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Freesheet Standard sails close to the wind

LebedevOh no! Just as I thought it was safe to venture unmolested on to Oxford Street again, Alexander Lebedev announces his newspaper, the London Evening Standard, is going to become a freesheet. Cue: a fresh army of street distributors (or possibly the old ones, recycled from disbanded thelondonpaper, and soon-to-be-disbanded London Lite) jostling with the chuggers to hawk their wares as we head for the Underground entrance.

It’s  a curious one, this decision by Lebedev. He sounds a bit like first world war generalissimo Marshal Foch: “My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I am attacking.”  The Standard is clearly haemorrhaging red ink; its circulation is in tail-spin. So what does its chief do? The counter-intuitional thing: he doubles the guaranteed circulation, while at the same time writing off a £15m-a-year revenue stream. If only we could be certain Lebedev will be half as lucky as Foch.

The hope is that a 600,000 circulation will provide the mass to persuade advertisers, particularly classified advertisers, to put the Standard back on their schedules. Lebedev and his team will have been emboldened in their stratagy by the disappearance of Murdoch from the London publishing scene. It also seems highly likely that they have come to some sort of understanding with Associated Newspapers – a 25% stockholder in the Standard – over the imminent closure of the remaining competition, London Lite.

But audience volume, a competitive ratecard and uniqueness do not, I’m afraid, lead inexorably to success. Media buyers will also be interested in the quality. Ah yes, the upmarket, youthful London demographic to die for, you say. Well thelondonpaper did die for it. The fact is, thelondonpaper’s quality, largely reliant on syndicated news and B-list celebrity chit-chat, wasn’t good enough.

The danger is the Standard will go the same way. To be sure, it will start with good intentions. But the loss of revenue will have to be made up from somewhere. And that will eventually mean cutting deeply into the ranks of an expensive journalistic establishment – the very reason why readers are likely to be attracted to it in the first place. Smoke and mirrors will only deflect for so long, before the publishing model is revealed for what it is: bankrupt.

This last hurrah for freesheet publishing contrasts curiously with another story I stumbled upon: “Paid content is the only way to safeguard journalism, says Financial Times chief”.  Ceo John Ridding (for it is he) has been busy punting the online launch of the FT’s luxury magazine, How to Spend It.  More interesting are his asides on the future of newspaper publishing. “I fundamentally believe readers are willing to pay for quality journalism,” he told mediaguardian.

He may be right where the FT and other owners of “must-have content”, such as the Wall Street Journal, are concerned. I doubt the applicability of his dictum to general news. And so, clearly, does Alexander Lebedev.

In the coming year, we’re going to find out who’s right about general newspapers, Ridding or Lebedev. Because one is surely wrong. Let’s hope it’s not both.

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