Something old, something new. While loss-laden Guardian Media Group dithers over a rare opportunity to mercy-kill the venerable but decrepit Observer, News International has shown no such compunction with its own failures, in axing thelondonpaper freesheet. Sixty rather shocked staff look like being out in the cold by mid-September.
In its way, thelondonpaper had become as much of an institution as the Observer, although a rather less sympathetic one. We’ll miss, with a sigh of relief in most cases, the army of free distributors who stiffened the ranks of seasoned chuggers obstructing our route to Oxford Street bus and tube stops. London Underground won’t, however, be regretting the 10 million tonnes of paper waste it had to dispose of daily. I imagine Westminster and Camden Councils will be similarly relieved at the reduced charge on their services.
I speak of this as the end of an era (albeit only three years’ long) because surely it is. Associated Newspapers cannot take long in reaching the same conclusion about thelondonpaper’s principal rival, London Lite: that it is a waste of time and money. Which would leave the much-better established Metro as sole contender in the London freesheet market. At least it has the merit of being able to make a profit in the good years.
Freesheets looked the way of the future when they first came out; in fact they were a last-gasp reaction by beleaguered newspaper barons. Paid-for no longer paid, as the eventual fate of the Evening Standard all too clearly demonstrated. The villain of the piece was the internet in general and Google in particular. If news and comment could be had for free, then where was the justification for all those expensive reporters and columnists on mainstream publications? Freesheets appeared to dispense with these tiresome overheads, by providing a confection of cheap wire news and stale celebrity chit-chat interspersed by listings. At the same time, traditional distribution and marketing costs could be stripped to the bone. But it was fool’s gold. Display advertisers, the freesheets’ exclusive source of revenue, didn’t buy into the recycled pap of their content. The worst recession of the past 50 years has proved the freesheets’ coup de grace.
However, the immediate reason for thelondonpaper’s demise (apart from its shocking losses) probably has something to do with Rupert Murdoch’s newly espoused enthusiasm for putting all his content behind paywalls. Ideologically, thelondonpaper simply wasn’t in tune with the new gospel.
Is there a silver lining in this cloud for Alexander Lebedev’s Evening Standard – which now faces considerably reduced competition? We’ll have to see.