London's Evening Standard goes from paid to free - will it work?

The announcement that London’s Evening Standard is moving from paid to free is the latest twist in London’s newspaper wars, following the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s free Londonpaper, which failed to make a quick enough return for its owner in the face of its free (but inferior) rival from the Daily Mail publisher DMGT. Now the long-established Standard, with its new Russian owner, is coming out fighting by abandoning its cover price. With many other publishers now considering going in the opposite direction (online at least), who has got it right?

Neither is an easy route for publishers, and I speak from bitter experience. A long time ago I edited a free movie magazine, distributed in cinemas, with a circulation of more than 1 million. Happy days? Not quite. It was a struggle to make a profit, once those hefty print and distribution costs had been met. The message from elusive advertisers was that readers who didn’t pay for a mag were not worth a lot, that active buyers were what they wanted.

Long story short, we shifted to a paid-for version, hoping that our newly engaged readers would please the advertisers. We ended up with a paid circulation of around 40,000 (which I know now is an eminently respectable conversion rate of 4%), but the message from advertisers was just as unhelpful. We now didn’t have enough readers. Funny that.

So it’s a slog balancing scale and yield. Today’s comments from the Evening Standard suggested that its new found scale would revitalize its classifieds, and there is a precedent, as anyone who has picked up a fat and free copy of Village Voice in New York will know (although the, ahem, colourful classifieds certainly reflect the full variety of life in the Big Apple).  So good luck to the Standard. It would be absurd if a city as large, vibrant, wealthy and diverse as London couldn’t sustain at least one evening newspaper for its millions of commuters to digest on the journey home.