Jens Torpe: Throw them away if you want to, but free papers are the talk of the town

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The Independent Online

Jens Torpe complains that rival newspaper executives have labelled him a "pirate" for threatening to capsize the world of paid-for papers. If that's true, the 56-year-old chief executive of City AM, a free London business paper, finds himself in swashbucklingly good company.

Tomorrow, Rupert Murdoch's News International will launch thelondonpaper, a free afternoon newspaper for the capital, with a print run of 400,000. Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, has got its response in early, with last week's launch of London Lite, another freebie to sit beside its daily Metro and go head-to-head with its new rival.

Torpe reckons there may be room in the market for both London Lite and thelondonpaper. But the new entrants do not really bother him, as his paper is aimed at a City, not a general, readership. The biggest worry for City AM, whose first birthday is this week, is whether either of the two papers' launch parties will clash with its anniversary drinks reception.

It has taken the world a while to get used to the idea of giving newspapers away, admits Torpe, who throughout the interview sucks snus (tobacco pouches that are popular in Sweden, though banned in the UK).

In 1999, Torpe became chief operating officer of the Swedish group Metro International (not related to Associated Newspapers'Metro), which pioneered the free paper model by launching dozens of titles globally.

Intending to replicate his former company's success, he moved to the UK last year to co-found City AM, whose main investor is Boudewijn Poelmann, the chairman of the Dutch lottery and founder of the English-language Moscow Times.

"I have taken the journey," he says in City AM's London Bridge offices, "from where freesheets were unknown, and when [in] each and every country they did not want to know about it."

The idea of relying on advertising revenue alone to make a profit was initially met with disbelief in the newspaper industry. Hostility soon followed. Free newspapers became the scapegoat for the falling circulations of paid-for papers, and some newspaper executives - and journalists - looked down on them.

"There used to be a little bit of snobbery," Torpe recalls. "The word 'freesheet' was a little bit contaminated in the Nineties. Traditional newspapers are held in high esteem. There is the tendency to see us almost as pirates, coming in and shattering the old world. But opinions have changed a lot."

Not that free newspapers are welcomed with open arms by those working for paid-for titles. Some journalists at the Evening Standard bemoaned the launch of Standard Lite two years ago, fearing their stories would be devalued by appearing in it. This slimmed-down free version of the Standard is now being replaced by London Lite.

However, all but the most die-hard now accept that free papers are here to stay. Torpe does not say it, but while some newspaper executives may have seen him as a threat, he seems to believe he has done them a favour. He points out gleefully that this week, with the launch of the two new freebies, the total circulation of newspapers in the UK will rise in one fell swoop for the first time in over 15 years.

Rather than threaten the established industry, he says, free papers could actually arrest the apparently terminal decline in most paid-for newspapers' circulations. "I'm the contrary of being a pirate. So many people are going back to reading news on printed papers. Everybody should be happy."

Only 13 per cent of City commuters have read the Financial Times, The Times or The Daily Telegraph by the time they arrive at the station nearest their place of work, according to research commissioned by City AM, he notes. This makes a large potential market for his paper, which is handed out at Tube and train stations in the City and Docklands.

"There is a generation of young people who do not have the same daily rhythm of parents sitting at the breakfast table reading the papers," says Torpe. "In the longer run, we are bringing a new generation into newspapers who had virtually given up [on them]."

City AM, which Torpe claims is on track to become profitable in its second year, had an audited daily circulation of 88,000 for July. By the end of the year, he hopes, that figure will have hit 100,000, which would take it above the paid-for UK circulation of the FT, the City's bible. When the suggestion is put to him that many copies of City AM are thrown into a bin seconds after they've been handed out, he looks hurt.

In some parts of London, stacks of copies are simply left outside train stations with no one to hand them out. "I don't know about that. Maybe they're picked up later," Torpe suggests. Are these counted in City AM's audited figures? He replies that all distributors must sign to confirm the number of copies that are physically put into people's hands. So does this mean City AM's impressive figures rely in part on the honesty of those giving them out? He answers that this is equally the case for distributors of paid-for newspapers, who must sign off the numbers of unsold copies returned by newsagents. "Are returns counted exactly - is it correct?"

For advertisers - and they're the ones who count - an audited reader of a free newspaper is worth just as much as a reader of a paid-for title, he points out. "Metro did a lot of groundwork. That debate was finalised when we entered [the market]."

And because City AM's readership is an affluent one (a survey commissioned by the paper found readers had an average salary of £77,000), it can charge advertisers a premium.

In response to the accusation that free papers provide only a brief round-up of the news and so do not invest in journalism in the way that paid-for titles do, he argues that young people prefer shorter articles, anyway. And everyone likes the idea of reading a daily paper. "People want to have the feeling they have been briefed and are up to date."

Torpe's Viking ancestors did not just pillage coastal areas of Europe hundreds of years ago, they settled peacefully in established towns and villages across the Continent. In the same way, he believes free papers can co-exist happily beside paid-for ones. And if Torpe is a modern-day newspaper pirate, then so are Rupert Murdoch and the Rothermere family, owners of the Daily Mail.

BORN 10 February 1950.

EDUCATION BA and MBA from the Aarhus School of Business, Denmark.


1977-78: head of research at the Politiken newspaper group, Copenhagen.

1978-84: sales manager and director, Politiken.

1984-92: marketing director, Politiken.

1992-96: managing director, TV3 Broadcasting, Denmark.

1997-98: president, TV3.

1999-2004: chief operating officer, Metro International, Sweden.

2005 to now: chief executive, City AM.