Freesheet struggle spirals out of control

stuart%20smithFans of Terry Gilliam’s classic dystopian satire Brazil may recall a scene in the film where rebel hero Harry Tuttle, played by Robert de Niro, meets his end in a nightmare vortex of suffocating newspapers.

Many Londoners have come to know just how those last moments felt, thanks to the freesheet war now raging uncontrollably between News International (NI) and Associated Newspapers (AN).

Having dismissed the beggars and fled the chuggers, homeward-bound commuters must negotiate an army of vendors, brandishing free newspapers, as they make a break for the Tube station. Sure you take the paper – it’s almost a reflex reaction – but how many actually read it? This is a painfully simple question that advertisers have only belatedly got round to asking themselves. And only because the free papers issue has literally smacked them in the face.

Readership credibility is always going to be an area of weakness with freesheets. The pass-on rate, compared with a paid-for product, is likely to be very low. And how do you set the circulation (in other words, distributed copies), on which the readership multiplier is based, in the first place? Gullibly, advertisers seem to have accepted the principle of bulking up (no doubt persuaded by some ‘cogent’ readership research).

For evidence of this gullibility, we can look at recent circulation trends. While London Lite has held its circulation at about 400,000, thelondonpaper has been able to engineer a ratecard increase around the fact that it had ‘raised’ its own circulation from 100,000 to 500,000.

AN could, presumably, have decided to match NI’s circulation hike. But the danger here is in getting into a vicious paper circle, where revenue returns diminish and only the printer benefits. Besides, Westminster and Camden councils, in whose bailiwicks most of the distribution takes place, are becoming increasingly shirty about the costs of clearing up four tonnes of newsprint each night. Yet more paper might just provoke a public backlash.

Such a stroke of genius, then, AN to trip up NI with a new and highly cost-effective tactic: a documented exposé of thelondonpaper’s dumping practices. Accordingly, AN has posted video footage on YouTube and simultaneously launched a tabloid-style trade campaign detailing the exploits of ex-Scotland Yard DI Phil Swinburne in remorsely tracking down the dumping fiends.

What larks, eh? But let’s pause for a minute to consider the likely consequences of AN’s tactics. It seems NI has been sitting on its own little dossier of dirty tricks, which it is now in the process of sharing with a wider audience. The net effect of all this dirty linen in public will be to debase freesheet currency. Commuters will probably shrug their shoulders wearily at the exposure of such manipulative cynicism. But others may not be so forgiving.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, for one, will be under pressure to act. It must, after all, protect its own reputation for probity. If, after any investigation, the ABC were to revoke proof of circulation licences for both papers, which self-respecting advertiser would wish to appear in them? No advertiser, no freesheet.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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