Bill Hagerty On The Press

Will people pay to read news they've already seen for free?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it comes to putting money where its mouth is, Associated Newspapers is not known for tossing some loose change in among the molars. Rather, the instruction "open wide" has only to pass its lips for celebratory champagne to be uncorked at Securicor.

When it comes to putting money where its mouth is, Associated Newspapers is not known for tossing some loose change in among the molars. Rather, the instruction "open wide" has only to pass its lips for celebratory champagne to be uncorked at Securicor.

Certainly the investment required to fund ES Lite, the new London Evening Standard giveaway edition due to be launched tomorrow, is of the order that keeps company accountants awake at night - not just because of the size of wad that has been produced from the hip pocket, but also the nature of the venture it is financing. Propping up an ailing title by distributing, ultimately, 100,000 or so free copies sounds like a scheme dreamt up by Fred Karno.

There are those among my friends in Kensington who believe Lord Rothermere would be better off placing the money on the nose of an outsider in the first race at Plumpton. Others - self-confessed cynics, I should add - are convinced that Standard Lite is no more than an expensive smokescreen to cloak the transformation of London's only evening newspaper into an afternoon freesheet produced frugally, similar to the same company's morning Metro.

The last time I wrote about the Standard, editor Veronica Wadley was cross that I had not checked with her some information I had obtained. On this occasion, I did telephone her office and my call was returned by the paper's public relations consultant, who took great pains to present Lite as a bold publishing initiative and totally to refute any sinister motive.

What he told me corresponded with the message that leaked from a closed meeting of newspaper vendors at London's Connaught Rooms that very day. Detailed research had identified 1,200,000 people working in central London, half of whom, mainly women, regularly leave their premises at lunchtime, and most of whom do not buy the Evening Standard. That figures - the paid-for paper has lost 7.91 per cent of its circulation sales over the past year, and is bought by only one-in-25 Londoners.

So Associated hot-shot Martin Clarke was drafted in from The Mail on Sunday to produce dummies of a 48-page edition, lighter in tone and with a keener feminine perspective than the regular Standard, that will go "off-stone" at 9.45 each morning and be distributed by street vendors - they'll get £20 a day for their trouble - in targeted areas. At 2.30pm, Lite will magically be removed from the streets and normal Standard service will be resumed at 40p per copy.

The theory is that those who enjoy Lite will at the end of their working day pay for a copy of the full-blown paper, together with one of the supplements that will not come with the free edition. It takes a giant leap of faith, I think, to envisage a sizeable number that think the Standard is so good they'll read it twice, but as the Audit Bureau of Circulations has agreed for copies distributed free to be included in the Standard's overall sales figure, Associated and the paper's advertisers will be content if the new edition finds a substantial audience - Lite could boost sales from 381,000 to around half a million.

Veronica Wadley's explanation of its rationale to members of staff included the suggestion that the paid-for editions of the paper will be positioned slightly more upmarket, in order to establish clear water between them and their frippery-dominated, under-resourced sister. This, and claims of annual copy sales revenues of £20m, has pacified those who feared a long slide to freesheet purgatory.

It was stressed to me that Ms Wadley, not Martin Clarke, remains editor of all editions of the Standard. Only soaraway success for newspaper publishing's latest Big Idea will make that a permanency.

Redressing ethnic parity is complex

A recent Society of Editors survey highlighted the huge gulf between the ethnic minority population of the country and the tiny numbers by which it is represented in newsrooms. Papers are attempting to redress the balance, but an address to an NUJ/MediaWise conference on Journalism and Public Trust by the Muslim journalist Fareena Alam illustrated just how fraught an area this is.

Alam, the managing editor of Q-News, explains that the hurdles Muslim journalists need to jump are situated in a two-way street. Yes, some non-ethnic newspaper editors do pigeonhole ethnic minority reporters and expect them largely to concentrate on ethnic-issue stories. And, yes, much coverage of the Muslim community is clichéd - "it's not enough to report only on terrorism, ritual slaughter and the headscarf," she says.

But the Muslim community does not help itself by demanding that Muslim journalists "serve the cause of Islam" by extolling the virtues of the faith and ignoring any shortcomings, she believes. Blaming the media for all ills, from traffic jams to terrorism - hardly the sole prerogative of Muslims, of course - only conveniently removes from the community all responsibility for the way it is perceived from outside. "Muslims have the right to demand that the media be fair, but we must also be open to scrutiny, even when it is uncomfortable," she says. A very wise woman, and one to whom editors and other Muslims should listen most carefully.