Experts evaluate London Evening Standard's shift to a free distribution model

Experts evaluate London Evening Standard's shift to a free distribution model

LONDON - The Evening Standard will become a free newspaper next week, after more than 150 years as a paid-for evening title.

Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who bought a 75.1% stake in the title early this year for a nominal fee of £1, said the move would more than  double the loss-making newspaper's circulation in London from 236,000 to 600,000 daily.

Gabrielle Rossetti, media manager at media agency Arena BLM, said she believes that a free quality newspaper model is ‘great news' for London-centric advertisers.

‘There is clearly an audience in London to consume the product,' she added. ‘There is a difference in the paid-for and free consumers, but this will take the Standard to a wider, younger audience.'

The Standard's decision swiftly follows the closure of News International's evening freesheet thelondonpaper after three years. Its performance failed to meet expectations, and it recorded a pre-tax loss of £12.9m in the year to 29 June 2008, on turnover of £14.1m.

Nonetheless, Katie Vanneck-Smith, managing director customer direct, News Inter-national, said the Evening Standard would not necessarily go the same way.

‘The Evening Standard is a more established brand,' she added. ‘We made the decision to shut thelondonpaper as we couldn't get the business model to stack up in the current commercial climate. The Evening Standard has been struggling on circulation, and this is its chance to get it out there more.'

The Standard's circulation has slumped from more than 400,000 copies in 2003 to 236,000 this year. In May, the paper distributed 650,000 free copies to promote its relaunch.

Its imminent switch to a freesheet has increased speculation that Associated Newspapers will close its free title  London Lite.

Associated, which retains a 24.9% stake in the Evening Standard, is tight-lipped about the title's future, but Rossetti is less so. ‘I don't think we will see Lite around in 2010,' she said.

Vanneck-Smith agreed that the Evening Standard's repositioning as a free paper would hurt London Lite if the decision was made to continue. ‘From an ad perspective, it is tough for two papers,' she added.

To differentiate itself from London Lite and compete with the nationals, the Standard will emphasise its positioning as a quality paper.

In its present incarnation, the Evening Standard is published twice-daily, and distributed as far away from London as Dover, Stevenage and Brigh­ton. However, once it becomes a freesheet, it plans to produce just one edition a day.

Distribution is therefore likely to have a stronger focus on London's commuter hot-spots, and consumers are already making pleas on the Evening Standard's website for it to continue to be available beyond Zone 1.

Vanneck-Smith also questioned whether the Evening Standard can continue to publish its popular ES Magazine, launched in 1987, for free.

In an article addressed to its readers, the paper insisted that all the daily sections - Trends, Beauty and Fashion, London Life, Film and Music - will continue to appear on the same days as they do now. ES Magazine will still be issued on a Friday, and Homes & Property on a Wednesday.

However, the Standard has told press buyers that ES Magazine will be distributed separately to centralise its distribution in upmarket areas of London.

Rossetti described this as a ‘smart move' as it will keep upmarket brands interested in the magazine, as the paper becomes mass-market.


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