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Print is here to stay, London newspaper says

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – London’s free newspapers are battling to survive after Covid. For Dylan Jones, he had one condition when he came out of retirement to edit the London Evening Standard: don’t shut down the physical newspaper.

The long-time former editor of the British edition of GQ magazine was hired in June, with the loss-making newspaper – owned by Evgeny Lebedev – battling to survive as Londoners work from home or stay glued to their smartphones even when commuting.

“I was adamant that I didn’t want to join an organisation that was not going to have a print component,” said Jones, 63, in an interview at the publication’s office in central London.

London’s free newspaper scene is unique. No other major global city has three free newspapers with such large circulations. Handed out and stacked up at train, bus and London Underground stations, the Standard, Metro and business-focused City AM have become staples of the daily commute, reaching close to a million people on a good day.

While Jones got his wish on keeping the print edition, the long-term future of the so-called freesheets is in doubt. Advertising has slumped, print costs have soared, home working is still elevated and people consume more news on their mobile devices. Losses are mounting and City AM narrowly avoided collapse this summer.

Now, the freesheets are racing to adapt to the new post-pandemic world. The Standard’s plan is to build up its fledgling events business and hopefully sell off a stake in it or in each of the events in future, according to interim Chief Executive Officer Rich Mead. The Evening Standard hosted three events this year – one for small businesses, a careers exhibition and a trainer convention called Sneakerness – and has more planned for 2024.

It’s a path that’s been trodden by the Guardian Media Group and Metro owner Daily Mail and General Trust Plc. Both groups have built up separate businesses such as property, events or data companies and sold off parts or all of them to fund the less profitable core news operations.

“The last three years have been pretty tough – Covid wasn’t the best time to be a title with commuters and advertising at the core of it,” said Mead in an interview.

“Every time it feels we’re getting somewhere something else has kicked in – the cost-of-living crisis, rocketing inflation.”

Dylan Jones in London on September 7. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

In the red

The Evening Standard made a pretax loss of GBP16.4 million in the year ended October 2022 and Mead said it would remain in the red this year. Circulation has fallen to about 300,000 from more than 1 million on some days before the pandemic. Staff numbers have dropped.

The publication is reliant on funding from its owner, Lebedev, who is also the largest shareholder of the online-only Independent. Lebedev, who turned the paper free in 2009 after buying it with his father Alexander, sold a 30 per cent stake in the holding company that owns the Standard in 2019 to Saudi investor Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel.

The situation at City AM was even more dire. The 18-year-old freesheet had already stopped publishing on Fridays to save costs before seeking a buyer earlier this year. Through his fitness and health business THG Plc, tycoon Matt Moulding swooped in July with a GBP1.5 million deal for the assets to prevent the paper from closing. Moulding has been critical of media coverage of his own business since THG’s shares slumped following its London listing.

THG was also an unlikely owner of a newspaper, but its MyProtein and Lookfantsastic brands do produce their own print magazines. After the deal, Moulding said in a LinkedIn post that THG’s existing media assets would bring about GBP1 million of synergies, which would help return City AM to profit from a GBP580,000 loss in 2022, according to administration documents. He said the lifestyle and sport content in the paper would fit well with THG.

Moulding has launched a new app for City AM, which had a print circulation of 65,000 in August, down from a peak of about 120,000 some years before Covid struck.

The Evening Standard’s newsroom in London, UK, on September 7. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Fewer pages

Metro, which also delivers outside London, has cut back on circulation, which at its peak before the pandemic reached 1.4 million. “That number was becoming so much bigger than anybody else, it was all almost unnecessary,” said Richard Thomson, Metro’s managing director. It has since dropped to about 1 million, with 600,000 of those in London. All three titles now produce fewer pages to cut costs.

DMGT Chairman Jonathan Harmsworth completed a GBP2.6 billion deal to take the publisher private in January 2022 and advocated for Metro to build its own dedicated commercial team to do “more interesting and innovative things” with its front page, Thomson said. A Burger King ad on the newspaper’s front page in March declared that the fast-food chain was the “home of the proper Whopper.” It was a play on a Metro headline from the previous day, when former prime minister Boris Johnson said he did not lie to parliament over parties during lockdowns in Downing Street: “Boris: They weren’t proper whoppers.”

Traditional newspapers keep journalists and the commercial departments completely separate. But the two work much more closely at Metro, according to Deborah Arthurs, Metro’s editor-in-chief. “We know the brands that they’re talking to,” she said.

The group made a GBP60 million loss last year, according to accounts filed at Companies House, but it does not break down the profitability of each title. A proposed merger of the printing operations of DMGT and News UK, the publisher of The Times and the Sun newspapers, will also save costs.

Dylan Jones, editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard, at the newspaper’s headquarters in London, UK, on September 7. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Business model

Still, industry figures argue the business model needs to change. The Evening Standard and City AM need to emulate The Spectator, a weekly conservative magazine that is currently up for sale, Christian May, the former City AM editor, said. The Spectator has invested in its events business and is profitable.

“The Spectator has done a brilliant job commercialising its brand and readership without in any way undermining its editorial credibility,” said May.

The Standard called in consultants from Science Magic to review its business. Mead said they were instrumental in a redesign of its website and mobile app.

Like Metro, the Standard’s front pages have become punchier under Jones, focusing on culture, politics, and opinion, he said. There has been a shift to making it feel more like a magazine – given most people these days know the headlines when they pick the paper up, having already read them on their smartphones.

But Jones is adamant that papers will endure. “It’s not the end of print and it never will be the end of print because if you can find a way to make print part of your multi-platform concept, you can make it work,” he said.

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