The Thick of It

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Something for nothing? The London Evening Standard to begin charging again

This post first appeared on the Metrica blog, Measurement Matters

It has emerged that the Evening Standard is to charge again, for newspapers sold in the outer suburbs of London, having been free since August 2009. Is this a minor distribution shift or does it signal the end of free evening newspapers in the capital? 

London’s streets were littered with celebrity focused free-sheets every evening between 2006 and summer 2009. This resulted from a “war” between Rupert Murdoch’s News International, incarnated by thelondonpaper and Associated Newspapers’ LondonLite. This phenomenon ended after Associated sold theEvening Standard to ex-KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev and Rupert Murdoch embarked on his paid-for content crusade.The title then shifted its positioning from being London’s paid for (self proclaimed) “quality daily”, became free itself and took back the London evening monopoly it had enjoyed for decades.

Distribution soared to over 600,000 copies a day after the cover price was dropped. This is more than double the paid-for circulation. There have since been murmurings that customers in the suburbs had complained that theycould nolonger get hold of the newspaper, as distribution networks focused on central London after the title was given away free. It appears that this move is a response to those demands.

Further details of the Evening Standard’s plans are yet to emerge; though it is clear that charging for suburban copies covers the additional distribution costs. On a grander scale, does the shift to charging suggest that the title is again to become paid for across London? Cynics might expect that this is exactly the plan having seen off the free-sheet competition. I’d suggest otherwise, as Steve Busfield, Editor of Mediaguardian.co.uk, outlines:

“Once Associated Newspapers no longer owned the Standard, it no longer made sense (if it ever did) for it to be fighting a free paper war with News International. Thus London Lite closed. Over at NI, thelondonpaper was costing a lot of money and it didn't really fit in with the Murdochian paywall philosophy.”

The market has opened up for the Evening Standard, giving it the opportunity to experiment with different charging models, while maintaining a monopoly. That the paper is to launch a free mobileapp, granting free access to its content online would indicate that the free model will be maintained. The Standard would not be about to undermine its hard copy mainstay. Editor Geordie Grieg told last year’s AMEC Awards that the paper would have gone under if it had not gone free.

Charging in some parts of London offers the Evening Standard anopportunity to widen distribution and little more. It is interesting to notethat a quick search of Twitter today shows far more interest in the Standard’s new mobile app than the return of charging. Customers in the outer London suburbs will soon be able to readtheir evening newspaper for free with a phone app, inferring that charging for paper copies in outer London could be a short lived experiment. It also supports the idea that newspapers can best survive by diversifying and embracing technology.

People are always more interested in something for nothing. It is clear that the London Evening Standard is committed to the free model. This poses serious questions to Murdoch’s commitment to the alternative, something for something, paid-for model. 



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