The news that the London Evening Standard is to be given away free from next Monday is mind-boggling. It will be the first time any publisher in this country has offered readers what is, after all, a pretty good newspaper for nothing. All existing freesheets are fairly downmarket, and do not have any pretensions to be complete newspapers.
It is undoubtedly a huge gamble, and Alexander Lebedev, the Russian oligarch who acquired a controlling stake in the Standard last January, has been emboldened to make it because the existing business model is well and truly smashed. He realised that, as long the paper continued as a paid-for title, it would go on haemorrhaging money. Even after several rounds of cost cutting, losses are probably running at about £15m a year.
In fact, it had already become a semi-freesheet. In August only 107,680 copies out of a distribution of 235,977 were sold at the full cover price of 50p, while 8,512 were sold at a lesser cover price, usually 10p. This means that only 49.24 per cent of copies generated any cover-price income. With such low figures, and advertising revenue having plummeted, there was no prospect of the paper approaching break-even.
The calculation is that if 600,000 copies are distributed for free, the extra advertising revenue should more than make up for the absence of circulation revenue when the expense of printing extra copies has been accounted for. Distribution will cost less if the paper is handed out, and a free product scarcely needs a marketing budget.
Of course, I don't have the faintest idea whether this new model will work, and I wonder whether Standard executives have either. They are hoping that an upmarket free newspaper will attract more revenue than a downmarket one, and they may well be making optimistic assumptions about a recovery in advertising.
A giveaway Standard would hardly have been feasible while Rupert Murdoch's thelondonpaper was being distributed. The recent closure of Murdoch's freesheet has given the Standard an unexpected opportunity. We must assume that the other, surviving freesheet in the capital, London Lite, will probably also now close. It is owned by Associated Newspapers (a subsidiary of Daily Mail and General Trust) which also owns 24.9 per cent of the London Evening Standard, having sold 75.1 per cent to Mr Lebedev. The system whereby London Lite buys editorial copy from the Standard could surely not continue with the two of them in direct competition as freesheets.
Will a free Standard succeed? It's a bit like trying to forecast whether a modestly provisioned schooner will ever touch land in the New World. I hope it will, but one cannot be sure whether advertising alone will generate enough income even with a much larger distribution. There is a delicate balance between volume and quality. A give-away Standard will need to be read in large numbers but it cannot afford to lose its upscale AB readers who attract lucrative advertising. The spectrum of readers will have to be unusually broad.
To launch the country's first quality freesheet represents a roll of the dice. All one can say is that the status quo could not continue. Another choice would have been to take the paper upmarket, turn it into a kind of classy daily financial Spectator, restrict distribution to the City and West End, and raise the cover price. That would have been risky too, though not necessarily more so. Let's hope this gamble works.
Mrs Brooks claims victory for Chipping Norton set
Whatever they may say, Gordon Brown and his cohorts are deeply upset that The Sun should have dumped them in such a way. They believe it is a victory for the Chipping Norton set, which may soon be running the country.
Readers may recall how this column celebrated the marriage between Rebekah Wade, then editor of The Sun, and Charlie Brooks, while drawing attention to the emergence of the Chipping Norton set. They share a house near the beautiful Cotswold town. Rebekah has since restyled herself Rebekah Brooks, and been promoted to chief executive of News International, the most powerful national newspaper group in Britain.
Some observers have assumed that the ditching of New Labour was orchestrated by The Sun's new editor, Dominic Mohan. Don't believe it. Certainly he was perfectly happy with the decision, but it was sanctioned by James Murdoch, chairman of News International, and Rebekah. Another key figure is the PR fixer Matthew Freud. If Rebekah is queen of the Chipping Norton set, Mr Freud, her near neighbour, is its king.
An honorary member of the Chipping Norton set is Mr Freud's close friend David Cameron, whose Witney constituency covers Chipping Norton. Mr Cameron has a very pleasant country house near Charlbury, also in his constituency. There is much tooing and froing. At Rebekah's wedding Mr Cameron greeted Mr Freud – such is their intimacy – by meeting hands with a "high fives".
The Chipping Norton set is not particularly horsy, despite the membership of the very horsy Charlie Brooks. It is a state of mind reaching beyond the relatively narrow geographical confines of Chipping Norton, and includes figures such as James Murdoch. Its forty-something members tend to be right-wing rather than Tory, and are commonly déclassé. They love money and networking, and revere the dark arts of PR. And Gordon Brown does not like them.
When cause of death is a necessary detail
Should obituaries mention the cause of death of their subjects? It depends. For example, last week The Daily Telegraph ran a splendid obituary of Squadron Leader John Pattison, DSO, DFC, a New Zealander who flew a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain. As he was 92 when he died on 11 September, the paper reasonably did not think it necessary to mention the cause of death. By the way, let me say again how invariably moving are the Telegraph's notices about servicemen who distinguished themselves in the Second World War. They are a dwindling band of heroes.
Last week The Times carried an obit of Roger Beetham, left, a former British diplomat. A caption to a picture of him mentioned that "he had died as a result of an accident on 19 September, aged 71". Surely this was an instance when the reader could legimately expect to be told how the obituarised person had died. When a person's death is unexpected, either on grounds of age or as a result of an accident, a newspaper's natural instinct should be to record its cause.