title. That is the audience they are attracting, that's the road the company is going down. If the Standard was to go down the free route we probably would have changed that a while ago."

Although the London Lite is effectively competing in the same market as the Standard, Auckland (pictured below) insists that its quality is not compromised by competition with the paid-for title.

One criticism of London Lite is it is a defensive title intended to be good enough to see off competition from thelondonpaper without destroying the Standard's paid-for ABC.

The ABC circulation figures for January showed the Standard down 28.14 per cent year on year in terms of paid-for sales to 217,257, compared with the London Lite on 400,977 and thelondonpaper on 436,645.

Auckland said: "We have not had an issue with the Standard, we've not had anyone say, ‘don't lead with that because it might cannibalise the Standard'. You could say the Metro is up against the Mail and we have no restriction on that. We've said before the free newspaper is the quick snack and the Standard is the gourmet meal."

Auckland said he believes thelondonpaper's publisher News International has advantage over the Lite in terms of financial muscle and the influence the company has politically.

"It has clout in terms of being able to pull on the politicians because Murdoch is very close to the Labour party. It is a huge company and favours with the government.

"Lite has benefited as it has had some of the Standard's editorial copy from the rest of the titles to draw from and particularly because it is London copy.

NI has massive, massive resources at its disposal; it makes Tesco look like a corner shop."

One of the benchmarks of London Lite's success, according to Auckland, has been the loyalty to its original business plan.

"We've not changed our tack. Our plan was always go from 360,000 to 400,000 distribution because we aimed to get this purist travelling commuter and that's exactly what we've been able to achieve. We said we'd have some copies on issue at lunchtime, but the bulk of the copies in the evening, we said we wanted the copies away by 7.30pm and I'm delighted to say we've done all of that.

"Stefano [Hatfield] comes out with, ‘Life begins at 4.31 and finishes at 7 o'clock' and everyone can see through that now. To say something like that you have to stick to it. Now they come out at 3 o'clock and stay out until 9 o'clock.

"We don't want to just dump 600,000 and have copies out there until 8 or 9 o'clock. That's when you get a problem with merchandisers dumping copies and I've seen plenty of evidence of that from thelondonpaper.

We saw a guy one night who didn't even give one paper; he dumped them on buses and he dumped them on compactors.

"I accept you can have quite a few people still picking up papers at that time, but our intention is to pick up that main commuter.

"If you're forcing a number you will have problems like this. Our view is you start to dilute it once you go over that figure. You are talking 600 copies we have left over. If you're looking for quality you've got London Lite; if you want sheer quantity and it doesn't matter where you stick them then you have thelondonpaper.

We believe that is best for our agencies and our readers."

Auckland rubbished one estimate that weekly losses for London Lite could exceed £100,000 a week stemming from an editorial staff of 25 and distribution of 400,000 copies a day by nearly 400 vendors.

He says: "All I can say for the record is we are ahead of our revenue targets, though not by a massive margin.

It's likely to cost thelondonpaper more due to the sheer quantity of copies they are putting out.

"We put a plan in place that we can get in to profitability in year five.

The revenue targets have been in place they've been stepped up gradually."

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