When the Evening Standard announced plans to become a freesheet, News Corporation's chief, James Murdoch, was most likely sitting in his walled world of Wapping wondering why anyone would take such a gamble.
He had tried the London freesheet model and failed, announcing just weeks earlier that thelondonpaper would close. The publication had reported a pre-tax loss of £12.91m in the year to 29 June 2008 on turnover of £14.1m.
Murdoch Jr would have had every right to be puzzled. The evening freesheet business model as it currently stands is not exactly lucrative.
I was sceptical when I heard Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev's latest news, as I sat on a train with the daily freesheet Metro in hand. After all, the buzzword these days is ‘pay walls'. Just ask Rupert Murdoch, Sir Martin Sorrell and most of the world's key media gurus.
Sacrificing £12m of cover price revenue and increasing costs by more than doubling circulation initially seems a recipe for disaster. Yet having sat back, spoken to industry experts and extracted more gossip on what the Lebedev camp was thinking, it begins to make more sense.
The switch is a gamble, but it is a risk worth taking when one considers that, in August, just 107,680 copies of the Evening Standard a day were being sold at full price. Such miserable circulation revenues are worth sacrificing for the additional ad revenues that increasing circulation to 600,000-plus will bring. Ad prices can feasibly be increased by 50% on this rise in circulation.
As long as the newspaper keeps its quality and Lebedev does not slash scores of jobs, the free Standard stands a chance. Job cuts are reportedly intended, but it is crucial that Lebedev does not lose sight of his original agenda for the 182-year-old title - to create an upmarket evening read focused on London events, arts and culture - if he wants to create an attractive proposition for advertisers.
However, the Standard's best chance of success is centred on selecting a new distribution model. The evening freesheet should expand its focus beyond the commuter. Househusbands and housewives in affluent suburbs must also be targeted, as they often make family buying decisions and are a key target for advertisers.
The Evening Standard is rumoured to be in talks with retailers, such as WH Smith, to distribute the title in the high streets of the posher London suburbs, but there is a wealth of other possible distribution channels. A copy could accompany your Ocado or Amazon delivery, or be available when you visit Starbucks or Marks & Spencer.
The quality of the paid-for edition must be accompanied by equal quality of distribution. Holding onto the old vendors, some of whom have been in their jobs for 50 years, is key. These people are part of the Standard's identity and personality. Customers must also be handed a paper at store check-outs; leaving the title to be picked up from a bucket is not good enough.
Another reason for having distribution channels in suburban locations is to get copies into the home, to be read by the whole family.
With an instant circulation rise to 600,000 and possible further increases if the suburban model proves popular, the free Standard should be a more interesting proposition for advertisers than the paid-for model. However, it must ensure that effective distribution channels are in place, and that this move is not viewed by Lebedev simply as an opportunity to slash costs.
Amanda Andrews is media editor at The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and telegraph.co.uk
30 seconds on the Evening Standard
- The newspaper was launched in 1827. It gained eminence through the quality of its foreign reporting, most notably on events such as the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870).
- It publishes two editions each weekday, excluding bank holidays: the News Extra from 11am and the West End Final at 3pm, which is updated through the afternoon.
- The Evening Standard was relaunched in May, accompanied by an ad campaign featuring the word ‘Sorry' and the distribution of 650,000 free copies.
- It has run the annual Evening Standard Awards for films, theatrical productions and pubs since 1955. The awards were established by the newspaper's former owner, Lord Beaverbrook.
- In January, Alexander Lebedev purchased a 75.1% share in the Standard for £1.
- Its editor is Geordie Greig, who has held the position since February. Past incumbents include Veronica Wadley and Charles Wintour.
- Freesheet London Lite was originally a free supplement to the Standard, called Standard Lite and aimed at young women.