Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Birth of a Newspaper

Witnessing the birth of a metropolitan daily newspaper is a rarity something akin to watching a volcano erupt or a comet streak by. Especially in my profession, where we are much more experienced at mourning that celebrating.

Monday I watched a lively metro spring full-grown from the loins of the inimitable Rupert Murdoch. That in itself was remarkable, but I had missed the earlier debut of of yet another paper only days before.

In the newspaper business, England swings. London is home to a dozen English-language dailies of all sizes, styles and political persuasions. And, unlike many American newspapers, they each choose very different stories for their front pages.

But as in the States, daily newspaper readership is declining. Young readers want their news fast, free and a bit on the ragged edge of propriety.

Murdoch’s answer to that – an Associated Newspapers 10 days prior – is a free daily tabloid handed to commuters near Tube stations ever evening. The two evening freebies join the pioneering Metro and CityAM.

Associated publishes the Evening Standard, which identifies itself on the front page as “London’s Quality Newspaper.” It was hard to miss its new product when I came to town this week, however. London Lite looks very similar to the supermarket tabloids that U.S. journalists dismiss but readers snap up. Monday’s front page, for instance, had a huge white-on-black headline block “The Croc Hunter is killed by a fish.” And in boxes above that, “Liz’z love boat” and “WILL ANTI CELLULITE BERRIES WORK FOR MISCHA?”

Considering Murdoch’s reputation, I expected worse of thelondonpaper (all one word, lower case in the Internet style). And the debut front page in deed recorded the demise of the TV star, but with a more sedate “Steve Irwing Stabbed in Heart/CROC MAN KILLED BY STINGRAY. The other headlines on the page were much tamer, referring to stories on Rocker Pete Doherty’s court appearance, sports salaries and coffee addiction a rock.

Damn. Where is the “Alien meets with Bush”?

The young Londoners at which the free papers are aimed didn’t seem to care. Thelondonpaper came out at 4:30 p.m. By 5:30, the only way I could get an issue was to ask to see the copy a street person had on her lap (“That’s OK, love. You take it – I’ve already ready read it.”) I later took a bus from Notting Hill Gate to Picadilly and, despite my second-deck vista, never saw a leftover copy in the sidewalk detritus of the day’s news.

The key test, however, was Andrew. While teaching in London for four months, I am living in an old residential hotel much like Fawlty Towers. It has a bar/lounge in the old London style, with high-backed chairs, a snooker table, wine or port on you account and a contingent of “permanent residents.” Andrew is something of the major domo of these gentlemen. He introduced himself soon after I arrived, noting that he was “former Royal Army” and not at all keen on these immigration policies. He reads the Times, the Telegraph and the Evening Standard daily. The Guardian, he miffed, is “mostly for those liberals…”

When I showed him my battered copy of thelondonpaper, his bushy gray eyebrows literally raised. “One of those free things, eh?” Though he harrumphed, he took it to his chair while I talked with the other residents. When I looked back a few minutes later, he was taking notes and nodding his head.

“This is quite impressive,” he said. “There were several stories I had not seen before.”

Thelondonpaper could indeed be a portent of things to come. It’s not just a “movie rag.” It’s a good read, with good reporting. But it is delivered free in a convenient package. Just like the Internet. It makes one wonder whether the touted popularity of Web news is based on electrons or ease of use.

Monday’s Media Weekly, published by the Independent, featured a long interview with the admiral of Murdoch’s fleet, Clive Milner. Milner was candid about the research that backed the paper and News International’s strategy of keep costs low by employing “multitasking” journalists. The same people write, edit and design pages via new user-friendly technology. And he vowed to eliminate the litany of rules and traditions that drive advertisers crazy.

Milner was especially blunt about his goal for the free daily. His sights are on the dominant paid-for evening paper:

“If I was an employee of the Evening Standard, I would be looking for career advice quickly.”

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