David Prosser: The capital's biggest media experiment yet


Outlook: Give the London Evening Standard its due: it is not afraid to be contrary. Just as the world's media is contemplating how to begin charging for online content, the capital's newspaper has decided to start giving away its print edition for nothing.

There is some method in its madness. The paper's owner, the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev, calculates that he can go from selling 250,000 copies each day to distributing 600,000 free papers. That gives him a more compelling sell to advertisers – classified and display – generating enough exta revenue to compensate for the lost sales and increased print costs.

Still, it is quite a gamble. For one thing, is the advertising market (still mired in recession) sufficiently strong to deliver the extra spending required, even assuming advertisers buy Mr Lebedev's argument about all those extra page views? And what will the extra circulation be worth? Advertisers do not attach the same value to readers simply handed a copy of a newspaper – many of whom may not even open it – as they do to customers who hand over their 50p.

Nor, conventional wisdom suggests, do readers entirely respect free newspapers. The Standard will have to maintain its current editorial quality in order to combat that perception, which will be difficult if cost-cutting proves necessary. Indeed, you could see how a spiral of negative feedback might develop.

Still, this is not entirely a leap of faith. Mr Lebedev has been trialling handouts of the paper ever since he bought it. And the Standard is, in its current form, a significantly better product than the freesheets that Londoners are used to, so the attitude of readers and advertisers alike may be much more positive.

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