Maybe the future of newspapers isn't free after all

During seven years of running the Association of Free Newspapers (AFN), the conference theme from 1984 still stands out for me:?’The future belongs to frees”. Such was our confidence that we believed the future for regional newspapers was to be given away to maintain the readership vital to sustain advertising.

By the late Eighties the free local paper bandwagon seemed unstoppable. In 1976, British Rate and Data (Brad) recorded just 169 free local newspapers. By 1989 this figure was 1,156. The frees, as we called them, had also gained enormous traction with advertising agencies as well as local businesses. According to Advertising Association figures at the time, free weeklies’ advertising revenues surpassed those in paid weeklies in 1984, and by 1990 stood at £591m against £337m.

The more traditional publishers of regional and weekly newspapers had no option but to take notice, having previously sought to distance themselves from these aggressive entrepreneurs with their brash free titles. Traditionally production-led and editorially focused, regional publishers were forced to acknowledge that the new language was marketing and customer focus. Especially advertising customers.

My introduction to free local papers was in the mid-Sixties, when I persuaded the group of weeklies that my family then owned in Middlesex, London and Essex that we should launch free newspapers ahead of Rupert Murdoch, who had declared his intention to establish and roll out the News Shopper series around London from a South London base.

The penetration of paid weeklies into local markets had been declining to the point where they no longer had a sound sales story for advertisers, reaching perhaps only 20-30 per cent of homes in their market in many cases.

If the majority of your revenue is dependent on delivering an audience that advertisers want to reach… then you deliver that audience. Just forget revenue from copy sales and treat distribution as a cost against advertising revenues.

The two free newspapers we launched in 1969 – Ilford Market and Romford Market – did not have too many role models and ploughed a furrow of advertising focus, minimal editorial and distribution outsourced. But we failed.

However, we did contribute to the trend. Murdoch sold his main News Shopper titles to Alexandra Murray and the Surrey Advertiser Group; Michael Holmes moved into the East London space with his Independent series and Ian Fletcher launched his later hugely successful Yellow Advertiser series in Basildon.

By 1981 there were enough free newspapers to have established the verified Free Distribution arm of ABC (still a benchmark for auditing involving copious back-checking that copies have been received) and prompted a presumptuous young AFN to trumpet the success of this ‘new medium”.

I was subsequently assured that free newspapers had been around in one form or other for more than 100 years, and that my family’s claims to have launched the first free local paper in London were highly suspect.

The concept was certainly not unique to newspapers. In the trade and tech press – business magazines – a decade or so earlier, Graham Sherren showed his competitors how delivering a good-quality magazine free to the right group of readers could be a much more successful model than persuading rather fewer business professionals to buy a magazine.

So if free weeklies have been around for much longer than we might have thought, what about free dailies? Wikipedia recalls that in 1984 the Birmingham Daily News was launched. It was distributed free of charge on weekdays to 300,000 households in the West Midlands and was the first such publication in Europe. It was profitable until the recession in the early Nineties, when it was converted into a weekly title by its then owner, Reed Elsevier.

The same source asserts that ‘Free daily newspapers trace their history back to the Forties when publisher Dean Lesher in Walnut Creek, California, began what is widely believed to be the first free daily, now known as the Contra Costa Times. In the Sixties, he converted that newspaper and three others in the same county to paid circulation.”

It is an interesting observation that these earliest pioneers of daily newspapers converted back to being paid for.

In the magazine business, Brad recorded just 34 free magazine titles in 1975, a figure that had grown to 616 titles by 1989. More recently, the free magazine market has been augmented by a huge growth of successful customer magazine titles – a genre that takes the concept of a publication paid for by the advertiser to another level, under the umbrella of a single brand. High Life is probably the best-known pioneer.

And, of course, both commercial radio and television have developed their ‘free to the consumer’models in similar time frames.

So what of that brave assertion back in 1984 – that ‘the future belongs to frees”?

Reflect back to that line that the originator of the first recorded free daily newspaper converted to paid a few years later. Reflect that there is a major move both by local newspapers and business magazines to convert to paid. Digest the fact that growing numbers of us accept that we pay for television services and are apparently happily paying far more for our daily newspapers, and maybe you conclude that there is opportunity for whatever works best.

Just when you feel you have the whole thing buttoned down to a paid – or a free – model, someone else comes along with a different idea.

The very devil, isn’t it? But that’s competition for you.

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