Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The battle for free newspapers

N. introduces free paper - International Herald Tribune

We in Chennai are used to free neighbourhood newspapers like Mylapore Times, Mambalam Times, Anna Nagar Times, Adyar Times and so on. They are usually weeklies, about 8-16 pages, tabloid, usually short of news, mostly advertisements and some odd columns here and there. The useful things they have are local event diary and local advertisements.

However, in London, particularly around tube stations, a full-fledged daily newspaper called Metro is available, entirely free. When I explained this to my wife, she was quite surprised as to how such a thing was even possible.

In UK, the cost of a newspaper, in local currency is about 50p at most. For that, you will get as many as 30-40 tabloid pages. The cost of the raw material can easily be covered by the cover price, but in most cases, the effort made in collecting the money will be huge. If one can get decent advertisement revenue, then one can look at foregoing the cover price. Metro did precisely that.

Metro's content is not unique or out of the world. It is just newswire stories and photos, rehashed and neatly packaged. A team of 3-4 editorial staff can easily put that together. Metro probably does not have its own reporters to visit the scene and report directly. It does not have any exclusive columnists. The advertisement and distribution teams are probably larger than the editorial team.

But, as a newspaper, Metro is doing an adequate job, and it is free to boot.

Now, Associated Newspapers is launching an evening newspaper - also free - called London Lite. This will also be available near tube stations in London.

Simultaneously, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is also launching a free evening paper called Thelondonpaper, and will also distribute the same near the tube stations. Now, people have a choice. Which one they will subscribe to, we will have to wait and watch.

The cost of the paper in the Indian Rupee term is quite high. Even though Deccan Chronicle in Chennai and The Times of India or Hindustan Times elsewhere have tried Rs. 1 per day, they have quickly upped the price. The Hindu charges more than Rs. 3 each day. Even at Rs. 10, one can't cover the cost of the paper.

However, I can't see anyone trying out a free newspaper here. It may be possible to look at a high quality weekly magazine on a free basis, supported purely by advertisements.