Newspapers: The Future is Free, the Future is Broke

The future is free. The future is broke. The Record’s decision to make its PM edition free may solve the short-term needs of Trinity Mirror, but it marks a black day for the newspaper industry.

Dropping the 15p charge on the evening paper (and let’s not forget the free chocolate bar handed-out with each copy as a desperate bid to win readers) brings the Record stable in line with London rivals. The English capital has two evening freebies, produced by Associated and News International, who print paid-for morning papers.

As such, the move seems right: it is fashionable and in step with the industry. It sweats existing resources such as sales departments and printing presses a bit harder in the interests of winning a larger readership. It recognises that modern news content relies heavily on
TV/showbiz and sport, which are relatively cheap to cover. It removes the power of the punter – this is a product you get handed for free, so there’s no cash decision to make between, say, buying the Record or the Sun or nothing at all. These reasons make newspaper managers happy.

Reasons to be miserable are also many. A public inundated with free papers (the Metro in the morning, PM for the way home) is going to be less likely to buy a daily rag. If that worries hacks, then consider the jobs on offer in an industry geared to freesheets; processing wire copy, reheating celebrity gossip and getting the TV listings right are the mainstays of
this new world. Journalistic standards, good writing, imaginative commissions, and room for freelancers, will all be squeezed.

What happens though to these freesheets when advertisers continue their steady drift over to the new media? Who pays for reheated PA news then? Let us be clear what the message is: papers are being given away because not enough people want them. That is the real crisis. Free papers appear to overcome it, when, in fact, none of the underlying reasons behind this
change are addressed: people don’t have time for papers; they have other sources of news; the advertising revenue is drying up.

Free sheets may rain down on us like ticker tape, but this parade celebrates the death of an industry, not a new beginning.

Alex Bell