The Reading Room

Free newspapers fight back

Free daily newspapers trace their history back to the 1940s when in Walnut Creek, California publisher Dean Lesher began what is widely believed to be the first free daily, now known as the Contra Costa Times. Outside the US it didn’t really take off until 1995 when Metro started what may be the first free daily newspaper distributed through public transport in Stockholm, Sweden. Later, Metro launched free papers all over the world from Chile to Korea.

In the UK, the Daily Mail and General Trust group launched its own edition of Metro in London in 1999, effectively beating Metro International to the London market. The paper now has 13 editions across the country and a combined readership of 1.7 million.

There has been an exponential growth in free newspapers around the world since 1995 culminating in 2008 where there were 266 free papers published in 60 countries with a total average circulation of 42 million. But then the bubble burst. In 2009 and 2010 the number of countries dropped to 55, while the number of papers is less than 200 in July 2010. Circulation is now 35 million. As online advertizing budgets crushed print advertising budgets some predicted that the freebie business model was dead.

However, Piet Bakker, the indefatigable chronicler of free newspapers across the globe has brought some fresh evidence suggesting that freebies have still got some life left yet. He recently posted that he believes that “the worst seems to be behind us” in terms of freesheet closures. Here’s his evidence. In 2007, 30 titles (52 editions) closed down. In 2008, 33 free dailies closed (77 editions). In 2009, 42 titles (97 editions) were terminated. But, in the first eight months of this year, only three titles (four editions) have been closed. What remains is a situation with less papers per market (3.6 per country), which is a more healthy model than in 2007 and 2008 (4.7 per country). It seems some kind of equilibrium in the market has been reached. At least for now… PS

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