London Evening Standard: Bold Re-Birth Or A Free Folly?

Rupert Murdoch wants to charge you for content, the Financial Times wants you to be a subscriber, and even the pro-free is planning to charge for a forthcoming iPhone app. But despite all that, the London Evening Standard is sailing against the industry’s tide of enthusiam paid content and will give its print edition away for nothing, claiming to be the world’s first quality newspaper to go completely free.

It’s a brave and aggressive move: many people looking at advertising declines in regional papers wouldn’t go near a business model that was dependent solely on print display, classifieds and sponsorship. But the decision may have more to do with necessity than strategy: the Standard faces a diminishing readership and falling ad rates, and this looks like a last throw of the dice to make the loss-making title profitable again. But will it work? Here are some of the challenges facing a free Standard

High-brow model for a Metro market: Does the Standard have the content to make a mass-market freebie work? The free, DMGT-owned Metro is picked up by more than one million commuters a day partly because it strips out all that traditional newspaper stuff like columnists, opinions, leading articles and campaigns — yet the “quality” Standard prides itself on that kind of thing and publishes a good deal of high-brow arts criticism and city analysis. Do over-worked Londoners really want to read that on the bus home every night, or will they reach for the London Lite instead?

Distribution costs?: Standard editor Geordie Grieg says there will be cost savings from going free, to which I can only ask how? The paper is doubling its circulation, therefore spending more on printing. Metro has the Transport for London free newspaper bin contract sewn up until March — so the only option appears to be employing distributors to stand on the street dishing out copies and they’re not going to do that for free.

And here’s a question: how will people who buy the paper from a shop every day and don’t live or work in central London get a copy? The paper could ask retailers to give it away for them, but then what’s in it for newsagents? Will the Standard have distributors in coloured anoraks on every main street in Greater London?

Ad market still suffering: If papers with far more than 600,000 copies can’t make a decent return from the print ad market, it’s puzzling that Ledebev and his people think the Standard can. Ironically, some luxury brands, the ones most keen to attract the paper’s traditionally middle class, affluent readers, may feel the paper’s high-end niche is slightly eroded by extending its reach by so far so quickly.