Are free newspapers dead and buried? As Trinity Mirror newspaper managers ‘quietly’ close another title, is there a future for the poor old free ‘rag’

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The Sentinel Advertiser is one of a number of free newspapers which have bitten the dust in recent months.

Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list?

In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them.

Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network.

Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.

Quietly, before Christmas, one of my old newspaper’s, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, closed its free newspaper, The Advertiser.

A bit of a pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.

This newspaper was a beast at its pomp with multiple editions and a vast distribution, up to 80,000, if my memory serves me right.

It took the title from the original Sentinel newspaper which used to be called the Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser — which hit the streets on January 7, 1854.

As I remember, it used to bring in more than £20,000 a week but slumped to around £5,000.

Its death knell was sounded long before it finally closed with distribution slashed without hardly a word to anyone outside the building.

When they first started, free papers had their own staff, but as time and cost-savings gripped the industry they were put together by the same staff as the main paper, as an after-thought.

While I was at The Sentinel , the Advertiser was reinvented on at least three occasions. It used to be full of all the local stories the news editor didn’t fancy.

Then an edict from on high went out from Northcliffe HQ that the newspapers had to be filled with the best of the stories from the paid-for title.

This sent editors into despair. Already under fire from falling circulations and the demands of the internet, the free paper was now in direct conflict with the main title.

But this idea quickly hit the rocks and the next reincarnation came when it was decided that free newspapers should just have trivia and gossip with little or no real local content.

I redesigned The Advertiser into a modern ‘i-style’ newspaper with a load of short gossip stories, no real leads, big pictures and wall-to-wall trivia.

Editors sighed collectively, no more local content and one of the thorns in their circulation woes removed.

At another time, withdrawing your border control newspaper would be tantamount to letting a rival onto your patch.

But these closures just keep coming, Trinity Mirror  recently announced closures and merges of four free newspapers.

Trinity Mirror is not a lone in closing titles. Research by the Media Reform Coalition and the Press Gazette showed that Newsquest, Johnston, Archant and Tindle have all been forced to close titles.

Some of the closures have been due to mergers and having two titles on one patch when only one is required, some others have been due to cost-cutting because the title wasn’t making enough cash.

Since 2005, 198 newspaper titles have perished.  It’s not all bad news, a snap-shot by the Press Gazette shows that in 2015, 46 local and regional newspapers closed with 29 opening, a net loss of 17.

Despite the fact that some people have the guts to set up a new title, the feeling is that you don’t really need a free newspaper to protect your daily because you would need blind optimism to set up a newspaper in these troubling times.

On the other hand, a niche magazine might work nicely, but that’s for another discussion.

So, does this mean the free newspaper is dead? Far from it.

The endangered species tend to be those attached to a bigger paid-for title or in an area where a takeover has happened and multiple titles from the same group are fighting over the same ground.

Soon, when cover price fails to bring in a good chunk of the profit like it did for newspapers such as The Sentinel, the inevitability is that paid for titles will follow the path of some newspapers and become free or part-free.

The London Standard is already free and papers like the Manchester News are free at certain times of week, many other papers are in a similar position.

Just check out the ABC sales figures and look at the last column which shows actively purchased sales, or the percentage of pure sale, for example, the MEN is just over 56 per cent.

Others will follow this trend as the cover price income drifts into oblivion.

It has been interesting to watch the cover price philosophy of late. I have always believed that newspapers have been too cheap.

This meant there was a culture of keeping the lid on the price and rises were one or two pence at a time.

Now, as circulation drops off, the newspaper groups in their wisdom have kept hiking the prices up. The policy seems somewhat flawed.

If a product is doing well, add a few pence on and hope sales are not hit too hard. Now the policy seems destined to bleed the paper dry, whack up the price, and watch the sales decrease at a faster rate.

The cocktail for decline is greater than just everyone is going online. Higher prices, poorer distribution, cheaper paper, poor print quality, far fewer staff, fewer editions have all helped to stick the knife in.

But whisper it quietly, despite the decline, guess where most of the cash comes from? Yep, print…for now.

P.S Did you see the study by Munich and City University academic Neil Thurman which describes how online readers spend 30 seconds a day on the national newspaper web sites compared with 40 minutes in print.

This is surely the reason advertisers will never spend the same amount of cash online as they do in newspapers, they simply have the audience for longer in print.

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