Are freesheets doing better than paid-for titles?

There is no longer a stigma attached to freesheets, which attract a more attractive readership than paid-for titles, experts from two leading London freesheets argue.

Karl Marsden, Harry Owen
Karl Marsden, Harry Owen


- Why is the free model successful?

The free model is not new - what has transformed consumer behaviour in recent years, though, is digital media. A whole generation of consumers has grown up to expect high-quality information and entertainment for free. When we launched ShortList four years ago, it was to capitalise on this emerging consumer trend. The basic principles behind our "freemium" model are simple: create a unique, quality product the audience desires; establish a reliable distribution channel; offer the product for free. Commentators often mistakenly assume that readers will take anything for free; this is incorrect. You cannot give people something low-quality or something that they do not want or need - no-one does the "thousand-yard stare" like a British commuter intent on reaching their destination.

- Does the free model apply to broader audiences?

There will inevitably be audiences for whom the free distribution business model does not work as effectively. However, the professional, working readerships currently served by ShortList and Stylist, and newspapers such as City AM and Metro, are large and there are still interesting market gaps and consumer needs to fill.

- Given that cost will have been pared out on the freesheets, does free mean less quality?

The 30-plus awards ShortList and Stylist have won in the past four years would argue otherwise. At the heart of our business is a belief that journalistic quality is paramount. Forty-five per cent of the coverprice of a paid-for title goes into the supply chain - our distribution model is much more efficient than that. In addition, the free model will simply not tolerate vanity publishing. The key is to stay very focused on what the audience really wants - and our editors and their teams do a fantastic job of squeezing in as much value as humanly possible into every square centimetre of our magazines, week in, week out.

- How frightened should paid-for titles be by the ascendancy of freesheets, or is there room for both models?

We have one of the most vibrant and developed press markets in the world and, accordingly, some of the most talented and committed people working in our publishing industry. The emerging and fast-growing "freemium" sector has limited impact on strong titles with a laser-like focus on serving their defined audience. There are myriad economic issues affecting consumer choice, with readers seeking out high quality and high value. Products caught in the middle ground representing neither top quality nor excellent value are going to be in trouble - no matter what consumer sector we are discussing.

- Has the attitude from agencies and advertisers towards free versus paid-for titles changed?

We deal with 90 per cent of the top 20 media buying points in the UK and the brand count of advertisers using our channels grows significantly every year - so the attitude seems very upbeat. There are some absolutely brilliant paid-for titles in the UK - and they serve as flagships for the industry and sector we work in. With ShortList and Stylist, we are striving to add two more stars to the firmament of the UK magazine industry.

- Should we still be talking in terms of 'free' versus 'paid-for' in print?

Not for me - I never have and I never will. Coverprice is simply a non-issue. Quality of content and relevance to your target audience drive engagement. It's an exciting time for press in the UK right now; media brands with strong press platforms at the heart of their proposition can definitely be a big part of the future media landscape.


- Why is the free model successful?

The free model's success is linked to changes in media consumption - audiences turn to specialists for packaged-up content that interests them. The stigma that existed around "free" has now gone in UK print, thanks to quality journalism in this market. I think City AM broke these long-held beliefs over the past five years and the readership attests to this, reaching the most affluent business audience of any newspaper in the UK (a recent YouGov survey shows the average income of a City AM reader is now £66,000, while that of the other quality press is £44,000). We ensure availability at commuter hubs and within offices, giving readers the chance to pick up the paper three or four times on their daily commute. We stick to one mantra: deliver accessible quality content and it will be read.

- Does the free model apply to broader audiences?

Paid-for newspapers' circulation decline is overestimated; they remain an inherent part of the British psyche and growth potential across the entire newspaper market is strong. That said, if publishers can make the free model work commercially, it does appear to chime better with consumers.

- Given that cost will have been pared out on the freesheets, does free mean less quality?

No - Allister Heath, the editor of City AM, is one of the UK's leading financial journalists and a highly respected economics commentator, who appears regularly on the BBC and Sky News. The paper he produces every day is of an exceptionally high quality - we simply wouldn't be attracting this readership if the quality was poor. Anecdotally, I've lost track of the number of clients who buy into using City AM five minutes after reading one issue.

- How frightened should paid-for titles be by the ascendancy of freesheets, or is there room for both models?

There is clearly room for both models, and publishers on both sides are simply looking to expand engagement with their core readership - whether this is through a paid-for or a free route. City AM, much like ShortList, the London Evening Standard and Metro, is achieving multiple points of engagement with the reader every morning - whereas, in the past, the onus was on the reader to seek out a newspaper, now publishers are responsible for accessibility throughout the day. As part of this commitment, City AM is to launch a paid-for app later this year.

- Has the attitude from agencies and advertisers towards free versus paid-for titles changed?

I spent most of 2006 answering the question about the perceived value of "free". Fortunately, it rarely comes up in agency conversations now and never comes up with clients. This year, we launched a series of watch and fashion supplements, traditionally the most reticent group of advertisers in the free market. We have quarterly supplements planned throughout 2012. I can't think of an advertiser who doesn't use City AM based on it being free.

- Should we still be talking in terms of 'free' versus 'paid-for' in print?

We should talk about audience, content and delivery. My counterpart at CNN would never get asked these questions.


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