A free Standard may be the first of many frees

If you re-read Media Week's interview with London Evening Standard proprietor Alexander Lebedev from a few months ago (28 July, page 10) there were some strong hints that the Russian oligarch was seriously considering taking the Standard fully free.

Steve Barrett is editor of Media Week
Steve Barrett is editor of Media Week

He referenced a "world trend with the internet and free news­papers to make money from advertising rather than direct sales" and the inconvenience of "getting 50 pence out of your pocket". These portents were confirmed last Friday, when it was announced that the Standard will be fully free from next Monday (12 October).

The Standard has done well with its selective free distribution around theatre-land and central London Tube stations after 7.30pm. People take and read the papers and tend to keep them when they get off their Tube, train or bus.

Lebedev also noted that, for him, running a newspaper isn't a business in the sense that it is for competitors such as News International and Associated Newspapers. He is a very rich man and sees owning a newspaper as an influencing tool, rather than a profit-maker.

That is just as well. Eschewing around £75,000 a day in cover revenue and the extra cost of distributing 600,000 copies rather than 250,000 will require newly installed ad director Jon O'Donnell to work harder than ever to attract advertisers.

And a free Standard is likely to precede numerous related developments in the newspaper market if rumours are to be believed. The future of the London Lite is still unclear, with some saying Associated is simply waiting a decent interval from thelondonpaper closing to follow suit, or that it is on the verge of selling it to Lebedev, who will in turn shut it down. Others say Associated and News International are set to embark on a joint venture on Associated's morning freesheet Metro, to avoid cutting each other's throats over the Transport for London free newspaper Tube contract. And some still think The Independent will eventually end up under Lebedev's wing.

Paper costs are up 22% year on year. Ad revenue is suffering the harshest recession in living memory. It is no surprise newspaper companies are considering all their options to keep their business models tenable.

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