BBC Home > BBC News > Business

Will making the Standard free pay off?

2 October 09 15:59 GMT

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

Less than two months ago, a colleague wrote an article asking: "Is free news a thing of the past?"

It seemed a reasonable question.

News International was closing its freebie, the London Paper, which was haemorrhaging millions of pounds a year.

Meanwhile, its boss Rupert Murdoch had said his websites - including the Sun, the Times and the Wall Street Journal - would start charging for content.

And over at the Financial Times, chief executive John Ridding was insisting papers needed to abandon the "free is good" attitude, saying the FT was planning to rely less on advertising revenue and more on subscriptions as it charged readers to access much of its web content.


But that trend has been given a bit of a jolt with the announcement that the London Evening Standard, after 181 years of people paying for it from newsagents and street vendors, will now be given away for nothing.

The Standard is describing it as a "pioneering strategy" - printing 600,000 copies a day to get it into the hands of more than double the current readership.

And owner Alexander Lebedev reckons that it will be so successful that he is "sure" others will follow.

This ploy is an innovative, albeit brazen tactic to arrest the Standard's slide in readership.

It will steal the thunder (and readers) of existing free evening paper, London Lite - and questions loom over how that publication can last.

But also in its sights are London-based readers of national newspapers, the publications that journalists in the Standard newsroom proudly consider as their real rivals.

Extra eyes

Having the paper thrust into people's hands will help to overcome what managing director Andrew Mullins described as "many competing distractions to potential readers".

Many are reluctant to hand over the 50p cover charge when they have plenty of other things to entertain and inform - not least mobile phones and the huge range of news websites.

That includes this one, where, within two hours of the story breaking, more people had read the news about the Standard going free than read the Standard itself.

But while the BBC is in a privileged position, with guaranteed income from the UK licence-fee payer, the Standard has to chase advertising income - despite being 75% owned by a Russian billionaire. And it is this potential revenue which lies at the heart of its plan.

"Being a quality newspaper with large scale and reach should transform our commercial fortunes," says Mr Mullins.

By which he means all those extra sets of eyes should convert into selling more advertising space - both those display adverts taking up a quarter, half or a whole page in the paper - and the lucrative classified adverts market which has seen huge migration online.

It is a gamble, however, as to whether the revenue lost from sales (well over £10m a year) as well as the costs of more than doubling the print run and distribution, can be recouped from extra advertising income, especially when the advertising climate remains weak.

'Quality and scale'

One thing the Standard has going for it is that it is seen in the capital as a "quality paper" - even if it has not been to everyone's political persuasion or social standing.

Until recently, the Standard was seen to closely follow the right-leaning editorial stand of its former stablemate, the Daily Mail, paying excessive attention to life in the leafy suburbs of West London.

It will have to broaden its appeal and diversity if it is to capture some of the audience drawn to the more showbiz-heavy London Lite and formerly the London Paper - the freesheets which littered, quite literally, the buses, underground trains and pavements.

When I was handed a copy of the Standard as I got on a tube late last night (they have been giving unsold copies away for nothing after 2100 for some time), it felt a more satisfying read than the freebies we have become used to. That will count in its favour.

"To be able to produce a quality newspaper that is something people want, that you can distribute in Westminster and the City free, is tremendously attractive for advertisers," its deputy editor Sarah Sands told the BBC.

"What you have is quality and scale, and that is what makes it unique. What advertisers are very excited about is the audience we are hitting, that you'll get them over time.

"One thing about the freesheets is that people tend to read them and discard them quite quickly. But if you have a quality newspaper, you have a captive audience and they'll be able to read that over time and that's very attractive to newspapers.

"This gives us a much greater chance of an economic model which works."

Related BBC sites