Free newspapers enjoyed their heyday in the late 1970s when Archant London’s managing director Enzo Testa was an early pioneer.
One of a group of entrepreneurs who helped banish the idea that frees were the poor relative of publishing, Testa now believes the launch of papers such as London Lite and thelondonpaper could represent the dawning of a new era for free titles.
In 1977, Testa launched the Bedfordshire Journal with former business partner Keith Barwell and went on to develop the free group Herald Newspapers, later sold to Home Counties Newspapers (now Archant).
His contemporaries included Lionel Pickering and Chris Bullivant who all helped to elevate the free newspaper’s reputation by emphasising the need for quality editorial.
He recalls: “Every town we went into invariably had a paid-for paper and the existing publishers would launch what we called defensive frees to protect their paid-for title. These defensive frees had a little bit of news in them, but were never going to be really good. There was a big distinction between the two.
“Our frees were so strong that they managed to force the closure of the paid-for papers, which happened in St Albans, which happened in Milton Keynes and which happened in Bedfordshire and parts of Hertfordshire.
“The easy thing for the powerful bastions of the industry to do was to write a cheque. There were parts of the country where that didn’t happen. But eventually we built free newspaper groups which were bought out.”
Testa draws a parallel between the defensive frees of the ’70s and London Lite which is there to support its paid-for stablemate the Evening Standard. Although Lite contains quality editorial, it is ultimately neutered by the existence of its big sister, he says.
“London Lite is not a defensive free in the term I’ve discussed, but it does have the problem that if Associated Press makes it too good then it’s going to have an impact on the Standard.
“London Lite would argue its strategy is to offer a taster for the fully paid-for paper, but it is also competing against a full-blown free newspaper, thelondonpaper, and therefore has got to be careful.
“Thelondonpaper hasn’t got those restrictions and goes full blown on any story it wants because it hasn’t got to worry about giving away too much to affect its evening sale. It’s the difficulties in strategy.
“In terms of strategy, the quality free newspaper has absolutely no problems with its vision, where it’s going, what it’s doing. It’s going to deliver to as many people as it can, it’s a quality news product and it sells advertising on the back of that because it generates quality response.
“The defensive free paper is there with the numbers to package up with the paid-for to try to protect it. It was the defensive mechanism that paid-for publishers would use against a quality free newspaper, as opposed to freesheet.”
In January, News International’s thelondonpaper distributed 436,335 copies a day compared with London Lite’s 400,977.
London Lite’s relationship with the Standard is advantageous commercially, Testa points out.
“Thelondonpaper has a very clear strategy of quality editorial, but Lite is able to package its free offering with the Standard and Metro,” he adds.
“You could say they have their commercial strategy right; if you want the quality you buy it, if you want a Lite you have a Lite and we sell your advertising into both. It’s an extremely interesting battle of which there can be no clear winner. This is where it differs in comparison to the old free strategies because now they can package the two for the advertiser.”
Testa believes free newspapers have a bright future. A number of positive factors that weren’t present in the Seventies lend themselves to the even greater success of the free market.
“I think it’s the day of the free newspaper; it’s coming around again. We have more and more challenges with our paid-for newspapers, more small local newsagents are closing down and those that exist are struggling to get paper boys to deliver their newspapers.
“People’s buying habits have changed. We used to pop into the newsagent before getting on the train, but our pace of life has increased. The paper that has really proved that is the Metro. I could absolutely see in the future free newspapers dominating the market.”
In December 2003, the Competition Commission gave Archant the all clear to acquire 27 London weeklies from Independent News & Media including the East London Advertiser, the Barking & Dagenham Post and the Kentish Times series.
Part of Testa’s strategy has been to transform his paid-for papers into part free and part paid-for titles.
Since then the big city dailies in Manchester and Liverpool have also jumped on the free bandwagon and now distribute free copies in the city centre. Part of the reason more publishers have not yet followed suit, says Testa, is an inherent bias in the industry against free newspapers.
He says: “The part-paid, part-free strategy is inevitable – everyone can resist, but it’s just a matter of time. I think the only reason it isn’t happening quicker is because there is still this stigma attached, not by Joe Public, he doesn’t care how he gets his newspaper. It’s us in the industry that thinks paid-for papers are better and free papers must be down market.
“It’s just an industry stigma, but that is all changing. It’s only a mechanism of getting the paper out. Some people will get it for free.
“You alter the balance from totally paid, to paid and free, to a few less paid and a few more free because what you are protecting is an audience that is the key for all of us; no audience, no business.”