Freesheets will need to sustain interest

When The Guardian recently appointed Wieden & Kennedy to its advertising account, it was keen to emphasise (not for the first time) how important a multimedia approach was to understanding the brand. More crudely, and tellingly, we have become

stuart smithWhen The Guardian recently appointed Wieden & Kennedy to its advertising account, it was keen to emphasise (not for the first time) how important a multimedia approach was to understanding the brand. More crudely, and tellingly, we have become aware of the stream of journalists leaving the Financial Times and the Telegraph as their owners “streamline” the papers’ news organisation to encompass a “seamless” online operation.

Yes, you might too easily conclude as you survey the increasingly dismal ABC results, the traditional newspaper is in inexorable decline; and decide to place your advertising budget elsewhere (probably online). And yet, staring you in the face, is stark evidence to the contrary, in the form of more newspaper launch activity than we have seen in 20 years. We have City AM, apparently well ahead of profit and circulation targets, contemplating a Stateside launch. And this week, of course, a battle royal for the hearts and minds of the more general London reader with the final appearance of thelondonpaper (though not its accompanying website) and, a little earlier, Associated’s preemptive counterpart, London Lite, bracketed with a substantially revamped London Standard.

Why this ironic counterpoint to the inexorable rise of the internet, and why right now? In some ways these launches invite useful comparison with the past. When, 20 years ago, Robert Maxwell decided to take on the by-then monopolistic Evening Standard with the launch of the London Daily News, Associated adopted the eerily familiar enveloping tactic of wheeling out a spoiler London Evening News (the London Lite of its day). The tactics were devastatingly effective: Maxwell’s vehicle was driven off the streets in less than 20 weeks.

Though, by some strange alchemy, Bert Hardy happens now as then to be in charge of the Standard, it is unlikely he will enjoy such easy success a second time round. Maxwell is simply not to be compared with Rupert Murdoch as a media operator. More to the point, the publishing climate has changed out of all recognition. Indeed, if any direct comparison is to be made between the situation 20 years ago and now it should centre on the Wapping revolution. This, symbolically and actually, epitomised the new economics of newspaper publication which made such a flurry of launches, including the Independent, possible.

As then, so now we are at a nodal point, where the cost of getting to market (this time in marketing and distribution as well as production terms) has been drastically cut. But the new economic model, pioneered of course by Metro, may come at a cost all of its own. While – in an era of 24/7 news coverage – there’s certainly an appetite among young economic prospects for a paper that they wouldn’t otherwise pay for, how sustainable is their interest? To transcend the novelty phase, newspaper publishers will need to guarantee engaging content, and that eventually means spending a great deal of money. Without a paid-for revenue stream to dip into, and to the extent that readers defect from existing paid-for vehicles, that could prove a headache for publishers. The temptation to cut corners by dumbing-down may not go down well with advertisers, on whom of course publishers will have become increasingly dependent. So far, thelondonpaper has demonstrated that a free newspaper need not necessarily be a cheap newspaper. But it will have to sustain that positioning if it is to succeed.

Stuart Smith, editor – Marketing Week

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