The London Evening Standard has confirmed it will relaunch as a free newspaper on 12 October.
The paper, bought out by Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev in January, told us it will drop its 50p cover price entirely and be distributed for nothing on the streets of London. The move will see the paper’s daily circulation of around 250,000 more than double to 600,000, giving it a reach comparable to several national newspapers.
Lebedev says in the release that he expects other titles to follow his lead: “The Standard has been producing exceptional journalism since 1827 and that is not going to change under my ownership. The London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow.”
But hang on, isn’t the newspaper industry rushing headlong into the belief that readers should pay for content? The collapse of the freebie thelondonpaper and the widespread cuts at Metro appeared to show that publishers have lost faith in free — there is a prevailing view, it seems, with the ad market only expected to limp back to mild growth next year, reach alone just isn’t enough.
Shutting off circulation revenue will see the paper lose out on about £75,000 a day, or £370,000 a week — but the paper’s MD Andrew Mullins says the “large scale and reach should transform our commercial fortunes“, particularly its classified ads. He points out that “sustaining a paid-for afternoon newspaper had its challenges even before the freesheets were launched in 2006” and with many “competing distractions to potential readers” (he means the internet), a larger readership will help give the business some scale again.
But this isn’t quite as revolutionary as it seems: long before the Russian takeover, the paper had been steadily increasing its “bulk” copies, industry jargon for free copies given to hotels, airlines and first class rail passengers but which count towards the headline ABC circulation number. In March for example it had an official circulation of 280,000 but gave away 132,000 copies in total, just over half.
As we noted before upon the paper’s print and online relaunch, the Standard very much sees the building the print product as its number one priority. Where does online fit into this current move? The site publishes some good blogs and a fashion e-commerce site, for example, but online doesn’t merit a single mention in the release.
Update: Standard editor Geordie Grieg spoke to Sky News on Friday afternoon and continued the company’s line that this is a “historic, pioneering” move that creates “a very, very exciting arena for advertisers”. Asked how the paper would readjust to having no circulation income, he said: “We are very hopeful that there will be reductions in cost be changing our distribution model changing — we will no longer be distributing the same way with the same amount of people.”