Media Forum: Does the City need a free title?

Is there room in the London market for a financial freesheet, Alasdair Reid asks.

Lawson Muncaster, the soon-to-be proprietor of London Business Daily, presumably knows a thing or two about newspapers - and freesheets in particular.

He was, until earlier this year, the vice-president of global sales at Metro International, the publisher that has successfully launched free newspapers aimed at commuters in just about every city that matters around the world.

Except, interestingly enough, London, where it was beaten to the punch by Associated Newspapers.

But Muncaster has now chosen to test himself in London. Or, at least, one square mile of it. London Business Daily is likely to be a free daily newspaper aimed at upmarket decision-makers in the City.

Muncaster says the rationale is simple: London's business community has never been fully catered for in newspaper terms. He has already begun putting together financial and editorial teams (the paper will be edited by the former Sunday Express business editor David Parsley) and is now seeking a second round of funding to move the project towards launch, which should happen by the end of the year.

But hang on. Is there a gap in the market? Don't tell the Financial Times, which has for decades prided itself on its ability to cover not just the global economy but also the more mundane business issues closer to home.

And despite its peerless editorial expertise and world-class branding, the FT is hardly a licence to print money these days. Last week, the paper announced a cracking six months - hugely cheering in that it lost only £2 million, compared with £7 million in the comparable period last year.

London Business Daily will work to a vastly different business model but, however you look at it, getting a free newspaper into the right hands at the right time will hardly be easy. Or cheap, come to that. And then there's the little problem of Associated Newspapers' exclusive rights with London Transport to distribute its Metro newspaper at London Underground and mainline railway stations.

But should the FT - and Metro, come to that - be worried? A new freesheet will, at the very least, nibble at the edge of their commuter readership.

More pertinently, can a free business paper ever hope to succeed?

Steve Goodman, the group press director of MediaCom, says his gut feeling is that there is room for something new out there. In fact, he reckons we are going to see all sorts of specifically targeted daily freesheets in the next few years. He states: "The success of any free paper depends on two factors - the quality of the editorial and the quality of its distribution. It's possible to imagine a quality product that doesn't necessarily have to mimic the FT. If it gets into the right hands, then advertisers would be interested."

But Mark Gallagher, the press director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, thinks this will be an amazingly tough proposition. He says: "Its readers spend all day getting all sorts of information from their screens. What can you tell them that they don't already know?"

He cannot see it stacking up against ferocious competition in the mornings from the FT and the business pages of the other quality nationals, while an evening paper will look terribly behind the times to readers who have spent all day absorbing real-time information from their computer screens.

Interestingly, though, Paul Richards, a media analyst at Numis (and, as such, part of the target market), believes there is a small but important window of opportunity here. He comments: "This paper may be able to exploit the interesting fact that a lot of people in the financial markets come into work very early, before the newsagents open. Speaking personally, I would have read the FT every single day ten years ago. Now I don't. But as the FT itself has been showing, it's not the easiest market in the world. On the other hand, Metro has shown that free newspapers can be very successful."

Mark Craze, a managing partner at Media Planning Group, will take a lot more convincing. He explains: "These readers are incredibly demanding. If they need information, they demand it instantly. And then this title has to get revenue - which can only come from advertising, so it can't be too narrow and specialised. It needs to deliver a certain scale of audience. It's hard to be definitive without knowing the details of what they hope to do, but I'm not at all sure there's a gap in the market."

YES - Steve Goodman, group press director, MediaCom

"You can't possibly replicate what the FT does with its breadth of coverage and its international scale. But this new title can do all sorts of stuff that might appeal to a specifically London sensibility."

MAYBE - Mark Gallagher, press director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"The publishers say they have an insight - if so, they have a chance. But then it becomes a question of how much resource they can put behind this paper because it really does need to hit the ground running."

YES - Paul Richards, media analyst, Numis

"When I start work at 6.30am, I just don't get a chance to read the FT. This new paper would have to be on the Tube by 6am. If it distilled yesterday's events, I'm sure I'd read it. Distribution won't be easy but stranger things have happened."

NO - Mark Craze, managing partner, Media Planning Group

"The FT is still mandatory reading for people in the Square Mile - and they have all the information they could possibly want delivered to their screens. What extra content can a new title hope to supply?"

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