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By Peter Preston: It’s 18 months since the mighty Rothermere empire shrugged sadly and sold its cherished Evening Standard to Alexander Lebedev for a quid, drawing a line under years of drooping sales and mounting losses (as high as £20m and counting). It’s nine months since Lebedev’s team courted incredulity by turning this tattered Standard free. And now, guess what? Sunny news in a grey old world. Maybe last week, next week or some week very soon, the Standard will be in profit. Not losing money, making it.
There’s a chart they pass around at the top of the paper, though they won’t let you take it out of the building. It shows cavernous losses last autumn and winter, and the Standard struggling to survive without the 120,000 paid copies it had sold each day. The costs line was coming down quite well: distribution was 50% cheaper heading just for central London sites rather than all over a traffic-clogged capital; an early edition had bitten the dust; the marketing budgets had taken heavy knocks. Say £20m saved. But advertising, in a lousy recession … that was hopeless, surely?
Remember, free newspapers only have ad revenue to keep them warm. When the ads dry up, so does their bank balance. Mr Lebedev, far away in Moscow, would need to sign more big cheques. Yet, slowly, as winter ended, advertising began to improve. Volume was up; so, by 60%, was yield. Readership surveys showed the free Standard, giving away 600,000 a day, had an audience of 1.4 million or so
This article originally appeared in Â© Guardian News & Media Ltd..