Paid-circulation newspapers have long found it useful to characterize free dailies as "down market," containing nothing but wire stories. It was a slap in the face intended to keep advertisers from trying free dailies. MediaLife Magazine, which rarely gets anything right when it comes to free dailies, has published a condescending piece saying they are suddenly trying to become quality publications -- as if they didn't care what they printed in the past.
Several things caught our attention in this ridiculous article:
- • MediaLife points to the Examiner chain's hiring of "name columnists" as proof that free dailies are improving their news coverage. OK, who are those columnists? Conservatives Bill Sammon (a Fox News regular) and Rowan Scarborough, both of whom constantly write "news stories" defending the Bush administration. They're entitled to their opinions, but they belong on the editorial page like other pundits. If hiring these Republicans is a winning "strategerie" for the Examiner, how come the chain isn't selling more ads?
• MediaLife credits Metro with convincing U.S. advertisers to buy ads in free dailies. What about the free dailies that existed before Metro entered the U.S. market in 2001? Before Metro arrived, the U.S. had more than a dozen thriving free dailies (Denver, Boulder, Vail, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Telluride, Colorado; Burlingame, San Mateo, Santa Monica and Palo Alto, California; Conway, Laconia, Berlin, N.H.). Where did those papers get their ads in all of the years before Metro blazed the trail for them? Metro just copied what these successful papers had been doing for many years, claimed they invented it, and the idiots at MediaLife don't know any better. (See June 20, 2006 article where MediaLife actually claimed that Metro brought the free daily to the U.S.)
• Then there's this appalling paragraph: "Then comes the issue of how to get that free upscale paper in people's hands. With downmarket papers, that's easy. Stick it in commuters' hands as they're boarding a train or bus." Maybe Metro or the Examiner need to "stick" their papers in people's hands, but most free dailies haven't had to force their product on anyone. To the contrary, papers like the Palo Alto Daily News have readers who walk for blocks just to get their paper.
That makes us believe that free dailies have a bright future. But that future has little to do with what Metro or the Examiner are doing today. Both are money-losing chains where high-level managers have little idea about what readers want. In the three cities where the Examiner operates, it throws papers on driveways -- and residents are furious. And Metro Boston is purchasing recycling bins for the local transit authority to help it deal with the trash problems created by discarded papers.
If you want examples of "best practices" or "successful formulas," look at those free dailies that have been making money for years. Mostly they are driven by hard hitting local news coverage. Or visit tbt* in Florida or RedEye in Chicago, which have advanced the youth-oriented free daily.
Finally, it is easy for elitists to criticize free dailies for supposedly lacking quality. But the public decides which paper succeeds. We'd rather trust the public when it comes to selecting which newspaper prevails than an elitist anyday.