London — The world of British newspapers, after years of apparent decline, suddenly begins to look like an exploding universe. The current hectic round of expansion and competition shows two things: that there is an enormous thirst for daily and Sunday newspapers among British readers, and that the advent of modern technology and the breaking up of trade union power have made it possible for owners and editors to satisfy this demand.
The daily Independent, launched two years ago, has consolidated its position to a point where it now offers a formidable challenge to such famous and long-established titles as the Times, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph. Last month, the Independent began publishing a color magazine, distributed free on Saturdays - a sign of its growing strength.
Sundays, too, have become a battleground for ``quality'' readers. Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times now rivals its New York counterpart for sheer bulk and variety of editorial material.
Its chief competitors - the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph - have felt it necessary to add new color sections, lest too many of their readers decide to switch to Mr. Murdoch's heavyweight publication, whose sales (1.3 million readers) nearly equals their combined circulation.
Beyond London, the action is equally hectic. In Scotland, at the beginning of August, the publishers of the long-established Edinburgh-based daily Scotsman launched a full-fledged Sunday newspaper designed to challenge the English Sunday papers on its turf.
Six weeks later, in Manchester, the North West Times was born. It is the first new regional morning newspaper (apart from free sheets) launched this century and is aimed at professional and business readers.
Simultaneously subscribers to 35 evening newspapers in England and Wales, with a combined readership of 2.7 million, began receiving a free 52-page weekly color magazine called Plus. It offers lively entertainment and is regarded by advertisers as a valuable venue for publicizing their wares.
To complete the impression of a ``big bang'' in journalism, Robert Maxwell, publisher of the mass-circulation Daily Mirror, is planning a new daily, to be called the European, which he intends to distribute widely in continental Europe.
The Guardian, meanwhile, has started an edition in Frankfurt, West Germany, in an attempt to expand its readership in Europe. To prepare for the assault on the European market, its editor, Peter Preston, completely redesigned the paper's format, making it look more like one of the continental dailies.
Meanwhile, there are changes in geography at home. It is no longer possible to talk about Fleet Street, in the sense of a crowded thoroughfare just north of the Thames at Ludgate Circus where British journalism happens. Nearly three years ago, Murdoch took his four newspaper titles, including the daily Times and the mass-circulation tabloid the Sun, to Wapping, in London's dockland.
The Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the pink paper Financial Times all followed and now print amid the shimmering waters and towering glass office blocks of what was once a bleak and bankrupt stretch of real estate on the edge of slums. The Observer, too, has moved out of London's West End, and now prints on a once-desolate site in Battersea.
The breakup of Fleet Street as the geographical epicenter of British national journalism offers a key to why the ``big bang'' has been possible. Murdoch's move to Wapping signaled a determined attempt to break the grip of print unions that had dominated the newspaper industry for generations.
After a year of printing their papers in near-siege conditions, Murdoch and his editors achieved a breakthrough that enabled them to take advantage of new, computerized technology, smaller staffs, and the lower rents on London's fringe.
Robert Waterhouse, editor of the North West Times, was able to launch that paper with start-up capital of only 2.1 million ($3.6 million) and a staff of 50 journalists. Earlier, the Independent and Scotland on Sunday took advantage of similar factors.
The Independent's circulation performance since its launching underscores the changed economic conditions making it possible for new titles to compete vigorously with established rivals. On the day it launched its color magazine, circulation jumped by 100,000, to 470,000.
This is still a long way behind the Daily Telegraph, which sells about 1.2 million copies, but in the first half of 1988 the Independent increased its readership by about 20 percent, while the Times and Guardian each lost 7 or 8 percent. In the same period the Telegraph, which has also undergone major design and editorial changes, lost 5 percent.
A comparable battle is occurring among the popular papers. The Sun (11 million readers) and the Daily Mirror (9 million) remain locked in combat. Murdoch's News of the World (13 million readers), a Sunday paper, competes savagely with Mr. Maxwell's Sunday Mirror (9 million).
But the wave of competition is not always a matter of giants jousting. One of the most striking statistics to emerge from the launching of the North West Times is that it will require only 50,000 subscribers to break even. Five years ago, in the days of huge print staffs and antiquated equipment, such a tiny circulation could never have approached profitability, even in the English provinces.