The Evening Standard, the London paper given away for £1 to Alexander Lebedev 18 months ago by a despairing Mail Group when its losses were as high as £20 million, is reported to be close to making a profit.
If it keeps on its upward curve, the Standard will become the poster boy for free newspapers in the UK and throw into sharp relief the current debate over pay walls for online newspapers as exemplified by the contrasting strategies of News International and the Guardian, the former about to charge for access to the Times titles online and the latter sticking firmly to free access,
At the time of the handover the Standard’s circulation was 237,000. Lebedev increased this to 600,000 and it now has a readership of more than 1.3 million according to NRS figures for the last six months.
This makes it a contender for big display ad campaigns and increases its potential for classified advertising, all of which brings in far more money than online ads can generate. As the big newspaper groups have in turn discovered, the web is not a viable advertising medium for national media.
The key question is whether Lebedev will try the same trick with the Independent titles, the national papers he brought, again for £1. Both the daily Independent and the Sunday Independent are suffering, with tiny circulations of 195,000 and 165,000.
It’s less likely to work with a national paper as opposed to a city afternoon offering, but no doubt Rupert Murdoch and the Guardian group with be watching with keen interest, as any success by Lebedev could make life far more difficult for their print titles.