Piet Bakker Gives a Quick Read on Commuter Papers

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Piet Bakker is a professor in the Department of Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam whose blog, www.newspaperinnovation.com, is the most comprehensive source of information about free newspapers around the world. He spoke with E&P Editor Mark Fitzgerald.

Q: The free newspaper phenomenon spread across the globe like wildfire in the 2000s, but now seems to be stalled. Does that sum up the state of free newspapers?

It’s even worse than that — they are declining fast. In Europe, where two-thirds of the circulation of free dailies is distributed, average circulation went down 17% in 2009, and is already down another 10% this year. In North America the situation is somewhat varied, with a stable circulation in Canada but a decline in the U.S. Latin America, however, shows growth in some countries and a stable circulation in others.

Q: And yet, aren’t free papers the most widely read dailies in a number of European nations?

Free dailies are the best-read in Denmark, Greece, France, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, while in Belgium, Estonia, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and the Netherlands a free daily is the second- or third-biggest. Being the best-read, however, is no guarantee: Nyhedsavisen in Denmark was the No. 1 paper when it went bankrupt.

Free papers are also very strong in Latin American cities such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Caracas and Santiago. But readership is often not audited for all papers, which makes it hard to come up with reliable data on those markets — something that’s true for many U.S. markets, too.

Q: Well, what about the U.S.? The big global freesheet publisher Metro gave up direct ownership of its commuter papers here, and the launch of free dailies has basically stopped.

Metro has lost money since launch in the U.S., but still has a good market presence, and it has shifted its strategy to franchising and partnership, which makes sense. Paid newspapers are losing circulation very fast in the U.S. But with your tradition of relying on advertising, a free newspaper might still be a good business model. Free papers offer a younger audience to advertisers, and newspaper advertising is still valued by the young.

Q: Can newspapers hope to convert young readers from free to their paid products?

No. I have never seen that. It has been hoped for and tried, but no proof has ever been offered that it works.

Q: So leave us with a free paper marketing and editorial success story.

Frettabladid in Iceland. In their biggest recession in history, it is still the best-read paper with 48 to 96 pages an issue, six days a week. Of course, this is a little bit of a guess on the editorial side, as my knowledge of Iceland is very limited.

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