Media Forum: Do the freesheets work?

A year on, are the freesheets a useful avenue for advertisers?

Should Ealing Studios ever plan a return to its golden era of the 50s, it has a ready-made plot for a new comedy in the shape of the London free newspaper market. Since Associated Newspapers' London Lite and News International's thelondonpaper launched a year ago, there have been accusations of spoilers, alleged dumping and burning of papers, claims of environmental damage and street pollution and, to top it all off, a former Scotland Yard detective poking around in bins with a camera.

Yet despite this stream of borderline farce, the evening freesheets seem here to stay. While sales of Associated's Evening Standard have been hit, raw circulation numbers suggest the titles have been a success in their first year. ABC figures show thelondonpaper distributes an average of 500,563 copies a day and London Lite 400,571.

However, cynics suggest that, especially since NI's decision to hike thelondonpaper circulation by 100,000 in January, there are too many newspapers on the street, and that they are not getting into the right hands. As a result, some buyers have been reluctant to commit large revenues to the papers, even during periods of heavy discounting of ad rates. The National Readership Survey's inability to provide reader research on the titles (due to an insufficient London sample size) hasn't helped the publishers, although readership figures are expected to appear later this month.

So in this context, have the titles justified their existence in their first year? Clearly Steve Auckland, the managing director of London Lite and Metro, is inclined to be positive on this. He says: "It will take time for both titles to settle in terms of product. At the moment, the two titles are very much head to head, but what we are trying to do is have all our copies away by 7pm/7.30pm and capture the high visibility market. We don't want to get involved in the 8pm/9pm market. We're adopting a purist approach."

Auckland concedes that London Lite won't be profitable for some years yet, but concludes the signs are encouraging after year one and that advertisers are buying into the title. "Both groups have deep pockets, News International even more so than us," he says. "They're the Tesco and we're the corner shop in this, but there is potential for both products to make a profit."

Alan Brydon, the head of press communications at Media Planning Group, thinks there is a market for free evening titles, but questions its scale. "Editorially, both products are perfectly good, and deliver what they set out to do," he says. "But I don't think there are 900,000 people in London saying, 'I need a free evening newspaper.' This was not a demand-driven phenomenon, and people are not exactly queuing to get hold of them."

Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, feels the launches had a positive effect on the market. He says: "They've brought the print medium to the forefront of everybody's mind. They give planners, buyers and advertisers an option to hit urbanites and commuters."

But Williams is concerned over the negative press surrounding the dumping issue, and the lack of readership data. He says: "When we saw allegations of copies being burned, we didn't find it funny. It was the paid-for newspapers that were laughing at the freesheets. The publishers are addressing this, but we're still waiting for NRS data and more robust ABC data."

Despite these issues, Ian Clark, the general manager of thelondonpaper, says the title has exceeded revenue targets for its first year. While cynics suggest the launch was merely an early play for the lucrative Metro morning contract, which runs until the end of the decade, Clark argues NI has created a distinctive offering: "Thelondonpaper has enabled levels of creative execution never before seen in UK press. Faced with achieving greater impact with elusive audiences, why are people still reserved about our success? Simply because advertising is a conservative business that doesn't embrace change quickly."

YES - Steve Auckland, managing director, Metro and London Lite

"London Lite offers a way for advertisers to get to the urbanite market. It has exceeded our expectations in revenues generated, but has also exceeded our expectations in terms of cost."

NO - Alan Brydon, head of press communications, Media Planning Group

"Both titles will be around for a long time since both proprietors have shown they are willing to run loss-making elements in their empires. I don't think they'll shift towards becoming an indispensable element of a press schedule."

MAYBE - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"There are areas of concern, not least environmental issues and the issue of who is picking these papers up, but the positive thing is that they have moved free newspapers up the advertiser's agenda."

YES - Ian Clark, general manager, thelondonpaper

"Freesheets have managed to reinvigorate a generation that was starting to become lost to newspapers. Advertisers can at last reach Londoners via a newspaper that reflects the upbeat, multicultural disposition of the city."

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