Media Perspective: Going free could be a moneyspinner for the Standard

Explaining his decision to make the London Evening Standard a freesheet, its owner, Alexander Lebedev, pointed to deep-seated democratic concerns above commercial ones:

"An essential fabric of a free and democratic society is high-quality journalism. It acts as a deterrent against corruption and is a way to highlight what is beneficial and worth celebrating."

While it's debatable how far taking a title free in a commercial sense ensures that it is free in a wider, moral sense, Lebedev's motives won't really matter to advertisers should the product remain the same and the promised print run of 600,000, more than double the current 250,000, be realised.

At first sight, the move to drop the Standard's 50p coverprice appears odd and desperate. But two things are worth saying in response: first, this move might just work commercially for the Standard, and second, it won't really concern advertisers because they should benefit regardless.

The Standard, relaunched in March following Lebedev's acquisition of a majority stake from Associated Newspapers, continues to be held in high regard by the media buyer community. But this generosity has been sorely tested as the Standard's circulation dribbled away to below 200,000, a position that even a relaunch and £5 million ad campaign couldn't reverse.

At a stroke, its circulation should provide 600,000 very attractive London prospects for advertisers. As Alan Brydon, MPG's head of press and a former Standard ad director, says: "Newspapers need critical mass - with a circulation of just 150,000 to 200,000, you're never high on the agenda."

Agencies estimate that the move could add at least £10 million annually to the Standard's ad revenue - in the long term, offsetting the impact of lost coverprice. Should the Standard make significant cuts to the quality of the product, advertisers might be turned off, but, otherwise, they seem set to benefit from a title that is reaching a larger audience.

There remains a belief that the Standard plays to a more upmarket and affluent audience than the defunct thelondonpaper and its rival evening freesheet London Lite. So, initially at least, we should expect them to pile in behind the title, especially if its new ad director, Jon O'Donnell, employs a trading policy similar to that of his predecessor, Simon Davies (with some agencies rumoured to be receiving a "refund" of up to 40p in the pound on major deals).

While Associated says it is "business as usual" at London Lite, speculation surrounding the title's future has intensified and agencies expect it to close the minute it has finished running the pre-booked campaigns that fell its way when thelondonpaper ceased to be. That would give the Standard, in advertising terms at least, a clear run at the likes of The Times and The Daily Telegraph for London revenue.

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