Imagine a brewery bringing out a free beer, not quite as tasty or strong as its other ales, that was only available for lunchtime drinkers just after opening time.
The landlord would doubtless sell plenty of extra sandwiches and packets of crisps, and his jukebox would certainly earn a few more quid as greater numbers of punters piled through the doors.
But how convivial would the evening session be? How many would stick around to buy a drop or two of the real stuff? And how enthusiastic would the master brewer be about the new beer’s ingredients? That’s pretty much the question being asked, in newspaper drinking dens around the capital, of Associated’s launch this week of a giveaway version of the Evening Standard .
Hitting the streets for three hours at 11.30, between first and second editions of the full paper, the Standard Lite experiment -48 pages in Tuesday’s issue, compared with 68 for the full fat version-is the company’s biggest gamble since it launched Metro four years ago.
Now, as then, it cannot be sure what the impact will be on its existing newspapers. Now, as then, its move is partially a defensive strategy to ward off rivals.
Now, as then, it has everything to do with advertising and very little to do with journalism.
For advertisers, it’s all about circulation. And with the Standard’s dropping alarmingly fast, the extra numbers provided by the free could be a vital bolster.
But what about those paying readers? It’s very difficult to see a future in which there will be more of them as a result of the new paper.
In Chicago, where the Tribune and the Sun-Times introduced giveaway editions (the Red Streak and the Red Eye ) in 2002, full-price sales have since been further eroded.
And what about the journalists? The Lite’s welcome message promises “more in-depth journalism” in the Standard’s main editions, and its arts critic Nicholas de Jong told Radio 4 this week that the full paper would be a more up-market read.
But if the freebie takes off and the paid-for sales continue to slide, how long will the investment in this quality journalism be maintained? Cynical editorial staff at evening titles across the country are likely to see the move as a further threat to paid-for papers that are having a hard enough time of it already -even if they do grudgingly accept the bravery of the venture.
They’ll find it tough to raise their pint glasses with any real enthusiasm to a Lite future