Media Forum: Will NI freesheet be missed?

Are advertisers going to mourn thelondonpaper's passing, Ian Darby asks.

Last week saw an end to the free newspaper war in London when News International announced its intention to close its evening freesheet thelondonpaper. Launched three years ago as an attempt to tackle Associated Newspapers' stranglehold on the free London market, thelondonpaper was never profitable.

Recent reports suggest that the title lost £9.1 million in the year to June and, in a tough economic climate, NI just wasn't willing to sustain such losses in a battle against Associated's London Lite.

NI is consulting with 60 staff on the paper and its closure in September will mean one less option for advertisers targeting London commuters. However, over the past couple of years, many have asked whether there was any need for two free London news titles in the afternoon and whether thelondonpaper's existence ever really mattered beyond creating a bitter rivalry in the already crowded newspaper market.

Its impending closure also raises questions over the viability of the free news model. Senior Associated sources say that they remain committed to publishing London Lite and that although losses are "significant", it can move into profitability now that its main rival has left the market. Cynics argue, however, that London Lite was only ever a spoiler and that its reason to exist has now gone.

But will advertisers miss thelondonpaper and the competition it provided for the Associated titles and the London Evening Standard, recently acquired by the Russian tycoon Alexander Lebedev? Some argue that its innovative approach to dealing with advertisers and in creating new ad formats deserves praise. Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, says: "It took readers away from the Standard and opened the way for the likes of City AM, ShortList and now Stylist. It's a shame it's closing but there are just too many newspapers, too many websites, too many TV stations, too many radio stations.

"Associated might be rubbing its hands thinking it's going to get all thelondonpaper's business but NI just couldn't afford to lose what it was doing. There's a question mark over freesheets more generally and I think there will be more fallout. There will be more news in the next couple of months that other publishers just aren't willing to sustain similar losses."

Jenny Biggam, a partner at the7stars, agrees with Williams that thelondonpaper innovated with ad formats but argues that other titles have done so too: "I don't think the market has needed two London freesheets (in the evening). This situation wasn't created by advertiser demand and advertisers I've spoken to have voiced concerns over the lack of quality of these titles being thrust into people's hands on the street."

And Biggam argues that NI would have been wiser to invest the money spent on thelondonpaper on other areas. She says: "Advertisers would have preferred News International investing in its core titles rather than on a freesheet spoiler."

Jane Wolfson, the head of non-broadcast at Initiative, says that the winner in all this could be the London Evening Standard. She says: "It's a big opportunity for the Standard to pick up readers. Some advertisers will miss thelondonpaper but it is more of an addition to a press schedule rather than an essential part."

She also believes that thelondonpaper's closure raises questions over free media. She adds: "Sport had to be sold and I'm sure London Lite isn't making huge money. NI seems to be exploring the possibility of charging for online content, so, alongside this, having thelondonpaper seemed contradictory."

But Chris Amor, the press director at OMD UK, believes that it's hard to draw wider lessons from the demise of thelondonpaper. He says: "I don't think this raises doubts about the free model per se because if these titles get into the market early, be different and do things well, then they will be OK."

YES - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"It's a shame that it's going. It's one of the most innovative papers out there and very creative and entrepreneurial in the things it could do, and this set the London market alight."

NO - Jenny Biggam, partner, the7stars

"Associated has won the battle. If it also decides to throw in the towel, then we'd miss having one of the two. Evening freesheets have a young target audience and are very valuable for that but the point is we don't need two of them."

NO - Jane Wolfson, head of non-broadcast, Initiative

"From the point of view of targeting a young audience, thelondonpaper will be missed, but it's not like there isn't an alternative still out there."

NO - Chris Amor, press director, OMD UK

"Advertisers won't miss it at all. It will be an issue if Associated closes London Lite but taking one title away doesn't matter because people on the street have just been picking up one or the other."