Media Forum: Will clients quit freesheets?

Could the row between freesheets affect ad revenues, Alasdair Reid asks.

Hats (or helmets, even) off to Associated Newspapers for introducing us all to former Detective Inspector Phillip Swinburne. A white-bearded and bespectacled figure wearing a trench coat sort of thing (closer to Clouseau than Columbo), Swinburne seems a rather lugubrious character. And you can see why. Invited by the publishers to prolong his career, pursuing his investigations down the shadiest alleyways off London's mean streets, he gets the result of his life.

No mutilated corpse here, however. No, his big discovery is a bundle of unwanted newspapers in a bin. And should you have missed last week's ad campaign, the results of his investigation can be seen on

Yes, it's the row between News International and Associated Newspapers. Associated has discovered that some distributors of thelondonpaper are sometimes tempted to cut out the middle man - and Inspector Knacker was handily placed to furnish the evidence. News International retaliated by publishing pictures showing piles of copies of the Associated title, London Lite, similarly dumped.

The timing of this row could hardly be worse because Westminster Council is already threatening to ban both titles if they don't do more to alleviate the litter problems they cause. Now, the Audit Bureau of Circulations has been forced to investigate whether there are intractable irregularities in the figures they audit on the freesheets. The ultimate sanction could be a withdrawal of ABC certification.

So, just how damaging could this whole row prove to be - not just to the two titles themselves but to the cause of commuter freesheets? Lawson Muncaster, the managing director of City AM, is optimistic that the market will continue to see the big picture.

He says: "All papers have rogue distributors and any time you see a pile of dumped newspapers, no matter what title it is, it's bad for the newspaper industry. It's the sort of thing we take very seriously - and if we have a rogue distributor, we fire them immediately. I wouldn't have done what Associated and News International have been doing - I would have focused my efforts instead in pointing out how many more people a reading a newspaper in London in the afternoon these days."

And Alison Brolls, the senior manager, global marketing and media planning at Nokia, thinks this could possibly be a storm in a tea cup. She adds: "It appears that a very small number of rogue distributors are responsible for the illicit dumping of copies. So far, it appears that in the case of thelondonpaper, this involves about 3,000 copies - which is about 0.5 per cent of total circulation."

But Brolls also argues that the picture might look very different if the ABC decides it can no longer underwrite the legitimacy of the basic currency that these two titles use to sell advertising.

Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, agrees on that point. He says that this makes the introduction of new ABC monitoring techniques an even more urgent necessity: "You can argue the numbers of dumped copies are small. But the rules need to be tightened up - there should be more spot checking."

One man with a perspective from both sides of the fence is Alan Brydon. Now the head of press at Media Planning Group, he was formerly the advertisement director of the Evening Standard. He concludes: "Astute planners and buyers have never thought for one moment that exactly 500,000 copies of thelondonpaper and 400,000 of London Lite are given out each day.

"There's a feeling that they have generated more publicity than the story was worth. Neither side has come out of this with any dignity or class - and, in fact, you could argue this doesn't do the newspaper industry any favours because it's an argument about numbers. They are in danger of commoditising themselves. My personal view is that News International should have risen above the provocation."

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NO - Lawson Muncaster, MD, City AM

"I don't believe advertisers will suddenly question whether they should be in commuter freesheets. I think they are much smarter than that. I think they take a far more pragmatic view of this sort of thing."

MAYBE - Alison Brolls, senior manager, global marketing and media planning, Nokia

"Advertisers assume a small percentage of free titles do not get into consumers hands - and this is taken account of. But if the ABC decides to drop the free titles, this will diminish their advertising value."

NO - Steve Goodman, MD, print trading, Group M

"There will always be rogue factors in any method of distribution. Planners and buyers will have already factored that into their calculations. I wouldn't expect a dip in ad revenues."

YES - Alan Brydon, head of press, Media Planning Group

"You would expect them to lose some advertising revenue as a result. When there's a row like this, it makes it easier for an advertiser or an agency to question whether it's right to use these papers at these rates, or use them at all."