British papers fawn over Russian doll

I must admit, I was taken in by the Cold War intrigue of the FBI arresting 11 Russian secret agents this week. It’s been a good few weeks since a decent story emerged and with England knocked out of the World Cup, the broadsheets were beginning to run out of things to talk about. So it was understandable that the Telegraph and The Times both went big with this story – double-page news features, columnists wading in etc. However, after one extended read it rapidly became clear that this story was not as significant as it first seemed. As with anything involving the FBI, the details are desperately thin on the ground – all that can really be discerned is that there are allegations of money laundering involved. Their main crime seems to be against spying cliches, with one of the 11 recorded as meeting another informant in the park and greeting them with the secret phrase “It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.”

Anna Chapman Russian Spy
I wonder why the British press are so keen on Anna Chapman?

Keen to make the most out of this story, the papers focused in on former London resident Anna Chapman. She has effectively made this story, helped in no small way by her former husband Alex Chapman who rather generously sold his most glamorous photos of her to the Daily Telegraph. The shameless punning headlines rolled in, with various allusions to Austin Powers and James Bond. In this way, the broadsheets have rather embarrassed themselves by scrapping over such a non-story which wouldn’t have got anywhere near as much coverage if it wasn’t the summer and if the main protagonist wasn’t so attractive.

The Standard splashed on Friday with a large picture of Chapman in a bikini, describing her as a femme fatale. Lest we lose all perspective, we should remind ourselves that money laundering is not fatal. In fact, in other circumstances it might be described as a victimless crime.

Is there any substance to this story? We won’t know for several months. In the meantime, the broadsheets will enjoy filling their pages with second-hand pictures of some posh foreign crumpet.

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RIP thelondonpaper – Where now for free news?

tlp dead

When thelondonpaper sized up to London Lite in September 2006 it really was a case of ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.’ The showdown between two media titans was mouth-watering: Murdoch vs Daily Mail, the fight of the century.

Today’s closure of Murdoch’s freesheet is sad news for media competition in the capital, (not to mention the 60-odd journalists who made it) but in many ways the main surprise is that it took this long for one of the competing titles to fold. It seemed illogical that both could occupy the same patch in very similar styles for so long, but the disclosure of thelondonpaper’s annual losses in August made for a sobering read. Put simply, both sides have been taking considerable losses just for the strategic advantage. I seem to remember a lecture at City where Roy Greenslade called it a ‘brutal turf war’ .

As it stood, they couldn’t both pull a profit, so it was only matter of time before someone blinked first. Whilst £13m per year may seem like a lot to lose, News International (Rupert Murdoch’s multi-national behind thelondonpaper) were willing to take the hit if it meant they could corner off a growing market and take on The Evening Standard (who, like London Lite and The Daily Mail, are owned by DMGT).

This summer has seen something of a sea-change at News International, however, and with his decision to start charging for timesonline.co.uk and sun.co.uk, it rather seems that Mr Murdoch has gone off the idea of giving away journalism for free. This would make perfect business sense, if it weren’t for that pesky BBC News website…

In the long run we may not have seen the last of thelondonpaper – David Crow at City AM speculates that Metro could yet face a fresh challenge to their morning freesheet monopoly in April 2010, when their London tube distribution contract comes up for renegotiation. Furthermore, he argues that London Lite will follow suit and close as well, having seen off the main threat to the Evening Standard. Despite their best efforts to take advertising to new heights, neither London Lite or thelondonpaper have managed to turn a profit, so maybe the lesson here (and from Metro’s financial performance) is that the morning slot is the only profitable realm for free newspapers.

For the time being, the result will be celebrated as a big victory at DMGT. Other beneficiaries include Free Newspapers Cost The Earth who point out the environmental effect of all that waste paper, but I would argue that the closure of thelondonpaper is a big loss for the average London commuter.

From what I gather, thelondonpaper is the more popular choice and many enjoyed comparing and contrasting the two papers and their coverage of stories. So as a parting salute to thelondonpaper, I’ve decided to try my first online poll (below). Let me know whether you’ll miss thelondonpaper, or if you prefer London Lite, or if you simply don’t waste your time on freesheets at all.