The news that The Guardian is to become the latest newspaper to experiment with a cheaper sister title aimed at young readers (MW last week) should, on the face of it, come as little surprise. Newspaper publishers are constantly looking for ways to offset the depressed print market, attract advertisers and safeguard their future in the digital age.
Guardian Media Group’s (GMG) decision to test dummy editions of two titles on focus groups – one understood to be 35p, half the price of The Guardian, the other free – is further evidence that free newspapers are the future of the print medium, according to some experts.
The Metro, which launched eight years ago, turns in a healthy profit for Associated Newspapers, and is looking to increase its distribution by 300,000 in London. Its stablemate London Lite and News International’s thelondonpaper claim to be particularly strong in the demographic much-loved by advertisers, the elusive 18to 34-year-old age group.
So it would seem to make sense for The Guardian, with its faltering circulation, to follow suit, either by launching a cheaper or free version of the paper.
However, not everyone is convinced it can make it work. Ian Clark, general manager at thelondonpaper, says: "I think it will be very difficult to achieve this if it’s looking at a reduced price offering because it is competing in content with free newspapers. Young people are less keen on paying for things, as they are used to getting free content. The content needs to be given in an interactive way rather than from highly paid columnists, and this would mean a departure for The Guardian."
GMG has not been slow to reinvent itself in the past. Its decision to ditch conventional advertising on the home page of its Guardian Unlimited website (MW April 5) is just one of a number of innovations following the newspaper’s conversion to the Berliner format in 2005.
The group already distributes free copies of one of its flagship regional newspapers, The Manchester Evening News, in the city. However, the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures reveal paid-for copies of the paper have slumped by over a quarter year on year.
Media buyers have broadly welcomed free newspapers in London and some believe The Guardian, with its strong brand, could prove successful in this market.
Steve Goodman, managing director of print trading at Group M, says/ "I think if this is going to be a sub-set of The Guardian then the proposition becomes less appealing. However, it it’s a lighter version, without the various supplements the paper has, then it would encourage others to buy the paper."
Others, however, remain unconvinced that advertisers are keen to shift money out of traditional paid-for titles into a saturated free newspaper market. In particular, they question whether readers engage with free newspapers in the same way as they engage with a paper they have actively purchased.
GMG, which is remaining tight-lipped about its plans, must be wary of the possibility of a new title cannibalising sales of The Guardian. It need look no further than across London, where The Evening Standard is feeling the impact of free newspapers, including those from its own stable. Paid-for sales of The Evening Standard in March were almost 30% lower than last year, according to the latest ABC figures.
GMG, however, can perhaps afford to take a more long-term view than rival publishers due to its unique ownership structure. The group is owned by The Scott Trust and unlike most of its rivals does not have to answer to restless shareholders over its performance.
It remains to be seen whether the group would be better off investing some of the £675m it made from selling its Trader Media Group in other options, such as television and radio.