What thelondonpaper’s death means for freesheets on the web

On 18 September 2009, beloved London evening freesheet thelondonpaper folded. In its wake, London Lite remains.

While the closure is part of a larger effort by owners News International to trim the fat from their portfolio and erect paywalls around profitable titles, it also speaks to the future of freesheets on the web.

Back in April, thelondonpaper re-launched their web site. What was interesting about that was that London Lite had effectively no web site. It still doesn’t — just a ‘e-edition’. Its content is “incorporated” with morning freesheet Metro.co.uk. Looking back, one has to wonder what would have happened if the money hadn’t been sank into the web presence. Would thelondonpaper still be around?

In a comment on a Guardian article about the closure, a now-former londonpaper web developer had the following to say about the redesign:

I’ve been a freelance web developer at thelondonpaper.com for the past two years. After fighting through a huge amount of red tape, we were finally able to relaunch the badly failing launch website in April this year and have doubled our traffic within four months.

When it closed, thelondonpaper had a circulation of about 1.1 million. What we don’t know is the web stats. It’s great they doubled traffic — but what did they double?

The lesson to be learned here may be that general interest freesheets have no business expanding into the web. Other London freesheets that have web sites include Metro and City AM.

Metro qualifies as a “general interest” title, but the competition they face in the mornings is minimal — either pay for a paper, or pick up a free Metro. Also, City AM is extremely niche. There isn’t another free daily business news title that competes with it. The City AM web site isn’t very good, which is possibly intentional so to discourage web visits and drive print readership.

With thelondonpaper, News International wanted it all: a robust free print product and a robust free web site. When your product is free, losing millions every year and is often read just because it’s there, you’ve got to make a choice.

News International chose to close it down, cut their losses and move on. By the end of it, News International was so disconnected from the title they wouldn’t even entertain an offer to buy it. The brand dies with the company’s decision to close the title.

But it still makes me wonder what could have been if thelondonpaper had stayed away from the web. Had they of taken that money and instead sunk it into something else — other than a robust web presence — to set themselves apart, would the paper have survived?

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One thought on “What thelondonpaper’s death means for freesheets on the web

  1. Dave Nattriss

    Hello, it’s that Guardian commenter (‘natts’) here!

    In March 2009 we had around 2 million page impressions a month, and 4 months later we were over 4 million. Not huge, but considerably more than most sites on the web, and not bad for a local newspaper. Clearly with our new site having decent SEO and hundreds of thousands of pages (mainly due to our going out guide that generated pages from the stacks of events data that we got from PA, local information from LDC and bar/restaurant reviews from Hardens) for Google to spider, we would have expected to continue to grow at a pretty healthy rate for at least the rest of the year, given the chance.

    And by the way, the amount spent on the website was a minority of the overall running costs of the business (£9m was apparently lost in the third year of business, although possibly this may have been the overall loss of the three years with a £16+m loss in the first and then gradual gains in the second, taking the balance to £12m debt, and then the third getting up to £9m debt) – and we even came in about a third under budget (which was a lot loss than £9m!) on the website overhaul, as some of the planned features were scaled back to meet the rushed launch date imposed by the paper editor (work only started about 5 weeks prior due to problems with legal contracts with some of our service suppliers and the NI legal team not really having dealt with anything like this before).

    Another point to note was that our newspaper sub-editing process was becoming integrated with that for the website, instead of being two virtually separate systems as they were before the new site, so overall the new site was helping the company save more money.

    Metro isn’t a London freesheet, by the way, it’s national, and was launched by thelondonpaper’s editor (who went on to launch thelondonpaper)… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metro_(Associated_Metro_Limited)

    Personally I think if there had never been a London Lite, thelondonpaper would have made it a lot closer to getting into the black, as wouldn’t have had to spend a fortune on distributors and exclusivity contracts (at train stations and private estates like Canary Wharf) to get a decent distribution and readership. Metro had distributors when it first got going years ago, but was able to retire them relatively quickly as the paper became a part of people’s regular schedule and they knew they could find them in the bins at stations etc. thelondonpaper wasn’t in a position to do a similar thing in the afternoons because if they’d laid off the distributors, leaving the Lite with theirs still present, the floating readers would have taken the Lite pushed into their hands instead of hunting down thelondonpaper from a bin.

    So it was always going to be a major struggle, and after 3 years and a new overall strategy regarding the value of content, NI decided it wasn’t worth continuing (despite The Times making far bigger losses than thelondonpaper! http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard-business/article-23685727-losses-jump-17-at-murdochs-times-as-advertising-slides.do ). Apparently Murdoch had always wanted to charge 10p for thelondonpaper (but was talked around to it being free in order to maximise readership), and the new NI MD (promoted from editing The Sun) wasn’t a fan either, so not surprising they shut it down as soon as the recession took its toll on the advertising.

    Reply

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