While the rollout will have only a slight impact at launch on popular commuter freesheets, last week’s announcement by Virgin Media is a “direction of travel” as to how constant connectivity – which opens up more choice on how readers consume content – will have a detrimental affect on publishing, according to Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis.
“This is yet another sign that publishing industry needs to rethink its model in a more fundamental way than it has been doing in previous years.
“It needs to shift from a content supply and push model to a service model, understanding needs at different times of the day, which needs a different management mindset that must also think about new forms of measurement,” he adds.
Publishers, however, argue that underground connectivity could actually be beneficial to their newspapers and magazines, rather than a threat.
Mike Soutar, founder and chief executive of Shortlist Media, which publishes free magazines ShortList and Stylist, says underground WiFi could open more opportunities for print publishers to place more interactive content and advertisements in their publications.
He adds: “Whilst all media is being squeezed by technology and pressures on readers’ time, our brands are well positioned to take advantage of these changes in consumer habits.
“The readers of ShortList and Stylist are an affluent and mobile audience and we reach them by interceding on their commute; we have created a powerful weekly habit. With our mix of short, inhalable articles and longer, more substantial pieces of journalism we are designed to be consumed by people going places.”
Lawson Muncaster, managing director of City AM, says the debate is a “red herring”, claiming people do not choose content because of the platform it is delivered through; it is selected due to the quality of the content.
“You only have to look at airports to get a clear picture of how people will behave – people still read newspapers even though they have had free WiFi for years.
“Remember that in terms of mobility, there is nothing more mobile than a newspaper,” he says.
Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Evening Standard and Metro free newspapers, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Virgin Media will provide free WiFi across the London Underground network from July, after signing a five-year contract with the Greater London Authority.
The service will be free over the summer during the Olympics to all passengers but in the autumn, WiFi on the Underground will only be free to Virgin Media broadband and mobile customers, or available via pay-as-you-go and other commercial models.
By the end of 2012, up to 120 Underground stations will be connected to WiFi via Virgin Media in ticket halls and platforms, but train passengers will also be able to connect as their carriage rolls into stations.