Standard set to dominate London's quality paper market

LONDON - The London Evening Standard's surprise conversion to free distribution seizes an opportunity to guarantee a secure future, believes managing director Andrew Mullins.

London's three-year newspaper war resulted in News International's surrender on August 20, when it announced it would close thelondonpaper at the end of September. Speculation suggested the Standard could simply wait for Associated to fold the London Lite and paying customers would return to the 182-year-old paper.

However, by boosting its print run to 600,000 copies -- thelondonpaper distributed 500,000, the London Lite 400,000 -- and going free from next Monday, Alexander Lebedev's Standard has instead adopted the tactics of its tormentors and is gunning for the ad revenues of its paid-for national brethren.

Getting 600,000 copies of the Standard on to the streets where there were once 250,000 or fewer will make the evening paper "unavoidable on a buyer's schedule", said Andrew Mullins, The Standard's managing director.

Mullins admits that not everyone will understand the move, but claims it makes sense from the company's perspective.

Having already experimented with discounted and free copies to combat circulation falls, it saw thelondonpaper pulling out of the market as its chance to change the game.

Mullins said: "With 900,000 free papers against us every night there was no guarantee, without it costing an absolute fortune, that we could carry on going.

"This actually gives us a chance of having a guaranteed secure future because the audience will be guaranteed and it's [about] our ability to work with agencies to make sure we monetise it appropriately."

What the change of strategy means for the Lite, which was already under review, is up to DMGT's Associated Newspapers, which also publishes The Daily Mail and Metro.

The situation is complicated by Associated's 25% retained shareholding in the Standard and the deal it struck with Lebedev, whereby it prints the Standard and the Lite, under a contract that remains in place, uses its rival's content.

A senior Associated executive was informed under a confidentiality agreement about the Standard's new plan more than a month ago, due to the change in print needs and out of courtesy to a shareholder, Mullins carefully explains.

Mullins, who left The Times almost three years ago to join the fight against then new freesheets, is now readying contracts for bin distribution with Network Rail and with office owners.

He expects more distributors will be hired, though Standard vendors, who are already paid by the hour, will make up the majority. There will be individual discussions with vendors who are paid by the copy.

More than doubling current distribution, the Zone 1 and Canary Wharf areas will get 450,000 copies, with another 150,000 copies going out within the North and South circulars.

But there still won't be enough copies for everyone who wants one, says Mullins, citing the day the Standard went free for its post-Associated relaunch in May, when it distributed 850,000 copies and could have actually circulated about a million.

Mullins said: "We think to actually target the right audience and keep the profile very upmarket and affluent within London and within the cost model that we have, we'll start with 600,000.

"It's got three to four times the coverage of any other quality paper in London, so it gives us absolute size dominance in terms of audience compared to qualities in London."

While some media agencies question whether a free Standard can still command paid-for premium rates, Mullins said the issue that came up when he talked to a couple of unnamed people at media agencies was the quality of the editorial.

"[They said] as long as the paper stays quality, more numbers are really good. They don't want to be hoodwinked into paying top dollar rates for something that isn't a quality title appreciated by its readers.

"That's what we're committing to. As long as we can give their clients value, give them value and our readers like it, it should be a pretty simple exercise."

Readers won't notice any changes to the lunchtime/evening edition schedule, but they will find that Friday's glossy ES Magazine won't be available with every copy of the paper.

That's partly because the company is unwilling to waste money printing more copies of ES than the circulation advertisers have already booked for through to the end of the year. The interests of sustaining ES's upmarket reader profile mean there won't be a one-to-one match in the long term either.

Mullins said discussions will be held with agencies about how many copies of ES should go out:  "There's a credibility gap if we put too many out because they'll believe that were diluting it and they won't think that they've got the value because most of them want very upmarket readers."

So distribution of the magazine will be more restrictive, though the aim is to cater for readers desperate to get it with a helpline and deals with local retailers.

As arguably the first major newspaper in the quality sector to adopt a free distribution approach, the Standard will be under close scrutiny by the industry and its readers.

If it prospers, or even just survives, it may prove to be the first of many.

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