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Free weeklies are ‘endangered species’ says ex-editor as old title closes

A former editor has questioned whether weekly free newspapers are becoming an “endangered species” after the closure of one of his old titles.

Richard Bowyer has lamented the loss of The Advertiser, a sister weekly to Stoke-based daily The Sentinel which he edited between July 2013 and October 2014.

Richard says The Advertiser was closed “quietly” by owner Trinity Mirror just before Christmas, a move he described on his personal blog as a “pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.”

Other free titles to have been closed by TM in recent months include the Crawley News, Luton on Sunday, the Northants Herald & Post and Milton Keynes-based title OneMK.

Sentinel Advertiser

On his blog, Richard wrote: “Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list? In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

“They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them. Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

“Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network. Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

“Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.”

Richard, now a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Derby, recalled The Advertiser was a “beast” in its heyday, with multiple editions and a distribution of up to 80,000 which brought in more than £20,000 a week.

He told HTFP: “It’s sad to see the Advertiser close, it was part of the fabric of North Staffordshire life for many years. However, newspaper businesses have to adapt to the changing media landscape. If a publication can’t make enough money or attract advertisers, then there is little alternative but to shut it down.”

“The newspaper format of throwing a variety of content at readers is not necessarily what people now want, because they are their own editors and can choose what they want to read by going online.

“The web has created this unbundling of news which is why niche publications are generally thriving, because they have a specific, targeted audience.”

Trinity Mirror has declined to comment.


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  • February 27, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Spot on points by Richard with trends emerging across the uk as once weighty free weeklies are deemed too costly to produce being thrown together in a short turn round with weak as designs and dreadful content. In an age where need and access to business is online and instant the days of 80-100+ page free sheets are drawing to an end. In Norwich the Norwich advertiser was closed overnight only to be replaced by a patchwork scrapbook content style generic content once a week free evening paper reduced in pagination so presenting needed cost savings, other free and (paid for) weeklies are also running on empty, unloved with cheap rare advertising and with dwindling readerships so they too must be at risk of closure.

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  • February 27, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Again what Trinity misses with their continual staff cutting drive and shared content push is the fact that other groups with less restrictions are picking up local circular clients that equate in profit terms to well over 10% of that figure above. Then there are national leaflets on top of that which should be a shoe in seeing as they have subbed out the whole distribution network and recruitment of delivery agents to Media Force.
    This is all with 1 member of staff selling to areas totalling up to and above 500k circulations so the returns are there still.
    Also if you are like myself in an area of West London where both Trinity and Newsquest have pulled out you would have noticed that you are on average receiving 10 circulars through Royal Mail and at least another 10 again from solus providers.
    Once again the failure of Newspapers to adapt and chase these new revenue streams,that would have supported a print network, when they all had an amazing network of staff set up on the ground already is laughable. But hey digital growth is up with minimal returns.

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  • February 27, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    It’s not only the free weeklies Richard,many of the paid for ones need urgent viability/ feasibility studies as many must be running at a loss or are being funded by other parts of the publishers business.
    If all papers were treated as individual businesses with their own cost bases and profit and loss balance sheets apportioned to them, many if not all,would face closure. Quite why the publishers continue to throw good money after bad and keep some of these dying papers going with huge costs, high staff levels and with managers galore aligned to these titles, is beyond me.
    At one time it was ,as Richard says, to ring fence the territory to prevent rival operations opening up, in today’s climate with that very unlikely to happen these once popular weekly papers are little more than vanity projects which are s drain on company funds.

    Time to review the portfolio and prune out the deadwood to reduce costs on unprofitable and poorly selling papers to protect the livelihood of the rest of the business

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  • February 27, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    Some of the free papers on the market are badly thrown together rubbish with low standards and deserve to perish. You can almost hear the editorial staff sighing with relief at their demise so they can get on with the real job of keeping the “paid for” alive.
    But in smaller companies that still care there is room for a good independent quality free paper. Some have wiped thousands off the sales of their lack-lustre paid-for rivals, using minimal staff but maximum dedication.

