Thursday, August 24, 2006

Free dailies shock traditional dailies

The Economist's online edition has a lengthy article about the problems facing the newspaper industry and what moves might make sense on the Internet. It's all stuff we've heard before. But the last four paragraphs of this special report sum up nicely what's happening in the world of free dailies. Those four paragraphs follow:

    The most shocking development for traditional newspapers has been the wild success of free dailies, which like the internet have proved enormously popular with young people. Roughly 28m copies of free newspapers are now printed daily, according to Metro International, a Swedish firm that pioneered them in 1995. In markets where they are published, they account for 8% of daily circulation on average, according to iMedia. That share is rising. In Europe they make up 16% of daily circulation. Metro calculates that it spends half the proportion of its total costs on editorial that paid-for papers do. In practice that means a freesheet with a circulation of about 100,000 employing 20 journalists, whereas a paid-for paper would have around 180. Metro's papers reach young, affluent readers and are even able to charge a premium for advertising in some markets compared with paid-for papers.

    “The biggest enemy of paid-for newspapers is time,” says Pelle Törnberg, Metro's chief executive. Mr Törnberg says the only way that paid-for papers will prosper is by becoming more specialised, raising their prices and investing in better editorial. People read freesheets in their millions, on the other hand, because Metro and others reach them on their journey to work, when they have time to read, and spare them the hassle of having to hand over change to a newsagent.

    Some traditional newspaper firms dismiss free papers, saying they are not profitable. Carlo De Benedetti, chairman of Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso, publisher of la Repubblica, for instance, says that Metro loses money in Italy and that other freesheets are struggling. Globally, however, Metro has just become profitable.

    Consultants say that lots of traditional newspaper companies are planning to hold their noses and launch free dailies. In France, for instance, Le Monde is planning a new free daily, and Mr Murdoch's News International is preparing a new free afternoon paper for London, to be launched next month. Deciding whether or not to start a freesheet, indeed, perfectly encapsulates the unpalatable choice that faces the paid-for newspaper industry today as it attempts to find a future for itself. Over the next few years it must decide whether to compromise on its notion of “fine journalism” and take a more innovative, more businesslike approach — or risk becoming a beautiful old museum piece.