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If freesheets are bubblegum, a lot of chewing is going on

Last year, executives at Associated Newspapers' flagship free title, Metro, visited BBC Breakfast News to ask for Metro to be included in its press review. But the BBC's network shows still only review paid- for titles. It is becoming hard to understand why.

On the London Underground last week, I checked passengers' reading habits. Among 29 morning rush-hour travellers 23 were reading papers. But my Independent was the only paid-for title among 21 copies of Metro and one City AM. Later on, I spotted one Sun, a Daily Telegraph and three Evening Standards among many copies of News International's thelondonpaper and Associated's London Lite. I was close to Canary Wharf, so CityAM was also prevalent.

The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) confirm my impressions. The London edition of Metro distributed 745,942 copies a day in November. Its average circulation in the six months to November was up 13.70 per cent on the equivalent period in 2006. Thelondonpaper gave out 495,950 copies and City AM gained an audited November circulation of 100,486. Metro achieved year-on-year growth in every UK region.

For people who dismiss free newspapers as mental bubblegum, such figures presage doom. The ABC figures for paid-for titles explain why. Overall circulation of red-tops fell by 0.96 per cent on the year and by 1.39 per cent since October. The popular Sundays experienced collective annual shrinkage of 2.52 per cent and mid-market Sundays fared worse, losing 4.76 per cent of their sales since November 2006.

Associated's Daily Mail stretched its lead in the daily mid-market, up 1.41 per cent since November 2006 to a daily average sale of 2.3 million. But its Sunday stablemate was down 2.69 per cent compared with November 2006 and 2.28 per cent on October 2007. Northern and Shell's Sunday Express lost 9.39 per cent of its sales year on year and 4.10 per cent since October. The Daily Express slid by 1.01 per cent on the yearly comparison and by 2.91 per cent on the month.

Sunday qualities shed 3.68 per cent on the year and 4.05 per cent on the month. Despite the efforts of political correspondents and sketch writers, Gordon Brown's travails did nothing to boost sales of their daily sisters. Sales of quality morning dailies fell by 2.81 per cent on the year and 0.90 per cent on the month.

There were individual successes. Outgoing editor Roger Alton's Observer achieved a year-on-year rise of 1.41 per cent, making it hard to understand why the Scott Trust has not begged him to stay. The Evening Standard (up 7.17 per cent) recorded an annual sales rise. The Daily Telegraph and (Glasgow) Herald managed small monthly improvements, adding 0.05 per cent and 0.93 per cent to their October circulations.

In the red-top sector The Sun, up 0.18 per cent since November 2006, kept its nose above three million in its second month at 20p. The Sunday Mirror (up 1.88 per cent) and Daily Star Sunday (up 15.72 per cent) recorded annual sales increases. But every red-top title, daily and Sunday, experienced month- on-month decline.

Structural changes in the newspaper market are not new. The abolition of stamp duty in 1855 destroyed the radical, working-class press of the Chartist era. Titles such as The Poor Man's Guardian were eclipsed by popular papers offering sensation and patriotism. Something almost as significant is happening now. In 1995 nine million Britons between the ages of 15 and 34 bought newspapers. Now only five million regularly do so. All growth is accounted for by free newspapers offering short, factual stories about celebrity, sport and lifestyle.

This raises concerns about newspapers as promoters of democracy. Free titles that downplay parliamentary politics and eschew comment can do little to hold power to account. But they encourage people to read news, and readers make use of linked websites.

BBC news programmes may overlook freesheets, but commercial media companies are beginning to see them as the best way to link print with online media. That is good for advertisers. Add politics, comment and fine writing and it can refresh journalism's value to the public sphere as well.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent