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.


  1. the global currency prices, means that ith 50p cover charges can be recovered , raw marterials are still priced at thrid world prices.

    going by that price, hindu should charge 20-30 rupees per day, at Rs 3 it is cheap :)

  2. By the way, check out a beautiful article in one the recent issues of The Economist where the future of the print media is discussed in detail.

    The general feeling is that the the times to come may belong to free newspapers as TV and internet will begin to dominate even more.

    In this context, it is pertinent to point out Talk publications in Chennai is creating a major shake-up. Almost all the important areas are covered by them and is becoming a voice for local issues. It is very relevant even as journalism, as we know it, begins to change. Perhaps, it is the way to the future.

  3. Badri,
    Singapore has one similar free English daily (http://www.todayonline.com) and one other free Chinese daily. These are pretty popular with people on the move (especially the PMEB segment and those who take public transport).

    Most of the articles in such papers are directly lifted from Reuters, AFP etc. Local content is covered by in house journalists. What is seriously lacking is the absence of editorials and opinion pieces. It is good for a 10 minute read for someone travelling on London Underground or Singapore's MRT but might not satisfy the serious reader.

    This concept may not work in India as greedy hawkers / vendors and distributors might hoard them and dispose it off in waste paper mart.

  4. Thanks Badri for touching on our newspapers.
    For almost a decade ( the first of our newspapers role dout in 1993), most people I met wondered how one could run free newspapers.
    Today, they don't.
    I believe that people have begun to accept the papers as a part of their lives.
    It wont be long before free dailies arrive in India.
    The shocking levels of 'under cutting' that has gone on and continues to dominate the Indian newspapers market may well provide the right climate for any enterprising publisher / startup to launch a Metro paper.

    Mumbai, Chennai, Madurai - bustling centres where people are on the move, are places which will glady receive free papers at all transport nodes.
    You can in an hour or so circulate up to 100,000 papers.

    We are extremely happy that our model has been copied/emulated in many parts of the country. Sadly, most upstarts are keen to roll in the bucks and see this as a quick business opportunity.

  5. You get what you pay for. For Rs.3 the Hindu is still a much better paper than Deccan Chronicle and Indian Express, if you can tolerate its Mullatwa-Marxism. Dinamalar at Rs.4 is the best paper in Tamil. The Talk group and the Mylapore Times etc. are supplementary news outlets, not primary ones. You can get free 14" TVs or pricey Rs.50K LCD TVs. Which would you watch cricket on?

    We get the governments we deserve. Chief Minister's salary is Rs.15K per month! What a joke! So all our political parties have become mini East India Companies, looting massively. If we get free newspapers, even more subsidized by ads than now, we will have even more crap as news. Look at our party-funded TV news channels or even "Dumb news for Dumb People" English news channels. Free! Crappy! But yes, it will be popular. And it will create a new minority class of better read, better informed people and a literate, educated but uninformed majority who'll pay for their ignorance. Unfortunately society as a whole will pay, too.

  6. Similarly we have '7 Days' in Dubai which is free, circulated across all households in Dubai.
    Prabhu, Dubai

  7. They are usually weeklies, about 8-16 pages, tabloid, usually short of news, mostly advertisements and some odd columns here and there.

    They are tabloid as far as the form factor goes. But they often far more guts than regular papers an pay for that as well. I blogged about it once:


    As you said, the papers are very useful.

  8. There is a similar newspaper called The Week in Oman too, which is free!
    Agencies scramble for ad space!