Regional papers: Is the future free?

The move by the Manchester Evening News, the UK's second-biggest selling regional daily to a part-paid, part-free strategy was one that the rest of the regional press watched closely.

The launch of the free City Edition by the Guardian Media Group in May 2006 was seen as a bold step – and one that, if successful, would be followed by other groups looking for ways to combat falling circulation and advertising revenues.

The paper began by giving away 50,000 copies in the city centre, while still selling it for 35p on the rest of its patch.

At the same time, another experiment, the Lite edition of the paper that had been launched just a year earlier, was axed.

The part-paid, part-free strategy exceeded expectations – within three months distribution was increased to 60,000. It currently stands at 77,831.

Meanwhile, the paper's paid-for circulation fell 26.8 per cent to 94,018 according to March's ABCs, although the dramatic dip also reflected an increase in cover price.

MEN editor Paul Horrocks has acknowledged that giving away free copies will inevitably affect paid-for circulation. But while the strategy has its critics, he believes it will ultimately pay dividends by offering advertisers access to a wider audience.

With its paid-for and free newspapers, the Manchester Evening News can claim a combined distribution figure of 176, 051 each day – its highest since 2000.

The Liverpool Daily Post, which launched what it claimed to be "the first business website" by a British regional newspaper – thebusinessweek – also adopted a part-paid, part-free strategy last year. More than 6,000 copies are given away in selected areas of the city's business district.

Ad agencies will need continuing proof that handing out free papers means more consumers are actually reading the paper and responding to the adverts.

But the strong appeal – as proven by the Metro papers and more recently Associated's London Lite and News International's thelondonpaper – is that they are more attractive to young and affluent readers, the group that represents the Holy Grail to advertisers.

Editor Paul Horrocks has said he would not rule out turning the paper into a fully free product at some point in the future.

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