The Manchester Evening News, one of the country’s biggest regional evening newspapers, is to distribute free of charge in Manchester city centre.
The rest of the industry will be watching to assess the impact of the move, already being labelled one of the great turning points in the history of the regional press.
Bosses say the change will shore up circulation and allow better forward planning.
The decision was made in response to the downturn in the economy and shifts in advertising income.
There will be a daily distribution of 50,000 copies to offices, newsagents and also by hand in the heart of the city centre in the middle section of each weekday.
It will take the circulation up to 180,000 copies a day, as it taps into the 150,000 commuter population, making it the largest regional daily newspaper in the UK.
The existing MEN Lite edition, launched in November 2004 to distribute 10,000 copies each weekday to outbound commuters from the city centre, will close. Lite’s first readership research showed that the title was read by 80 per cent ABC1 audience and achieved an average readership time of 24 minutes.
Guardian Media Group regional division chief executive Mark Dodson said: “Evening newspapers have been in full circulation decline for over 40 years.
“After a long period of reflection we have decided to use the lessons we have learned from Metro and MEN Lite and take a more radical approach to the problem.
“We want to take control of our future and believe that a part free, part paid MEN is the future for this great newspaper.”
Editor Paul Horrocks added: “Every newspaper needs volume and every newspaper is struggling with a decline in ABC figures.
“We have already shown that a real and valuable market exists with the test of our Lite edition last year. It has given us the confidence to go for a bigger and more bold free model in the city centre. Lite’s readership was young, upmarket and rarely bought a newspaper.
“We have proved that their loyal readership exists and we plan to develop this with the enhanced offer of a MEN providing all of our readers with the same service of news and information throughout the day.”
He anticipated that journalists as well as advertising would reap the benefits, with stories more widely read, as long as editorial independence and editorial ratios were not cut.
The distribution of the city centre copies starts at the beginning of May and will run each weekday. ABC auditing will put the MEN in the bulk sales category alongside Associated’s UK Metro, which will show clearly if the new strategy is paying off.
Steve Auckland of UK Metro said: “The move by the MEN, I believe, will be seen as one of the great turning points in the history of the regional press. It gives a great opportunity for real growth in circulation and in advertising revenue for the long-term. It also attracts a new market to regional newspapers which in the future will have a significant impact on the business.”
The Manchester Evening News is due to relaunch in June to take advantage of new colour possibilities from a new press.
There are more than 40 media products available from the owners of the Manchester Evening News, which was founded in 1868. These include the paid-for evening paper, the free evening, a paid-for Sunday, eight paid-for weeklies, 12 free weeklies, seven niche publications, 21 websites and a television channel.
The company announced in February that it was cutting 27 editorial posts – more than a fifth of the total – as part of changes “to thrive in a digital future”. Features and news subs’ desks are being merged.
Paul Horrocks said: “This plan has been in the making for six months and is not a response to anyone but a response to the continuing erosion of circulation.”