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Free daily newspapers

Regional daily newspapers were once proud to sell 100% of their copies. Today, the London Evening Standard is totally free, and other big city dailies are starting to give thousands away. Steve Dyson reports.

Steve Dyson

Posted on: 19 March 2014

Once upon a time, free daily newspapers were scorned by the ‘established’ regional press, none more so than in my hometown of Birmingham.

It was in the late autumn of 1984 that local entrepreneur Chris Bullivant launched the Birmingham Daily News, Europe's first free daily newspaper – although its frequency was actually four days a week, Tuesday to Friday.

It was pushed through more than a quarter of a million letterboxes in Britain’s second city, causing something of a stir for the Iliffe family of publishers, the then owners of the city’s paid-for dailies – the Birmingham Post (now a weekly) and the Evening Mail (now the overnight Birmingham Mail).

At the time, I was studying for my A-levels, and as a would-be journalist, I’d hungrily devour the Daily News on the upper deck of the number 45 bus going into town for lectures at Matthew Boulton Technical College.

It was good competition in a thriving newspaper market, I thought. But years later, at the Evening Mail, I learned how much the Daily News was loathed for the way it had eaten into the paid-for paper’s readership and advertising income.

While some circulation figures were notoriously miscounted in the 1980s, when I first arrived in the Evening Mail’s newsroom in 1989 it was reputedly selling 201,000 copies a day, and long-in-the-tooth hacks were bitter at how this had been slashed from 350,000 by the “crap free” Daily News.

By 1991, a recession had hit advertising so badly that Reed Regional Newspapers, who’d taken over the free daily, relaunched it as the free weekly Metro News, targeting the Sunday Mercury’s market instead of the Evening Mail’s. But the damage was done – and the idea of running a free daily was out there.

Eight years later, in 1999, with a Swedish publisher first dabbling in Newcastle and then threatening to launch a daily free across the UK, the Daily Mail’s owner DMG Media launched Metro, its own free daily. This title chased the Swedes away, and now circulates on the trains, buses and trams of Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Sheffield, mostly in partnerships between DMG and regional publishers.

The decline in paid-for circulation

Despite all that fuss, paid-for daily regional titles until recently maintained that their cover prices would always make them better value, and apart from a few ill-fated bulk ventures in the 1990s, they proudly insisted on aiming for, and often achieving, 100% actively purchased sales.

In this cleaned up mode, containing no give-aways, here’s just a few of the big regionals’ daily average sales figures from ten years ago: Wolverhampton’s Express & Star, 157,783; the Manchester Evening News, 141,737; the Liverpool Echo, 129,681; the Birmingham Evening Mail, 96,143; the Belfast Telegraph, 94,540; and Glasgow’s Evening Times, 91,693.

Now compare those 2004 figures to the same papers’ circulations in 2013: Express & Star, 43% down at 90,612; Manchester Evening News, 51% down at 69,347; Liverpool Echo, 46% down at 70,133; Birmingham Mail, 60% down at 38,491; Belfast Telegraph, 48% down at 49,228; and the Evening Times, 57% down at 39,234.

Between them, these big city dailies’ figures have dropped by an average of 51% in less than a decade, and this comparison is even more acute if you look at the number of free copies now included in some of their certificates from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The hybrid

The first to make a free move was the Manchester Evening News in 2006, then owned by the Guardian Media Group, initially giving the paper away five days a week in the city centre, while still selling it in the suburbs. This experiment was soon felt to be too much, too soon, and with newsprint costs spiralling – and the apocryphal story of penny-pinching OAPs taking it in turns to bus into the city centre to pick up copies for neighbours – this was refined to free city centre pick-ups on just two days a week from 2009.

But this still meant that an average of just 63% of Manchester Evening News copies were actively purchased at full price in 2013, with 37% recorded as free pick-up copies. Manchester’s very public departure from pure sales has since been tried out by other regional dailies, their publishers seemingly hoping that a proportion of free papers can help overall circulations not to drop too low to attract advertisers’ revenue.

Looking at the 2013 ABC figures in detail, just 77% of Belfast Telegraphs were sold at full price, with 18% free pick-ups and 5% bulks; just 81% of Birmingham Mails were sold, with 19% free pick-ups; and even at the Express & Star – the UK’s biggest selling regional daily – what was a near 100% actively-purchased figure in 2004 slipped to 91% in 2013, with 9% recorded as free letterbox delivery.

This trend is not yet a strategy across the sector: to name just two, the Liverpool Echo’s 70,133 and the Glasgow Evening Times’ 39,234 circulations were still 100% actively purchased in 2013, and that’s still the case in most other UK cities. But regional publishers everywhere will be analysing the results of those dailies who have started to give away increasing numbers of copies that they were once determined to sell at full price.

