Alexander Lebedev’s decision to transform the London Evening Standard into a free newspaper from 12 October is certainly a contrarian one. It comes at a time when significant sections of the industry, notably Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the Financial Times, are determined to develop new forms of paid-for journalism and shortly after the closure of one of the Standard’s free-sheet rivals, the London Paper.
With London Lite, whose whole raison d’être was to take on Murdoch’s London Paper, poised to suffer an early death, it was thought the Standard would be free to recoup the readers and advertisers who had migrated elsewhere. Instead, the Russian oligarch has surprised us all.
Lebedev’s willingess to forgo £15m worth of income from the cover price is based on the optimistic assumption that ad revenue will eventually return to previous heights. The decision to increase the paper’s distribution from 250,000 to 600,000 copies a day will assist this cause but it remains an unreliable gamble.
Yet the implications of the Standard’s decision stretch far beyond the London market. If the paper maintains something close to its present quality it is likely that many readers will abandon their national titles of choice. Lebedev’s bold declaration that “the London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow” suggests that the Independent would become a free title if ever he acquired it. A paper with the Standard’s history and prestige that is prepared to market itself aggressively represents a potent threat to the future of several national titles.