Peter Cole on The Press: Who, where and when: free papers are aiming high

Targeted freebies are bringing in a readership the advertisers like
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The Independent Online

Glasgow, Manchester and London in the space of three days. Glasgow PM, the "lite" afternoon version of the morning paper, the Daily Record, has a front page in which "This paper costs just 15p" is half the page deep. You get a bar of chocolate as well.

Central Manchester is a mist of yellow as distributors of the Manchester Evening News present copies of the free MEN. And on to the capital, which has lost none of the intensity of the launch days of London Lite and thelondonpaper.

It is hard to connect this all too visible forest of newspapers with the prevailing sentiment that news in print on paper is on the way out. As wakes go, this one is Irish in its upbeat celebration of life. We've never seen so many papers, in the street, on the buses and trains. What's going on?

Inevitably, and particularly in London where the media village is always excitable, conclusions are being drawn far too early and hysteria dominates. Opinion is led by those in the business of paid-for (paid-rather-more-for in recent weeks) newspapers who take the view that free must mean worse. They are more excited by the personalities and the competition than by the cool realities of the balance sheet and the business model.

But there is not necessarily a quality link to low price, full price or free. Neither low price nor full price is an absolute or accurate term. Other factors come into play, such as the cost of the DVD, wallchart or other marketing device. And frees are not free, just as the NHS is not free; they are simply free at the point of delivery. There are two sources of revenue for newspapers, advertising and sales, and frees remove only the latter.

One of the most knowledgeable people in this area is Steve Auckland, the managing director of Associated Newspapers' Metro series of free newspapers, who is now also involved in London Lite. He is not a member of the newspaper doom faction because Metro has been a success, distributing 1.15 million copies in 13 British cities - including 575,000 copies in London - and making profits of £10m a year.

Auckland says we must get away from the old view of free newspapers, the ones that came uninvited through the letter-box. Now we are talking about papers that require a decision on the part of the reader to take the copy from the person handing it out or from the station bin. They are, in the jargon, actively acquired. Measurement is every bit as meaningful as that of paid-for copies: the numbers going out and the numbers left over are counted and independently audited.

So it is not a question of pushing out copies and claiming this figure as the circulation. That would not convince advertisers, who would then not pay much for advertising. They want to know who they are reaching. The reason Metro is a success is that it reaches what Auckland calls a "pure" (accurately defined) audience of young (18-34) working ABC1 readers. That appeals to advertisers selling, for example, telecoms products.

Metro has an advantage the new London afternoon papers lack: it comes out at the "first media hit of the day", so readers get it before going into offices where they can surf the internet to follow up advertisements. "Right place, right time, right audience" is the mantra for the frees.

Paul Horrocks, the editor of the Manchester Evening News, is distributing free in the centre of the city an identical newspaper to the one selling for 35p in the outer areas. But he is distributing 60,000 free where he was previously selling 7,000 copies. Again, the case is that he is reaching the "right" readers. Auckland believes this is the best model and other evening papers will follow suit.

Newspapers, the paid-for variety, have always been about accurately targeting particular groups of readers. Free newspapers care every bit as much about targeting, so they are not so very different from the paid-fors. Except that it makes the advertisers even more influential. And if you are not in a group that interests the advertisers, you are unlikely to be served.