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The Times plan for its tabloid pitches Telegraph into fray

Rupert Murdoch's timing was brutal. As Hollinger sank to its knees, courtesy of naughty boy Conrad Black, he pounced with the launch of a tabloid edition of The Times, writes Ian Darby.

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It seemed like a no-brainer. While it's doubtful that it will capture a significant number of the 120,000 Daily Telegraph readers within the M25, it will certainly make some inroads. But the Daily Mail will also be a key target. This will be the real battleground. Associated executives were unperturbed about The Independent's mini-me version but were determined to swing into action if The Times and/or Telegraph followed suit.

We can expect a swift response from the Daily Mail and a war of words, if not an immediate price war, as The Times attempts to take more readers from its Associated rival.

This is a battle that the Telegraph is wary of being drawn into, especially with its 60p cover price (compared with The Times at 50p and Daily Mail at 40p). On the one hand, it can see the benefits of concentrating on its USP of being the market-leading broadsheet, thus being distinct from the Daily Mail; on the other, it fears losing readers.

It resembles the enticing but uptight girlfriend at a party, still refusing to say if it will put out. The editorial director Kim Fletcher says it has a tabloid version ready to go but adds: "If or when we plan to publish it alongside our broadsheet bestseller is something we are keeping to ourselves at the moment."

Reports of a slimmer version, along the lines of The New York Times, were premature. Fletcher claims this is a long-term option. A decision on a tabloid will be made first. I suspect the Telegraph will launch a tabloid edition. Hollinger's plight is an issue (though Fletcher denies this, arguing "none of this affects our day-to-day business, budgets are in place and we plough on regardless"). This might well be cobblers.

However, my hunch on the launch stems partly from a feeling coming out of the Telegraph that it can't afford not to launch a tabloid version. Fletcher says: "There is an argument that quality is all about being a broadsheet and market leader but this is a harder argument to sustain if we see The Times picking up lots of readers."

The cost is a massive issue, because the Telegraph's London circulation is close to three times that of The Independent's. But judging from Fletcher's comments, if The Times makes a go of it, it will be hard for the Telegraph not to follow.

Whatever it does, there is a sense that the Telegraph can make no right decision. A combination of The Independent's original kick-starting of the domino effect and the entry of The Times, with its vast budgets, have taken the initiative away from a title that just weeks ago seemed buoyant once more under its new editor and managing director. But now it's back to embattled defence against its rivals.

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