Russian tycoon launching slimline fourth British newspaper

24th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian tycoon Alexander Lebedev, who owns three British newspapers, will launch the country's first quality daily in 25 years this week in a risky bid to grab more of the ailing British press market.

The concise new paper, called "i", will be available from Tuesday for just 20 pence (31 US cents, 23 euro cents) -- a fifth of the price of British broadsheets such as The Times.

It is "specifically targeted at readers and lapsed readers of quality newspapers," according to Lebedev's main national daily, The Independent, which will share editorial staff with the new publication.

"Time-poor newspaper readers, and especially commuters, have been telling us for years that they are inundated with information and just don't have the time to read a quality newspaper on a regular basis," said Independent executive Andrew Mullins.

The Independent and The Independent on Sunday were bought by Lebedev in March, a year after he purchased London's Evening Standard.

The launch of a new paid-for title is risky in a market that is both saturated and in decline.

Britain has 11 major national dailies, whose circulation has shrunk an average 5.75 percent in the last year to 10.3 million copies a day, according to the industry's performance monitor, the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The industry's more expensive "quality" newspapers, priced at around one pound (1.57 dollars, 1.13 euros), have suffered more than tabloid titles priced at between 20 and 50 pence.

The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian have each suffered a drop in circulation of more than 10 percent over the last year. The Independent now sells only 186,332 copies a day, compared to 251,470 in September 2007.

"By pricing the newspaper at 20 pence, 'i' will be the most competitively priced paper on the UK news stand," said MEC media agency analyst Rob Lynam.

"The Independent will be hoping to cannibalise the sales of other quality newspapers, whilst enticing readers of Metro to part with 20p and upgrade to a higher quality product."

The average reader of Metro, a morning freesheet available in major British cities, is 33 years old -- 20 years younger than the average reader of a quality newspaper, according to Lynam.

"'i' will hope to attract the younger urban reader who would like to read a quality newspaper, but does not have the time to read a whole quality newspaper on their daily commute, and is not prepared to pay a pound," Lynam said.

This is not the first time Lebedev has taken a risk with one of his newspapers -- he transformed the 60-page Evening Standard into a freesheet after buying it in 2009.

"The Evening Standard has been reinvigorated, and is the newspaper success story of 2010," said Lynam.

The newspaper has boosted its circulation from 140,000 to 700,000, which has allowed it to attract 30 percent more advertising at higher rates than before.

Lynam said they were ahead of their business plan, which aims to be profitable by 2012.

In his latest gamble with the launch of "i", Lebedev must convince readers to part with 20 pence at a time when Britain is feeling the pain of huge cuts to public spending.

Evgeny Lebedev, the son of Alexander Lebedev and the chairman of Independent Print Ltd which publishes the British titles, said he was confident the gamble would pay off.

"We have shown by our investment in the London Evening Standard that, even in these highly competitive times, it is possible to revive a brand," he said.

Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB analyst, made his fortune in banking in the 1990s.

He and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev own 49 percent of the Russian opposition magazine Novaya Gazeta, whose star reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in October 2006.

© 2010 AFP

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