London's major afternoon daily the Evening Standard dropped its 50 pence cover price and went free yesterday. The paper, 75.1% of which is owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev (described by the Guardian as 'the spy who loves media), has been a paid-for daily for 182 years. The remaining percentage was retained by the Daily Mail and General Trust.
The move is an attempt to address declines in circulation and distribution will be upped from from 250,000 to around 600,000 in the hope that increased advertising revenue will make up for lost of income from the cover price.
The Standard has won the right to use the distribution bins of rival free title Metro at London railway stations in the evenings, Press Gazette reported. These give it access to the estimated one million commuters who use these stations. The paper has also struck deals to be distributed inside supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco and stationary/book shop WH Smith, and the Independent reported that the Standard has secured a deal with Canary Wharf for on site distribution and has doubled distribution to the Houses of Parliament. It is understood to be in the process of negotiating further deals.
The paper will not be available in the newsagents that used to stock it for at least the first week, but this situation could change in coming weeks, the Guardian reported.
The move to a freesheet has prompted a review of operations that puts about 20 commercial team members' jobs at risk, MediaWeek reported.
When the switch to a free paper was announced, Lebedev said that "the London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow." Much emphasis has been put on the fact that the Standard is still aiming to be a 'quality' paper, with editor Geordie Greig saying "Can you refer to it as a newspaper and not a freesheet? It has been a newspaper for 182 years and it is not changing": a sentiment which clearly expresses the concern that a free paper is not taken as seriously as one that it paid for.
The Evening Standard's falling circulation has undoubtedly been caused in part by competition from the various freesheets that circulate on the streets of London. But is joining them in giving away copies the best step forward? Thelondonpaper, owned by News International, closed three weeks ago following major losses. This provides space for the Standard in the market, but maybe does not bode well for its future. The other significant afternoon free sheet, the London Lite, owned by DMGT, is also struggling. Neither this nor the former thelondonpaper can echo the Standard's claim to be quality publications, so the latter's future could well be different.
If the Evening Standard succeeds as a free daily, could Lebedev be right in thinking that other 'quality' papers will follow?