This is an uncomfortable confession, but here goes: I’ve stopped buying the Birmingham Mail.
Yes, that’s the title I grew up reading, spent months on as a nervous work experience teenager, sweated years on as industrial correspondent, news editor, features editor, deputy editor and editor.
Since leaving the paper in December 2009, I continued buying it every day I was in the city, even when its cover price rose to 50p a day, and 70p on Saturdays.
But from the middle of May, I was no longer willing to spend £13 or more a month buying it.
Why? Well, it’s got little to do with the price: I still happily spend hundreds of pounds a year on newsprint – nationals every day, regionals wherever I go, and three current affairs magazines by subscription.
It’s got even less to do with quality: in truth, I’m quite impressed with the Mail’s recent revamp, its higher story counts, extra columnists, modernised masthead and sensible use of some design templates.
The reason I’ve stopped buying the paper is because an exact replica is now available free of charge – yes, completely buckshee – on my iPad.
I’m owning up to my print desertion because this iPad moment deserves comment, debate and careful consideration by the industry.
iPad editions are not new, of course: The Guardian has been trying to sell me one for nearly a year, but at £9.99 a month this has not yet persuaded me to stop spending around £40 a month on the paper version.
So when I first noticed and downloaded the free Birmingham Mail iPad edition, I continued buying the printed product; but as the days went on, I quickly realised there was no point.
I had feared a catch: a free trial followed by sudden subscription demands; a plague of unwanted emails; whizzy adverts floating in and out of my screen.
But I’ve experienced no sell-on, no extra email spam and have found the facsimile adverts on the iPad screen far less intrusive than they are in print.
I can even download the Mail before my newsagent opens each morning, waking up to my local read while I sit in bed, sipping a mug of tea, with dawn birds tweeting.
Even a small fee would, I think, have dissuaded me from ‘going iPad’, but for free, zilch, zero, nothing – well, I’d be bonkers to carry on buying the paper, wouldn’t I?
And if this is the experience of a ‘Mail man’ – a former editor of the title for goodness sake, and one whose hobby is buying and hoarding newspapers – then how quickly will average readers switch once they discover it’s exactly the same, but free, on iPad?
There was no hullabaloo about the Mail’s free iPad edition, the launch quietly announced on 30 April.
“It’s free and available six days a week,” it whispered, “just search for ‘Birmingham Mail’ in the app store to get going. The Coventry Telegraph will launch later this month. We also plan to launch the Sunday Mercury later in the summer too.”
Once you get into the new e-edition, it’s not only a replica but offers more: a touch of the button producing ‘web text views’ of stories you want to read more easily, a camera icon accessing extra pictures, and a video icon providing footage.
“We think you’ll love it,” says the Mail in its blurb on the above link; and I do.
But as a ‘free’ app for users, I understand each initial download costs Trinity Mirror, the Mail’s publisher, several pounds – in addition to the £150-plus a year in lost revenue for every daily reader who stops buying the paper.
So how can it be a successful strategy to provide costly apps for nothing, and lose cover price revenue?
There’s no wealth of industry debate on this yet, perhaps because of the soft launch, although the emerging opinion seems divided.
Eagle-eyed American commentator Douglas Hebbard – who spotted the Mail’s iPad edition five days before it was announced – said the free replica was “pretty much everything I would advise against”.
Writing on his Talking New Media blog on 25 April, Douglas accepted that Trinity Mirror was “trying to save their print advertising base by boosting readership” and that “the idea is that the loss of paid subscriptions is acceptable if print production costs will go away”.
But he warned: “It is a reasonable strategy if, and only if, the ad team can then sell digital ads. Without those paid ads there is zero revenue to be found in a digital replica with no paid circulation and no new digital ads sold.”
Less critical was Tim Rowell, formerly the Daily Telegraph’s digital publisher, who reckoned the free iPad edition may succeed.
Tim’s comments on The Drum website in December were actually based on the Mirror’s free iPad edition, but are also relevant for the group’s regional roll-out.
He said while the iPad edition was “unashamedly print in approach” and would “get criticised by the digerati”, the advantage was that “it won’t cost much to produce each day”.
He argued that free subscribers would boost ABC figures and help advertising sales “across print and iPad”, which “within a market where everyone else is charging for content, may have stolen a march on direct competitors”.
Doubtless there will be more vociferous debate over free iPad editions and how they might – or might not – help salvage regional dailies with increased advertising income.
Meanwhile, as iPad ownership surges, I predict an even steeper drop in print sales in Birmingham, Coventry and any other city offering free digital editions.
I just hope any extra advertising quickly outweighs lost cover price revenues so that Trinity Mirror doesn’t have to reverse its ‘free’ strategy.
Because once they’ve stopped, it’s always damned hard to persuade readers to start buying the product again.