Has Freefall for Free Newspapers Stopped?

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

After closing by the dozens across the globe during the last three years, free newspapers now seem to be holding their own in 2010, says Piet Bakker (left), the  University of Amsterdam professor who is the acknowledged expert on freesheets worldwide. Check out his post, and E&P’s interview from the March print issue.

2009 was a very bad year for free newspapers – that is for the ones that closed down or suffered because of competition and the economy. In 2010, the worst seems to be behind us.

In 2007 30 titles (52 editions) closed down, a year later 33 free dailies closed (77 editions) while in 2009 no less than 42 titles (97 editions) were terminated. In the first 8 months of 2010, however, only 3 titles (4 editions) were closed. (Click on the graph for a better view.)

The development of circulation, titles and countries with free newspapers (1995-2010) was covered in a previous post.

From the March 2010 E&P:

Nobody knows freesheets like Piet Bakker

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?

A. It’s even worse than that — they are declining fast. In Europe where two-thirds of the circulation of free dailies is distributed, the 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 US. 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?

A. 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 number one 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.

A. Metro has lost money since launch in the US, 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 newspaper hope to convert young readers from free to their paid products?

A. 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 success story of a free paper marketing and editorial quality.

A. 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 Icelandic is very limited.


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