By Sarah Lagan
Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks is to rock the regional newspaper industry with a major new publishing strategy by distributing 50,000 free copies of the paper each day on top of its paid-for circulation of around 130,000.
Horrocks’ bold move is aimed at making the MEN the most widely read daily regional newspaper in the UK and he has not ruled the possibility of the paper eventually going totally free.
The commuter version of the paper, MEN Lite, launched just over a year ago is to be axed on Friday (28 April).
Horrocks (pictured) said: "Our aim is to regain the title of Britain’s biggest regional paper with a combined paid for and free distribution of over 180,000 which we then hope to rise to 200,000 over the course of this year. The word free has not always had the best PR but I think the morning Metro has changed that massively and the only difference you will see in the MEN is that it’s free in the city centre.
"We’ve got a successful city where 150,000 come to every day and we were only shifting 7,000 MENs in the city centre. It is a radical and bold strategy, I would venture to say, and it will have ramifications across the industry."
From Tuesday, 2 May, 50,000 free copies of a full size MEN will be available in the city centre through newsagents, via large employers and by street vendors.
Horrocks said: "We have looked at the regional newspaper industry and decided that the doom and gloom that surrounds the business at the moment is not for us and we are going to do something about it. We had actually extrapolated our rate of decline and found that by 2025 we wouldn’t have anything left.
Archant London’s managing director Enzo Testa has started a strategy of combining paid for and free weekly titles in London but the MEN is the first big regional city paper to do so. In London, the Evening Standard distributes around 80,000 copies of its free lunctime Standard Lite. The Argus in Brighton launched a free morning edition, Argus Lite, in February which has a distribution of 35,000.
In Manchester, initially there will be three paid for editions and two free editions. An overnight paid for will go to print at 11pm, the second edition will go out at 8am and the third edition will go out at 11am. The first free edition will be on the streets by mid morning and there will be a second free afternoon edition.
In September the 8am edition will be dropped. With only two versions of the paper each day there will be fewer deadlines for journalists to hit though some editorial staff could be expected to work later shifts. MEN is also going through a redesign which will appear in mid June.
Horrocks said that "so long as the paper does not suffer in quality, pagination or editorial advertiser ratios," advertisers across the board welcomed the move.
Managing director of Associated’s UK Metro Steve Auckland said: "The move by MEN, I believe, will be seen as one of the great turning points in the history of the regional press. It gives a great opportunity for real growth in circulation and in advertising revenue for the long term. It also attracts a new market to regional newspapers which in the future will have a significant impact on the business."
Horrocks added: "We think this is the start of a change in attitude to the regional newspaper industry where we grow audience. Nobody can predict this is perfect and yes there are some risks to this whole strategy but the greater risk is you sit here wringing your hands worrying about the next set of figures. My answer to those who might want to knock this strategy is ‘what’s the alternative?’"
The MEN recently made 22 per cent of its editorial workforce redundant, blaming difficult trading conditions. Recruitment advertising was down 19.5 per cent and the company had predicted that the following year’s profits would be down 42 per cent. Last year Guardian Media Group Regional reported profits of £32.6 million.