It’s not often you see a product so bad that you wonder if it is a hoax. But that was my first reaction last week when I got my hands on the capital’s newest freesheet The London Weekly. I wasn’t entirely sure who might be trying to fool me or why, but its slogan “the lighthearted paper for lighthearted Londoners” made me think that someone, somewhere must be having a laugh.
Let me give you a taste of the paper’s content. The front page misspells the name of cricketer Phil Tufnell, who appears later in the pages talking about his scandalous addiction to smoking. Mistakes litter the pages, with sentences proclaiming “Cowell is king of immitation” and “Serve them with New Baileys Extra Thick Crea” (sic).
Whole articles appear to have landed on the page without anyone reading them over and sometimes only partially writing them. A splash on Wasps Rugby Union Club was simply a reprinted press release. Meanwhile, the “top five albums” section features just four record reviews. This is chip paper so poor that even your fish supper might feel insulted that you had chosen to wrap it in this newsprint.
The look of the paper also makes you doubt that the last 20 years of evolution in print design actually happened. Large yellow arrows sometimes sit below headlines and sometimes bisect them. It feels like a 14-year-old was let loose on their outdated school software with Microsoft Clip Art. It may be the only paper ever where you turn to the (few) ads to find something worth looking at.
Grumbles about the quality of the publication aside, it is the business side of The London Weekly that really concerns me. If this is not revealed to be a massive hoax, then this is a real product, designed to appeal to real consumers. It might be free but with so little time on their hands, people aren’t prepared to waste their precious hours – or should that be minutes? – unless it is worth it.
After all, it is only a matter of months since News International and Associated Newspapers gave up on their own attempts to run afternoon freesheets. Thelondonpaper and The London Lite had ambitious business plans that fell foul of a weak advertising market and an oversupply of almost indistinguishable publications.
As the two major publishers’ freesheets fell away, paid-for competitor the Evening Standard decided at the end of 2009 that it would remove its 180-year-old price tag for consumers. The paper gambled on raising its circulation high enough to attract more advertisers and make up its profits deficit that way.
It seems to have had some success. Or at least the National Readership Survey figures, out last week, suggest that in the last three months of 2009, the Standard attracted 1.37 million readers, from a circulation of 600,000. This was up from 556,000 readers on a base of around 200,000 in the quarter from April to September. Its ABC1 readers are now 76.7% of the total.
But surely with its youthful “lighthearted” tone, The London Weekly could sneak in and snatch some of the ads from this grande dame of publishing? Well, no. While The London Weekly put out a launch statement claiming to be for “young Londoners”, youth-focused advertisers have defected to morning freesheet Metro, according to the managing director of the Standard. From the sparse pages of The London Weekly, it does not appear that too many have been convinced that trying the newbie would be fun.
The problem for The London Weekly boils down to more than its competitors, however. Its whole brand simply makes no sense. Who is this aimed at? It isn’t young people. I cannot believe 18- to 25-year-olds care about retired cricketer Phil Tufnell. Nor is it for a more mature audience, used to reading quality press free from the Standard.
The London Weekly has yet to find a brand positioning of its own. It isn’t funny enough to be lighthearted; it isn’t well-designed enough to compete with Metro and the Evening Standard; and it isn’t niche enough to offer anything different to readers than they can read anywhere else.
Alright, maybe it is supposed to be anyone of any age who is “lighthearted”. But the paper isn’t actually funny, just badly put together. It’s not full of jokes or satirical articles like Viz or Private Eye.
To succeed on the mean streets of London, a freesheet needs a real brand. If you don’t have deeper pockets than News International, you have to go niche. For example, theblogpaper, which launched last summer and crowdsources its content from blogs, survived its first six months because it offers something different from mainstream press or other freesheets.
City AM is another good example of finding your niche and exploiting it. In October last year, chief executive Jens Torpe told Marketing Week that he had grown revenues 21% the previous year. And this was during a recession affecting the paper’s readership and advertisers in the financial community.
The London Weekly has yet to find a brand positioning of its own. It isn’t funny enough to be lighthearted; it isn’t well-designed enough to compete with Metro and the Evening Standard; and it isn’t niche enough to offer anything different to readers.
Tony Woodcock, co-founder of the company behind the paper, Global Publishing Group, admitted on Friday that the launch issue had faced a “mixed reception”. But he argued: “Anyone who expects perfection for a brand new launch is practically living in a dream world. We are very content with the thousands of support [sic] we have had from readers who have picked up a copy this morning…”
I find it hard to believe that “thousands” of anyone will continue reading The London Weekly when the gaffes start right at the top of the brand. I hope this is a hoax because otherwise, it’s just a very sad story indeed.