Trinity Mirror now owns both the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Mail, and is the biggest regional player in free daily copies.

Mark Hollinshead, Trinity Mirror’s chief operating officer, told InPublishing: “The hybrid model plays an important part of the publishing mix for both the Manchester Evening News and Birmingham Mail. It’s all about optimising the strength of those brands by developing new audiences, improving engagement and increasing response for advertisers.”

Trinity Mirror extended this hybrid model to its smaller Cardiff morning title, The Western Mail, in March 2013, where 11% of 22,854 daily copies are now also free, the majority in the neighbouring city of Swansea.

In a message to readers at the time, editor Alan Edmunds honestly positioned the Swansea move as a mass sample: “Welcome to your national newspaper of Wales – free in Swansea city centre every Thursday and Friday… Please enjoy this edition of your national newspaper with our compliments and make sure you plug into Wales with the Western Mail every day.”

Keith Harrison, editor of the Express & Star, published by MNA Media, told InPublishing: “We stopped publication of two of our free [weekly] titles, the Stafford Chronicle and the Kidderminster Chronicle, and replaced them with free ultra-local editions of the Express & Star.

“This gives readers a comprehensive round-up of their local news in those areas, as well as a sample of the daily with its regular columnists and features. As well as these editorial benefits, there’s a production cost saving and advertisers have responded well to being featured in targeted editions of our prestigious daily title.”

Another senior figure from the regional press, who asked not to be identified, said his group also had a policy of “mixing it up”, with a lot of free “samples” distributed to universities for students and lecturers, and to some big businesses.

This experienced source said he had “no worries” about these frees, which research showed were “well read and that’s all I care about”. Interestingly, he pointed out that while the newspaper industry “knock ourselves dead” over frees, its figures were impressively transparent when compared to the way TV and radio measure its audience, which he claimed was “so unscientific it’s unbelievable”.

The Standard model

One newspaper that might be providing a peek into the future of big city dailies is the London Evening Standard, which back in 2004 was selling as many as 395,090 copies a day at full price, but by 2009 – with both the Metro and City AM available free to commuters – had fallen to as low as 210,901.

In January 2009, Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev purchased the Standard from DMG Media, and by October that year, turned it into a 100% free paper with a circulation of nearly 700,000 in 2013, with plans to reach 900,000 later this year by expanding into outer London suburbs.

Using the Standard as an example has always been tricky: while it only distributes in London, many regionals think of it as more of a national than a regional. But its transformation from paid-for to free has been remarkably quick, and with a distribution now set to be more than four times what it was in 2009, it’s now London’s market leader again and an attractive medium for advertisers.

And advertising has always been the big button for regional publishers: as a myriad of distractions headed by the internet hits the copy sales of big city dailies, they are tempted to offer a more attractive critical mass by gradually turning free.

With daily titles in Manchester, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff and Wolverhampton no longer being too fussy about 100% sales, and slowly increasing their frees, it might not be too long before one of them takes the full plunge.

As my senior source added: “The industry is too hung up on all this. Just get your paper under readers’ noses, get them interested and get your advertisers a response, and then who cares about anything else?”

As various big city dailies dip their toes in the free market, there are a number of different models on trial:

* Belfast Telegraph: More than 9,000 free pick-ups are available Monday to Friday, and more than 6,000 on Saturdays.

* Birmingham Mail: Nearly 36,000 copies are available as free pick-ups in the city centre on Fridays, with around 1,750 given away on other weekdays, and 1,400 on Saturdays.

* Manchester Evening News: Around 80,000 copies are available as free pick-ups in the city centre every Thursday and Friday.

* The Western Mail in Cardiff: More than 8,000 copies are available as free pick-ups every Thursday and Friday – 5,000 of them in neighbouring Swansea.

* Wolverhampton’s Express & Star: Nearly 47,000 copies are delivered free to households in the Kidderminster and Stafford areas every Thursday.

* London Evening Standard: Nearly 700,000 copies are available as free pick-ups Monday to Friday from central city, tube and railway station locations, with plans to extend this to 900,000 copies through to zone 6 and into all 32 London boroughs in 2014.

About Steve Dyson
(Details last updated: 25 May 2017)

Steve Dyson is a freelance editor and journalist, working as a media consultant and trainer via Dyson Media. He also creates courses and exams for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, and is associate director of ASAP PR. Dyson is a former editor of the Birmingham Mail and The Gazette, Teesside.

Tel: 0781 800 4575

Email: Send a message to this author

Website: www.dysonmedia.co.uk

Twitter: @stevedyson

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