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In future, will all newspapers be free?
Monday, 4 September 2006, 10:55 GMT
By Brendan O’Neill
Free weekly newspapers have been around for years, but the launch of London’s third free daily on Monday is further evidence that the public seems less inclined to pay for their news fix.
First we had the “price wars”, when in the 1980s various newspapers slashed their cover prices to as little as 10p in a bid to outsell their opponents.
Now we have the “no price wars”, the battle of the freebie, as two new free newspapers in London go head-to-head for the hearts and minds of the news-reading public.
This morning sees the launch of thelondonpaper.
Published by Rupert Murdoch’s News International and edited by Stefano Hatfield – who cut his teeth as launch editor of the free Metro paper in New York in 2004 – thelondonpaper promises Londoners a “fresh perspective” on the news.
It will do battle with London Lite, which was launched last week.
That is the work of Associated Newspapers, which also publishes the Evening Standard and the London Metro – the quick-read morning freebie that has already become a fixture of many bleary-eyed commuters’ journeys.
Things are already getting ugly in this new “battle for London”.
Associated accused News International of somehow gaining access to its business plan for London Lite, though News International denies it.
Both thelondonpaper and London Lite are opting for purple mastheads, leading to accusations of “copycat, copycat!” from both sides.
And it remains to be seen who will win the contract to distribute their paper at London Underground and Network Rail Stations.
For the time being, both Associated and News International will send teams of young people with bags full of their new papers (both have a daily print run of 400,000) to hand them out in “hotspots”, mainly Tube stations, in the capital between 4.30pm and 7pm.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch in London, but there is such a thing as a free newspaper.
It is estimated that 980,000 Londoners already pick up the Metro in the mornings, and now they will be able to choose between thelondonpaper and London Lite in the afternoons.
Does this spell the end of the paid-for paper? Who will stump up 50p for a Sun, Guardian or Times when they can get their news, sport and a couple of cartoons for free? And will all newspapers be free in the future?
Stefano Hatfield doesn’t think the new freebies will steal readers from other newspapers. Rather they will create new newspaper-readers.
“From my experience working on Metro in New York and now thelondonpaper here, I know that these kind of freesheets appeal mostly to young people, aged 18 to 35, who do not currently read a newspaper”, he says.
“This generation never really developed the newspaper habit. Unlike their parents, they didn’t get into a long-lasting relationship with any one paper. Instead they tend to get their news from various different sources, in particular the internet.
“We’re winning over new readers, so I don’t think that will put pressure on the paid-for papers to lower their prices or go free.”
Hatfield says that 18- to 35-year-olds expect to get their news for free.
“This is a generation who grew up with the world wide web. They usually get their news delivered to them in their e-mail inboxes or at the click of a button.
“It is difficult to persuade young people that news should be something you pay for.”
Others think the rise of the freebie will have a detrimental impact on the old newspaper industry – both on profit margins and the quality of journalism more broadly.
“These new free papers will put financial pressure on paid-for papers in the long term”, says media commentator Roy Greenslade.
“Ultimately they will breed in people the idea that news shouldn’t cost anything, even that news is cheap. But in fact, news, done well and properly, requires investment and money.”
Currently there is a big buzz about free papers, and the possibility that they will rejuvenate a flagging industry.
On 26 August (in the week London Lite was launched, as it happens) The Economist ran with the cover story “Who killed the newspaper?”
It pointed out that newspapers have been the first casualty of the rise of the internet. In America, Western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand, newspaper circulation has fallen.
In his recent book “The Vanishing Newspaper”, Philip Meyer calculated that 2043 will be the year when newsprint dies in America, “as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition”.
Many hope that the rise of the free paper will breathe life back into the newspaper world. They point to the success of the Metro brand: that paper has a readership of 1.9 million in cities across Britain, 78% of whom are aged 15 to 44, and the brand has taken hold around in big cities around the world.
Yet Greenslade points out that the free newspaper movement is not as healthy as some people think.
He recently found that, regionally, free newspapers are suffering. Of the 578 free titles around Britain where year-on-year comparisons can be made, 398 of them distributed fewer copies in the first six months of 2006 than in the same period last year.
Greenslade worries that the new freebies might also lower journalistic standards.
“Free newspapers by their nature are light on journalistic resources. I can’t imagine the new London papers will be investigating and breaking stories. They will probably be reactive, depending on news agencies and the mainstream press for their stories.
“They will no doubt tell us what happened – but news should also tell us how and why things happen. I fear that approach will be lost.”
Steve Auckland, head of Associated Newspapers’ free newspapers division, which oversees both the new London Lite and Metro, balks at any accusations of “dumbing down”.
“It actually requires a lot of skill to produce short copy, to write four paragraphs instead of 12 and still capture the essence of a story”, he says.
“Our free papers provide young people with something new and different: speedy news and bite-size information, which means they can keep up to speed with a minimum of fuss. That is a good service, and it is good journalism.
“The free newspaper has a long future. It is an exciting time for the newspaper industry.”
The picture: Four new freebies are being launched in Copenhagen this year…