Sunday, 31 May 2009

Free Newspapers - the beginning of the End? Kent on Sunday Charges 90 pence

Oh how I love Sunday mornings! A long, lingering breakfast with a pot of fresh coffee, lashings of toast and the Sunday papers.
I usually buy the Sunday Times, which costs two pounds. It’s quite a lot, but I justify it because there’s so much to read; all those supplements!
Oh, I nearly forgot! When I’m in the newsagents I always pick up a copy of the Kent on Sunday newspaper as well. I like the way it’s laid out, it has some interesting bits and pieces and best of all; it’s free.
Or at least it was until today.
This morning the newsagent didn’t have any Kent on Sunday’s in stock. “They’re charging ninety pence each for them”! He told me in an astonished and bitter voice. “I told them to get lost” he added.
Clearly he’d not been given any warning of this price hike and was not amused.
At first I didn’t believe him. Why would a newspaper that had built a successful business and large readership on the basis of giving away 100,000 free newspapers suddenly start charging? And if they did start charging, why a whopping ninety pence? Why not ten pence or twenty pence?
So I set off to Morrisons. Surely they’d have some copies. To my surprise they didn’t either! The man on the till told me, “We haven’t got any because they’re charging ninety pence for them. People aren’t going to pay that are they”?
Intrigued, when I got home I went onto the Kent on Sunday’s website. No mention of the ninety pence charge here. But you can view a copy of the latest edition online and when I did, by zooming into the mast head there it was;
A deeper trawl of the internet revealed a short article on the website of the UK Press Gazette (the newspaper industry journal). It says that the Kent on Sunday is moving to a “part-paid and part-free” business model.
The reason apparently is the recession and the fact that KOS Media’s advertising revenues have been badly hit. So does this have implications for the hundreds of other free newspapers in the UK and elsewhere? KOS Media thinks it does.
The UKPG quotes KOS Media’s Managing Director Paul Stannard as saying, “As with any media company, if in the next four to five years we see the market decline at the same rate it has in the past six months, then everybody will be looking at their business model”.
This is an astonishing development.
For the last decade we have witnessed a deepening crisis in the newspaper industry. The Daily Telegraph for example has seen sales decline more than 18% over the last five years.
In the US it’s even worse. Readership is down by more than 30% and titles, including famous ones, are closing down. And then came the recession which has taken a baseball bat to newspapers’ advertising revenue.
But this decline has been partly offset by the dramatic rise and apparent success of free newspapers.
London for example is awash with them. It’s hard to get off a train without having the London Metro, the London Lite or thelondonpaper shoved into your hands. And the success of the freebies has had a punishing impact on paid titles like the London Evening Standard, which recently re-launched in a desperate bid to revive its flagging sales.
The free newspaper model appeared so successful that when a major survey of newspaper editors was carried out in 2008 it found most were convinced that free papers would eventually replace paid for ones all together.
The "Newsroom Barometer," conducted for the World Editors Forum (WEF) and Reuters found that a majority of editors (56 per cent) “believed news in the future will be free, up from 48 per cent from last year’s survey”.
The general mood was summed up by Ian Clark, general manager of News International Free Newspapers which publishes thelondonpaper (one of London’s free dailies). "Free papers are reversing the trend for decline in the paid-for sector," he said.
So are the problems at the Kent On Sunday a one-off, or a sign of a more widespread problem?
Sadly for the industry, it looks like the latter.
Recently the Financial Times reported that, “Not long ago, freesheets were seen as the nemesis of the paid-for newspaper. Now it seems at least as likely that the free newspaper model will be the first to fail”.
The article reported how “In the UK, Trinity Mirror and the rival Johnston Press, which between them publish around 230 freesheets, have both released dismal results. While Metro International, the world's largest publisher of free papers, has admitted it has breached debt covenants and did not have sufficient working capital for the next 12 months”.
And this is what makes my experience at the newsagents all the more profound. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the free newspaper revolution? The death of free newspapers? And if so, what is the significance to an industry which is already in crisis?
Graham Majin is Head of Video Production and Video Marketing at Kent Video production company Kersh Media

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