EDITOR PAUL Horrocks is back in Manchester after a two-day trip to London for some meetings and a Newspaper Society lunch. And after two days of fielding questions from industry bigwigs, he knows the whole of the UK media has its eyes trained on his city. He reels off a list of the big names who have been asking after the paper's health, and says that one editor has even travelled to Manchester today to discuss the prognosis in more depth — but he asks us not to reveal who it is.
The Manchester Evening News, the second-biggest selling regional daily in the UK, has just launched its free "City Edition" in an attempt to hike up circulation and bring wayward advertisers back to the world of print.
From 2 May, it started giving away thousands of free copies of the newspaper in the city centre while still selling it for 35p in the rest of its patch.
With a paid-for circulation of just over 130,000, Horrocks says that very little of that figure — about 7,000 — has been coming from the city centre, despite an influx of 150,000 commuters, shoppers and visitors every day. Those young, affluent professionals who are not buying the paper are, frustratingly, exactly the readers that advertisers love and are seeking out elsewhere.
The problem, managers have decided, is that they don't feel they have time to go and seek out the paper or to sit and read it properly, so they don't bother. The answer: to stick it under their noses as they rush from office to cafe, to leave it on the seats of their buses, to get newsagents to hand it to them for nothing as they pick up other items in shops. This should increase sales to 180,000, making the MEN once again the biggest-circulation local paper in the UK and, hopefully, bringing more advertisers in.
The future of Manchester's daily does not just hang on whether this gamble pays off — the outcome is also a huge deal for other editors, all of whom know that time is running out for the traditional daily. As Mark Dodson, MD at MEN, says: "We worked out that in 25 years we wouldn't have a paper at all." If the part-free strategy works for the MEN, maybe it could work for others too.
But are existing out-of-town readers going to keep on paying 35p for a newspaper when they can walk a mile up the road and get it free? And does it devalue the paper as a whole that it is being handed out like Metro? For while Metro is a hugely popular package, it is very much a news digest, not the lifeblood-of-the-community personality that a local paper attempts to be.
But Horrocks, while openly excited about the experiment — even calling Press Gazette afterwards to check how the visit went and inviting us back to follow developments later on — is relaxed about these issues: "I've had more complaints about the fact that I've taken TV off the back page and put the sport back on than I have about this," he says. "In fact, I haven't had a single call from anyone asking why they can't get the paper free in their area. And with exactly the same editorial team, there is no devaluing of the paper, although we will be watching that closely."
Having started with a 30,000 free print run and the intention of increasing it very gradually, they have already gone up to 55,000 for today's free edition, demand has been so high, Horrocks adds.
Meanwhile, Dodson is similarly aware of the scrutiny. He asks how the decision has been received down South, and clearly has a response ready for any imaginable criticism of the scheme.
"People have said it's a brave move," he says, "but to me it would have been braver just to sit there and do nothing.
"When I took on this job [in September last year] I spoke to everyone in charge and said: ‘Do you want to just manage decline or do you want to take control of your destiny?'"
The great MEN giveaway
WORD ON THE STREET
Outside the MEN office on the corner of Deansgate and Dalton Street, chummy vendor Leonard is working up a sweat, energetically patrolling the whole of his patch — although it may also be to do with the fact that his bright yellow "free MEN" sweater is a bit warm for the sunny day.
"It's going really well," he says, "we need more papers."
As he flourishes copies at passers-by, there are a few refusals to his offer, but the majority take one — most of them the young, besuited professionals the paper is trying to reach. A pair of middle-aged women even take several each.
"Oh, I know you still have to pay for it outside the centre," says one, who says she lives in Pendlebury, Greater Manchester. "I'm taking copies for my neighbours as well. I think it's great, although I don't understand why they're doing it. How long is it going to go on for?"
Circulation director Julie Tattersall, who is accompanying Press Gazette on this jaunt around the city centre, is not happy with that one. "Don't use that!" she jokes, scouting for better prospects. The issue of cannibalisation is definitely one that is being watched closely, but, as Horrocks has not ruled out the idea of going completely free one day, it's not enough of a worry to halt the experiment.
Further interviews reveal that the majority of those who pick it up did not read the paper before — "just never had time," says one, a 20-something bank worker, expressing a view repeated by several others.
"I've been reading it every day since it went free, though, and I like it," adds another. "It's good for the business side of things, more locally relevant than the Metro." And even the newsagents have been placated, receiving payments for stocking the free copies. Imran Patel, round the corner from the MEN office, has obviously been "incentivised" by the move, working hard to hand a copy out to every customer. "They are coming in every day and saying: ‘Is it still free? Is it still free?'" he says.
But what about the customers who are still shelling out for their paper? Further out of the city, in Rusholme, the second edition of the paper is waiting, still tagged at 35p.
"Do you know you can get free copies of this in the city centre?" I ask the girl at the checkout in one garage. "Are you not getting people asking why they can't get it free?"
"Er, no," she replies, uninterestedly, seemingly entirely unaware of the change.
Further down the road, at an independent newsagent, there is a stack of copies on the counter.
"Can you not get these free here, then?" I ask the newsagent, innocently. He shrugs.
"Because you can get them free in the town centre, you know."
Wordlessly, he picks up a copy of the paper and hands it to me, clearly unimpressed by my unwillingness to hand over the loose change.
I take my sixth copy of the MEN of the day, stuff it into my overflowing bag, and shuffle shamefacedly out of the shop. The whole of the UK media may be watching, but to him it's a fuss over nothing. For now at least, it looks like Horrocks' complaints line will stay silent.