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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
In future, will all newspapers be free?
London Lite distributor
Free handouts - your daily news

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.

Unlike their parents, this generation didn't get into a long-lasting relationship with any one paper
Stefano Hatfield

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.

Commuters reading metro
Metro has grabbed a huge slice of the morning market
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?

Young market

Stefano Hatfield doesn't think the new freebies will steal readers from other newspapers. Rather they will create new newspaper-readers.

Free paper
Four new freebies are being launched in Copenhagen this year...
"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.

Rejuvenating papers?

"These new free papers will put financial pressure on paid-for papers in the long term", says media commentator Roy Greenslade.

...here, a distributor hands out Copenhagen's free Metro Express
"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.

It actually requires a lot of skill to produce short copy, to write four paragraphs instead of 12
Steve Auckland
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."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I'd certainly agree with the dumbing-down argument. I'm in the 18-35 target demographic for the Metro but rarely bother to pick one up on my morning commute as I find it full of the worst kind of 'celeb' gossip, scaremongering health stories posing as real science, and vapid lifestyle and fashion articles. The 'real' news which does make it in is often several days out of date and glosses over important facts. All things considered, I'd rather gaze out of the window than read ANY newspaper, free or otherwise.
Rich Edwards, Leeds, UK

With the price of the Evening Standard going up and the standard of the paper falling, I shall certainly be looking out for the free papers. Agreeably, the journalistic content isn't that high, but it gives you bite sized news - perfect for a journey home.
clare, Essex

I don't pick up Metro just because it's free. My mates all agree that unlike other papers, the reason we're not ashamed to be seen with it is because it doesn't have a comment column and therefore isn't like wearing an overt political badge. I don't need to be told what to think by a newspaper proprietor or editor, and really resent it. It's the main reason I don't buy newspapers. Forget the price, it's the content that matters!
stephen galbraith, london

I have a 45 minute train journey on the way home from central London. The free papers can be read in 10 minutes and contain no real news or in-depth features. I shall stick to paying my 50p for the Standard until the quality of the freebies improves.
James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

Man-bites-God stories are what a lot of free newspapers lack. Also, many of the failing free newspapers are too local and too infrequent. The only two towns whose free sheet would be worth reading are Midsomer and Saint Mary Mead, but, as Metro's TV critic noted this morning, who would take their chances living in Midsomer?
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

The launch of TheLondonPaper brings the total number of daily freesheets in London to 4, not 3. Brendan O'Neill forgot to include City Am. Perhaps he doesn't pick it up on the way to work at the Beeb, but those of us in the City and Canary Wharf certainly do.
A Brown, London, UK

I read the Metro every morning, and am one of the 18 - 35 year-olds mentioned. I am more than aware of the standard of (bad? lazy? biased? reactive?) journalism as I read the metro, and so don't take too much to heart. It's a time-passing tabloid as far as I am concerned. I rely on the internet and television news for actual daily facts, and buy the Sunday papers for proper investigative reporting which takes time to digest and enjoy. A place for everything, and everything in it's place.
jax, london

I'm a regular reader of the London Metro, and find it both informative and entertaining, and it often carries stories which take another day to reach the rest of the National media. I also like the fact that it is free of opinion and its journalistic style is unbiased and reports the facts. Since reading Metro, I cannot read an opinionated paper, such as the Daily Mail, without throwing it down in disgust by the time I reach page 10. Long live the freebies!
Simon, London

I think more free newspapers is a great idea. As the article suggests, it encourages more young people to read the news, which is vital. As news is free on the Internet, which most people use, free newspapers are inevitable to keep up with the times
Rik, Ascot, Berkshire

As this article says, the Internet has changed how we expect to get our news. Just as the advent of television damaged newspaper sales, so has the Internet. However, on trains and the Underground, access to the Internet is as limited as access to television and this is where papers win out over other forms of news access. As people don't consider that they're paying for news sourced from the Internet or television (when of course they are actually paying for it through their ISP or television licence) they're unwilling to pay for it in paper form either. As with everything, you get what you pay for. If you want a quality read, you'll have to pay for it. If you want a bite-sized read, it will be free.
DS, Bromley, England

I think I'm pretty typical of my generation - pick up Metro on the way to work and then get news from bbc and Guardian websites all day. By the time I go for the train in the evening I'm all newsed out! The bit I like about free papers is not the lack of cost but the lack of time I would have to spend paying for another paper - at 7.15 every second counts when you've overslept and the train is pulling in!
Laura, London

With regard to journalistic standards being lowered, can they actually get any lower than the rubbish outputted by some of the 'red tops' people pay for?
Alex Jones, Cardiff, UK

Small correct to your news item. There are at least 4 free papers in London. City AM has been circulated in the Square Mile and Docklands for about a year (I seem to remember a copy being thrust in to my hands a few days after starting at Aon!)
Ross Hall, London

Part of my pleasure in receiving a free paper as I wander out of my office across Victoria Station on my way to buying my lunch ... is the ability to read the freebie with my lunch. It seems a shame that competition appears to mean that the new freebie is in direct competition with the Evening Standard
Martin, London, UK

With new technology through the web like RSS feeds, we get something that is better than free newspapers and instead get free choice in the news we want, up to the minute, and instant. Soon newspapers maybe obsolete, or have to be free to compete.
Neil Sweeney, Winchester, Hampshire

If more newspapers are produced, how many more trees must be cut down? Every time humans come up with a new idea, it is the planet that suffers.

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