How the free-sheet market is outsmarting its paid-for rivals

While many print brands are struggling to keep their publications going, the free-sheet market seems to be thriving.

The latest ABC figures show that the magazine market is having a tough time. UK magazines saw their circulations fall by an average of 5.3% in the first half of 2015, while newspaper sales declined 7.6% year on year between March 2014 and March 2015.

While free-sheet newspaper circulation figures are slightly down at -1.8% in August over the year, they are outselling their paid-for counterparts.

According to the latest National Readership Survey, Metro has 3.2m readers, with gross revenue last year hitting £120m and making roughly £10m in profit. In 2014, the London Evening Standard boosted its distribution to 900,000 copies a day as it aimed to “take the brand to the next level”.

The free-sheet magazine market seems to be doing well too. Free titles John Lewis Edition and ASOS magazine maintained the top two spots within the women’s lifestyle market, with the former recording a 1.7% increase in circulation over the year.

One of the more high-profile magazines that recently moved to free circulation is NME. The music magazine initially had a circulation of 15,000, which has now been boosted to 300,000.

Another free-sheet that has managed to grow in a challenging media landscape is culture magazine The Skinny. Ten years since its launch in Scotland in 2005, the publication has expanded across numerous cities in North West England.

Print copies total 63,000 magazines across six key cities and The Skinny is the UK’s largest arts magazine reaching 285,000 readers every month – a circulation that’s greater than Kerrang and The List.

Thriving in challenging conditions

The Skinny’s editor Rosamund West attributes the magazine’s success to its ability to continually adapt and by putting its readers at the core of the business.

“We are in a constant state of evolution, and an on-the-fly approach of learning as we go along has been important. While we’ve become much more professionally structured, that spirit of embracing a changing market has been core to our approach,” she told Marketing Week.

Partnerships have been key to the brand. The magazine has set up an ongoing tie-up with Glasgow Film Festival and Edinburgh Art Festival, curating stages at music festivals and organising a short film competition offering support and financing for micro budget filmmakers.

“It allows us to take the magazine into the physical realm, while our partners are also able to share our platform and reach our readers,” she explained.

West does acknowledge that publishing has become more challenging, even for the free-sheet market.

“There are many more publications on the market compared to 10 years ago. It’s a continuing challenge to approach advertisers, as everyone is dealing with people’s spending changes from being print to digitally focused. While the free-sheet market is thriving, it needs to keep evolving at all times.”

But not all transformations are necessarily a good thing. In light of NME becoming a free-sheet last month, West believes that the magazine might have lost its identity as a result.

“I wonder how they will survive in the market. It’s a different beast now, as it’s driven by commercial forces instead of its core spirit of anarchy. It will be a challenge for them to get through. It needs to figure out what it truly stands for,” she said.

Lessons for all

When it comes to the success behind free-sheet journalism, West says maintaining high quality editorial has to be key.

“The quality journalism and the knowledge that people want to learn from and share has to be at the heart of any free-sheet business. Even though it is free, people wont keep picking it up,” she explained.

But not all of the free-sheet models have been following this principle as closely as they should, according to West.

“There was an initial rush to lower the quality of journalism with the free-sheet market, especially the free newspapers that were serving yesterday’s news tomorrow. That huge delay in its relevance is something that people are becoming aware of with the rise of smartphones. It’s the opposite of what we’ve done. We wanted to make the content as high quality as possible.”

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