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  • February 27, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    I agree with Paperboy. There is no reason for a free paper to be a poor read if the owner employs enough dedicated journos. And by that, I mean staff who are both committed and are working solely for the free title.
    With a great product and a huge distribution network, such as the 400,000 we built up at the Northants Post Group (reduced by and then closed by Trinity last year) the ad team should have a far better selling story that any opposing paid-for.
    Advertising analysts maintain that ad campaigns in print are still achieving better results than those online so why don’t struggling paid-fors switch to free distribution? They have little to lose.
    In the 1980s, the slogan at an Association of Free Newspapers’ conference was: “The Future is Free”.
    It still could be. Providing the journalism is top notch.

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  • February 27, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    My local free weekly use to be really good and made a lot of money. When Local World took over, they cut staff and cut the quality and it was thrown together as cheaply as possible. When Trinity mirror took over, it was given a new design but it was the same old thrown together rubbish. Of course most of the advertiser bolted when the quality dropped.

    Companies think they are making profits but in the long term they are killing the industry, thrown in all the cheap and poor quality outsourcing and its a joke and its poor one at that.

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  • February 28, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Free papers in the main, are regarded as little more than ad grabbers ,and with so few adverts they are no longer the go to medium for all things local which puts their future in jeopardy.
    there are some decent independent free weeklies emerging and doing well but in the main the free paper has not been given the resources or level of care and attention that it should and with revenues dwindling by the week and by being left to rot over successive years it’s hard to justify continuing with some of them.
    Tony : publishers will not emplo dedicated journos for these papers at a time when good journos are being laid off or leaving, nowadays it’s all about cost saving and getting the job done on the cheap,it’s a situation that sadly will not change as we move further and further away from local papers being seen as a real presence anymore,

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  • February 28, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Weekly papers where I am are dire and dying,shafted of the beasts they once were, branch offices are being closed once the company can get out of its lease agreements and the local sales teams are working out of the head office or from home which shows how little concern there is to maintain a presence in the towns and communities these publishers claim to serve.
    It’s all about cost savings and the cheapo cheapo approaching taking money from the local towns but withdrawing its presence and thus not spending with them, result being more local traders are seeing this and pulling their ad spends.
    The glory days of the regional press and weekly free titles are long gone, nowviys all about managing decline in a dwindling market, and if the revenues are not there the publishers will likely not allow them to continue whether we like it or not

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  • February 28, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Three points to make on free newspapers, Employee X:
    1. The London Evening Standard grasped the nettle, went free and made it work with a very good journalistic product and an unmatched 900,000+ circulation.
    2. What have any of the big groups got to lose by trying the same thing with some of their own dead donkeys?
    3. A small start-up operation can still make it. Plenty of good journalists and salespeople available. Just need a bit of cash, a fair amount of bravery and the right town to make a decent living.

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  • February 28, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    I agree Tony however it’s not me that needs convincing it’s the short sighted publishers who have left these titles to rot, no longer employ the best journalists and are at tipping point for throwing good money after bad or pulling the plug
    There are many dire paid for weekly papers limping along with weak content,big sales teams high cost bases who’s only chance of survival would be to go free but the publishers seem reluctant to go this route.

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  • February 28, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    The only trouble with pushing out paids to a free handout model like the Evening Standard did is the initial cost. Right now the cost of moving titles from press to wholesaler to retailer is minuscule.
    The cost of having vehicles moving the product to locations, tracking and collecting returns and paying people for brand to hand is huge in comparasion. Added to that they will still push out the product via retailers also so that cost will still be there. The evening standard had a dedicated fleet to move the product due to its off press time which was out of hours for the wholesalers so the costing difference was less pronounced.
    That said I believe it’s a great idea. I just don’t believe the current mob we have running things will invest anything above current costing even if it may increase revenue. It’s all about cut cut cut and digital first I’m afraid.

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