Frank, Fearless, Free and Readable

IN Media Practice | 28/08/2005
Frank, Fearless, Free and Readable




Freebie dailies are not new but their growing popularity is. Globally they target niche groups and are cutting into the circulation of established newspapers.



Dasu Krishnamoorty


In the few minutes I waited for my daughter at the 42nd Street subway in Manhattan, I collected three, free newspapers: the very prestigious, alternative weekly the Village Voice, Metro International (New York) and AM New York. As America’s first alternative newsweekly, the Voice has a tradition of no-holds-barred reporting and criticism that began fifty years ago with Norman Mailer as one of its founders. The Voice is America’s largest circulated weekly. Metro is a global daily published all over the world by the Swedish group Metro International. These free newspapers may be free but they are not dispensable. They are no less readable than mainstream dailies and overflow with ads. Metro and its other clones are not just city newspapers but bring you news from all over the world.


Freebies such as these agitate American newspapers owners when they meet every year to mourn their falling circulations. First, they blamed cable TV. Next, they found fault with the internet, followed by restrictions on telemarketing. (Telemarketing had helped newspapers grab 60-65 per cent of their home delivery subscribers. After federal curbs, that figure, too, is fast dwindling.) Now, they think that the new termites eating into their circulations are free newspapers. Some experts maintain that another reason for falling readers could be that newspapers have not been serving or paying attention to young Hispanic and Asian groups.


Free newspapers are not new but their popularity and ubiquity are. There have been free newspapers in several parts of the world, including Australia, where the earliest such paper appeared in 1906. But the appearance of Metro International made free newspapers a popular and worldwide phenomenon. As a matter of fact, we cannot discuss free newspapers without the constant of Metro International. It has 46 editions in Europe, eight in the Americas and three in Asia. Their worldwide circulation is 16.8 million. Clearly, Metro is the market leader. Other FNPs (free newspapers) modelled after the Metro reach 10 million people and are browsed by 35 million readers. Metro focuses on local, national and international news, lifestyle, technology, media, sports, movies and celebrities.


The Swedish example inspired many others to repeat its success. Among them is the Norwegian publisher Schibsted which prints 20 Minutes from Switzerland, Spain and France. Despite setbacks in Germany and Italy, Schibsted built up a circulation of 2 million in these countries. 20 Minutes, which is third largest newspaper in France, is a free, high quality newspaper concept targeting morning commuters in major urban areas. Its name, 20 Minutes, refers to the average time that European commuters spend in public transport every working day. Published every weekday, 20 Minutes claims to fill an empty time-slot in the media consumption habits of active, urban people. The newspaper gives its readers an update and overview of the most important news and is a useful guide to urban life. It reaches more than 5.3 million people five days a week. Its readers are mainly young urban citizens.


In Europe, Australia, Asia and the Americas, free newspapers have come to stay and thrive. They, however, are not as real a threat as paid-for newspapers pretend they are. The content mix and reader demographics of these FNPs are such that one can describe them as different and parallel. They generally circulate in metros and in areas where there is a high density of sojourners. They are generally available at shopping centres, campuses, groceries, restaurants, busy traffic intersections, near subways and railway stations. Their readers are younger people whose reading preferences are certainly different from those who buy, say the New York Times or the Washington Post. Many free newspapers, including the Metro International, assert that their readers are always below 40 years.


The situation in the US is not really scary because one-third of US newspapers are still selling more copies than ever. They include the New York Times that has increased its national reach.  Though there is a slide in the Wall Street Journal’s circulation, it could be the result of a 23 per cent hike in its price. But on the other hand the circulation of USA TODAY’s remains steady despite a 50 per cent hike in price.


Currently mainstream newspapers in the US are rattled by Denver billionaire, and owner of the country’s largest movie chain, Philip Anschutz’s, plans to launch free newspapers from 69 cities where he has already registered the Examiner trademark. He is now publishing the Washington Examiner, a free tabloid that has begun to compete with the Washington Post for middle and upper income readers.  His paper reaches the front lawns and doorsteps of 260,000 readers across the greater Washington D.C. area. If this experiment is successful, Anschutz will repeat it in 68 other cities. "This is the biggest development in the newspaper business since the launch of USA TODAY," says Washington Examiner editor John Wilpers.


There is a rethink among bigger newspapers in the US about FNPs. The New York Times recently bid for a 49 per cent stake for $ 16.5 million in the Boston Metro, though it has run into an anti-trust snag. Early this year the Knight-Ridder group bared its plans to launch a free daily from every town where it has a newspaper to play the role of an appetizer to its flagship publications by tempting the iPod generation to pick up a newspaper. The Tribune media company has launched free newspapers in Chicago and New York. According to the Guardian (UK), the New York Times is launching a free tabloid weekly called the MarketPlace Weekly. London is likely to see a free business tabloid called the London Business Daily that, according to BBC News, will compete with the Financial Times. London itself has a Metro owned by the Associated Newspapers and in no way related to the Metro International of the Swedish group. Rupert Murdoch has a free daily mx [IS THE NAME RIGHT?] in Melbourne.


The logic of globalization should bring FNPs to Indian metros very soon.  The Swedish Metro that has editions in Korea, Hong Kong and China also may do it or offer franchises to Indian entrepreneurs. India has some free newspapers that are not freely available. Of course, there are no free dailies. The few weeklies that are in circulation in city suburbs and small towns are generally available only on request. In a handful of towns, one may see a very crudely printed pull-out carrying community news of no import but surviving on court notices and government ads. Though there are always readers who both grab a free paper and also buy a regular newspaper, their number can never overtake that of the freeloaders.


It is surprising why no entrepreneur or a big newspaper in India has thought of launching a free tabloid daily that is different in content and focus from the mainstream newspapers. Even distribution will be no problem because groceries, shops and restaurants readily come forward to distribute FNPs because while it costs them nothing it will increase the number of visitors lured by free copies. When we go to a grocer, we generally prefer one who stocks free newspapers. Even at regular prices, the income from sales for mainstream newspapers is a small fraction of the income from advertisements. In the US, the ad income-sales revenue ratio is $3.57: 0.57. Just as the New York Times is planning to bring out a free newspaper, both English and language newspapers in India can launch free newspapers that will add to their revenues from advertisements and also reach the public that cannot buy a newspaper.  


How do free papers make money, asks Adam Smith of the Time magazine and answers it himself by saying, "By aggregating enough eyeballs - generally young and urban - to lure advertisers." Strategy advisor to the World Association of Newspapers, Jim Chisholm says, "With clear ability to capture the attention of audiences across the world and to satisfy the needs of an increasing band of advertisers, free newspapers are not only creating a new market segment but are also beginning to sustain the value of reading. And nobody should argue with that." What is important is that FNPs foster the reading habit that in the end will help paid-for newspapers.

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