A daily bulletin of news & opinion

18 September 2009

Barring the 11th-hour arrival of a press baron in shining armour, tonight will see the team of purple-shirted paper-pushers take their final bow: freesheet, The London Paper is closing. All across London its distribution team will try one final time to thrust the paper into young commuters’ hands while its smug competitors from London Lite look on.

It’s three years since the two rival evening freesheets made their debut. The London Paper owned by Rupert Murdoch disappears having reached a daily distribution figure of 500,000; its rival stays on with a slimmer daily total of 400,000. Murdoch’s News International has pulled the plug in the face of falling advertising revenues, an annual loss of £12.9m in the year to 19 June 2008 and a change in direction for the corporation’s media model – Rupert and his son James are focusing their attention on paid-for content and are hoping to defend their share of the diminishing UK newspaper market in the form of The Times and The Sun. Lord Rothermere, owner of London Lite’s publisher, Associated, now has a clear field.

But apart from his Lordship, and the team of 60 staff, and the purple distribution crew, will anyone lament the passing of The London Paper? Certainly not the London Underground staff who had to pick up thousands upon thousands of the papers, or it seems the people needed to make this project work, the advertisers.

It’s not that the paper was truly awful (perversely that title goes to the survivor, London Lite), indeed it made a good stab at providing its 18 to 35 audience with a diet of condensed news, celebrity gossip, sport and bracing columns such as “Gay Girl About Town”. It’s just that in the current media climate, nobody seems sure about the future of the freesheet or how to make it work.

As “news” papers they are all atrocious. The revenue they generate and the three-stops-and-I’m-home commuter audience they are aimed at just can’t sustain (and don’t want) journalism. If you want to know whether the FTSE went up you are not going to read a freesheet, if you want to know which pop tartlet’s knickers went down then maybe you are. But even here you start to wonder. When the 18-year-old has sneaked a peek at Kanye West’s outburst on YouTube at work and even laughed at Obama’s “Jackass” comment before they’ve left the office, do they really care about seeing the story printed on paper in the evening?

The newspaper consultant and designer extraordinaire Mario García certainly doesn’t think so. He says that increasingly people will look at this type of content on their phones. For him the only survival strategy for the freesheet – around the world – is to employ outspoken blogger generation commentators who can develop strong personalities for the papers and turn casual readers into followers (and this, in part, has been The London Paper’s ambition). But it sounds like a very messy transition for the freesheet and even then I won’t be rushing to get one in my hand.

What’s been especially grim about London’s two freesheets’ circulation war is the way it’s dragged others into their vision of the news and how to present it. The paid-for evening paper, The Evening Standard, has been redesigned to look more like a freesheet and it can’t have been a happy period for magazines such as Time Out to see so much content being dished out for nothing.

Today there are too many media models sashaying along the publishing catwalk, many destined to topple off the end of the runway. One thing is clear, however, Murdoch’s born-again evangelism for charged-for content is a good thing. Good news costs and it’s time people started paying for it.


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