Media Forum: Will afternoon freesheet work?

Should advertisers be excited about a new London freesheet, Alasdair Reid asks.

Metro International, the Stockholm-based company that owns the Metro brand in just about every market on the planet save the UK, knows pretty much all there is to know about commuter freesheets. It started with one title in 1995: now it boasts 63 editions across 19 countries. But only once in the company's history has it attempted to launch an afternoon title - and that was a spoiler designed to kill off a projected rival in Stockholm. Having succeeded, it promptly closed the thing down.

When asked last year about the London market, and the theoretical prospects for an afternoon commuter freesheet, Pelle Tornberg, Metro International's chief executive, said: "The afternoon newspaper market is weakening all over the world. Advertisers prefer to go on TV in the evening. It's not about information at that time of day, it's about entertainment."

This, we must presume, was not exactly music to the ears of the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who is keen to see an afternoon version of Metro - except this time he was vowing to extract better value for Londoners.

In exchange for a Transport for London contract and the right to distribute on Tube and rail stations, he is rumoured to want £10 million a year.

A lot more, in other words, than Metro coughs up.

Last week, the project inched further forward when an initial invitation was issued for media owners to express an interest - though at this stage the £10 million figure hasn't been broached.

Interested parties have until 21 April to come forward and the usual suspects are likely to turn out, even, perhaps somewhat irrationally, Metro International. News International has already run up dummies; the Express Newspapers proprietor, Richard Desmond, has previously expressed an interest in the London market; and Associated Newspapers will be in the pot too, if only to protect its current interests - Metro, the Evening Standard and Standard Lite.

But it's all pie in the sky, isn't it? Especially if the £10 million entrance fee materialises. Surely the London market is already well beyond saturation point? Lawson Muncaster, the managing director of City AM, doesn't think so. He says: "Is there room for a new afternoon newspaper?

Yes, there is. Do they need to have a licence from TfL? I don't think so. We have proved that you can make a success of a free newspaper without having a licence. I don't think this should be about contracts. I don't think it is about distribution. It's a question really of editorial quality.

It's about being original and totally devoted to the needs of your readers.

In my opinion, the editorial quality of the Evening Standard is excellent, so you would imagine that a new entrant would have to have a similar amount of expertise and cash behind it. Newspaper readers, in general, are fickle and Londoners in particular expect the very best."

James Kydd, the brand director of Virgin Mobile (an advertiser that regularly uses Metro), doesn't see it that way. "Metro appeals to people who are bored - so it depends how bored people are in the mid-afternoon," he reasons.

"It's open to question. Anything new is good but I don't think anyone could bank on this being a success. It will come down to content. This market is already crowded, so it has to do something distinctive and compelling.

If it's a poor man's version of the Evening Standard, then it probably won't succeed. It has more of a chance if, like Metro, it succeeds in being relatively broad in its appeal."

Jane Wolfson, the press director of Initiative, doesn't believe a new title will offer a promising environment for advertisers. She says: "By 5.30pm I think most people are just keen to get home so I'm not convinced the afternoon is a good time for advertisers. With the strategies that many newspaper advertisers tend to pursue, I think they prefer to give people more time to respond (to an ad) through the day."

And Mark Gallagher, the press director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, argues that the entry fee, even if substantially smaller than £10 million, will be a defining factor.

He warns: "I don't know of any free evening newspaper that makes money. The pool they have to fish in is so much smaller. So if TfL were to take £10 million a year, that would certainly wipe out any chance of a profit for the new title. People advertising in Metro know that the first thing people do when they get into work is to go online. When you get home you don't go online. There are too many other things for you to do."

YES - Lawson Muncaster, managing director, City AM

"Starting £10 million behind would be a stumbling block for anybody but if you're delivering a paper with a readership of 500,000 then that might not seem quite so important. There are ways of looking at this. Sometimes in this country we spend too much time looking backwards and not enough time looking forwards."

NO - James Kydd, brand director, Virgin Mobile

"It's difficult for me to get excited about this. Environment is important. In the morning if people are stuck on the tube and read something in a newspaper and it inspires them they have time to do something about it. I'm not sure the same thing will happen in the evening when they're heading home."

NO - Jane Wolfson, press director, Initiative

"Distribution will be tough - it's the reverse proposition of the morning so the focus has to be on the centre rather than the outskirts. In a busy (west end) environment it might be harder to get people into the habit of picking up a paper. Also, the evening rush hour is spread out (over a longer time span) than the morning one."

NO - Mark Gallagher, press director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"Putting out something relevant for an afternoon audience is incredibly hard these days. I think everyone remembers that headline in the Standard pondering whether David Blunkett should resign - but everyone going home knew he'd already gone because they'd read about it on the internet."

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