Something of a quiet revolution has been taking place in the frees market, wrote Dan Bourke – then editor of The Wharf – in Press Gazette last February. “The quality free sheet is emerging: a new breed of free newspaper.”
It looks like he was on to something.
The announcement at last Friday’s Regional Press Awards that Kent on Sunday, a free newspaper, had claimed the prize for regional newspaper of the year, would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.
Some may believe it is still unthinkable now.
It is a sector of the market that has never really shaken off the reputation of its Seventies roots, when a rash of titles began appearing, unasked for, in letter boxes across the country. Entrepreneurs like Paul Morgan, Lionel Pickering, Keith Barwell, Harry Lambert and Chris Bullivant rapidly turned a nascent industry into big business.
There was even an Association of Free Newspapers, whose members had grabbed nearly a third of regional weekly ad revenue by 1980.
Its 1981 conference predicted that 80 per cent of the regional market would be free by the end of the decade.
It didn’t happen. When rival publishers of paid-for titles, seeing their ad revenue disappearing, took them on with their own offerings or paid millions to buy them out, the free revolution lost its spark.
And in many places, the free newspaper remains firmly at the bottom of the publishing pyramid: understaffed, overstuffed with ads and a refuge for the stories that don’t quite make the paid-fors in the same group.
Certainly there were those that continued to buck the trend – the Milton Keynes Citizen, Bedfordshire on Sunday, Manchester Metro News, to name but a few – but the Cinderella image remained.
Kent on Sunday’s win may go a way towards changing that.
The snobs may still scoff that readers will never fully respect anything that they don’t pay for, and ask pointedly how the tiny editorial teams some frees operate with can be good for journalism.
But while the quality of the products on offer remains so high, it’s an argument that’s difficult to sustain.
Kent on Sunday was by no means the only title in the free newspaper category to have impressed the RPA judges, who were astonished at the “quantum leap in quality” of what they saw.
The strong design and editorial values that many of them demonstrate have raised the bar significantly.
The quiet revolutionaries have plenty to shout about.