Free. But easy?

Which will be the first National newspaper in the UK to drop its cover price completely?

A question I’ve asked a few colleagues in recent months, only to be met with loud guffaws and their howls of derision that it will never happen, that paid for newspapers have been here for hundreds of years and will be here for hundreds of years more.

But rather than wash my mouth out with soap or feel soiled for having such devlish thoughts, I think that the question remains valid. And I think it will happen sooner rather than later.

I got to thinking about it while reading Andrew Marr’s historical view of newspapers My Trade exploring how those of us who chip away at the coalface of truth have evolved over the centuries.

Along with a recent piece by my old mucker Stephen Rafferty on the decline in earnings for young journalistic talent, and a very worthy effort by this month’s Journalist – the official NUJ magazine – on standing up for journalism as a whole, it had me looking at the idea afresh.

Take my former employers at the Daily Record. They launched the free PM editions in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, of which I was in charge of the newsdesk.

Some quarters argued that it was forward thinking, provided a fresh way to increase advertiser value and increase revenues, while stoking up brand awareness edging the paper towards a 24-hour operation. And perhaps they were right.

Others counselled that it was a way of overworking too few staff already on low wages, without the back-up of experienced elders to help maintain journalistic standards. Cheap labour by the back door that would see higher earners thrown out through the revolving one.

Now they are looking to launch a free business paper too, as the tabloid bares its teeth at the fiefdom that was once the preserve of the Scotsman and Herald newspapers, papers that have been losing staff left, right and centre amid their own cutbacks.

Is it another bold move, or simply eroding at yet another rival’s front, much in the same way they have tried to do with the local evening papers?

After all business is business, aggressive too. But it only goes so far until a wounded beast bites back, something they would do well to remember unless it has a long term plan.

But could such a plan involve going free entirely?

For the parent company, their lowest selling National would seem the natural place to trial it. It would most certainly catch rivals on the back-foot.

Yet it wouldn’t be without problems. They would lose the cover price, but perhaps recoup it with an increase in advertisers.

Problems of distributing a product where traditional shop vendors would see no return and may be reluctant to stock it would have to be looked at carefully, but could still be overcome.

The free Metro led the way. It was and remains one of greatest modern day successes in newspapers, easy on the eye, disposable news with a young and fresh feel.

Although it has disappeared off the radar for now, there has been much speculation that the The Sun in Scotland may follow the Record in launching a free paper too, unless Trinity Mirror has actually managed to spike their guns on this occasion.

But it is not just the nationals. Word reaches us that a new free men’s magazine, Shortlist, is to launch in Glasgow and Edinburgh next Thursday to go along with the likes of The Skinny and other freebies that populate the cities.

Add into the mix 24-hour rolling news and of course our beloved internet, surely the only way papers may survive is by ditching their cover price?

It could lead to an initial free for all (so to speak) as commuters clamour to get something for nothing. But it would soon settle down, as they instead reached for their read of choice.

And this is where the issue of quality journalism rears its head again.

Bringing a paper out is one thing. Low paid bums on seats allow you to do that. Bringing out a good, wanted paper in a crowded market, well that’s another skill altogether.

When that happens, maybe we’ll discover the best things in life aren’t free after all.

Categories: Blogs, Media philosophy & trends

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