Media Forum: Is free the new paper model?

Would it make sense for newspapers to copy Metro's model, Alasdair Reid asks.

Now and then, like every commercial organisation, newspaper publishers indulge in brainstorming sessions. And it is in the nature of brainstorming sessions that some of the ideas that emerge are more "blue sky" than others.

But the notion of turning a major paid-for national title into a freesheet is not exactly a new one. Nor should we be terribly surprised to find it one of the topics kicked around recently by Express Newspapers.

The publisher strenuously denies that this would ever become a serious proposition in the foreseeable future and is understandably anxious not to appear foolish, especially in the context of its intention to take on Associated Newspapers in the London market.

But, actually, that situation is very much to the point here, given that Metro, launched initially as a London title, has itself evolved into a national freesheet. So, as an exercise in kite flying, the Express brainstorm could provoke some interesting responses.

There is value now and then in thinking the unthinkable, especially considering the long-term and seemingly intractable problems faced by newspapers of all shapes and sizes.

Why shouldn't more grown-up newspapers be freesheets? It would certainly be one way to address the perennial problem of declining circulations.

After all, Metro is, in effect, a national free title and advertisers aren't exactly uncomfortable with seeing their messages in a title that is given away.

So, what is the real verdict on the idea of a national paid-for going free: madness or genius? Neither, Steve Goodman, the group press director at MediaCom, says, but he adds that Express Newspapers' owner, Richard Desmond, has to be commended for continuing to question conventional wisdom.

Goodman says: "Newspapers generally need to do something about the situation they are in. The compact Independent was the first real attempt to address circulation declines. I approve of anyone and anything that puts a firework up the bum of the newspaper business."

Goodman says the industry should be looking at everything - different formats, distribution, colour, promotions: "It would be disruptive to make a radical change overnight, obviously, but that's not to say a more sophisticated model can't be found. It would be about ensuring the right people were given access to the title in the right numbers."

Ian Tournes, the press director at Starcom Mediavest, points out you would have to cross several logistical hurdles before this could become anything like a viable proposition. On the other hand, he admits, there are ways of getting a free publication into the hands of the right readers.

The Business, for instance, is distributing itself as a free Sunday in selected postcodes. So, if a viable freesheet distribution model could be found for a national newspaper, would advertisers be interested?

Yes, Tournes says. And he agrees that publishers shouldn't be scared of this issue: "The newspaper industry should be looking at radical solutions to its long-term problems. Circulations have been declining for decades and it needs to find ways of trying to address that."

Some advertisers don't exactly see it that way. Alison Brolls, Nokia's global marketing and media planning manager, agrees the fundamental aim should be about tapping into consumers on a deeper and longer-term level than ever before. She comments: "It's about attempting to cut through, engage with them and build a relationship - but can that be achieved by turning a paid-for mid-market title into a daily freebie?"

She argues it would have to be a fundamentally different proposition from any existing paid-for daily. "Metro was able to do this successfully by talking about the 'Metro moment' and 'urbanites'. Metro was a new proposition."

Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of Media Planning Group, agrees that Metro has changed the rules utterly. He says: "If you are talking about a free paper that is pushed through your letterbox, then the prejudices still hold true - it ends up as cat litter, doesn't it? But with Metro, you're proactive in making a decision to take it. If an existing national title were to go down the same route then I reckon it would work in the same way. The benefits in terms of raw numbers would be enormous."

But are big numbers really attractive these days? Absolutely, Mendoza says: "As we do more in the way of niche marketing, there's a greater need to find media that deliver big numbers. Advertisers are still after big numbers."

GOODMAN

MAYBE - Steve Goodman, group press director, MediaCom

"Newspapers are facing new challenges all the time. There are lots of ways to get the information you want. The national press needs to be an awful lot more innovative than it has been in past."

TOURNES

YES - Ian Tournes, press director, Starcom Mediavest

"Look at the way Metro charges a premium. It has always been an effective title. Before Metro, advertisers might have seen free newspapers as a devalued environment. I don't think that is the case now."

BROLLS

NO - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media planning manager, Nokia

"Such a move would no doubt increase circulation, with, I assume, an intention to raise ad revenue premiums, but at what real cost to advertisers? They are not necessarily obsessed with mass cover."

MENDOZA

YES - Marc Mendoza, chief executive, Media Planning Group

"Yes, it could work. I'm not sure anyone would do it. It would take someone with real balls and deep pockets. But Metro shows that the rules have changed. Readers are proactive in seeking it out and advertisers like it."

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