Peter Coleman: Enjoy London's free news while offer lasts

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Hardly surprising that so few in the UK pay for news, when you consider what they get for nothing (writes Peter Coleman).

Figures in the Reuters Digital News Initiative show only six per cent pay for news content, and while that proportion might grow to 20 per cent in five to ten years, I would wonder whether readers will then have the same choice.

In London after WAN-Ifra's World Publishing Expo in Berlin, I had an opportunity to catch up with London's ample free commuter press and if you don't mind the (sometimes indifferent) quality, you can't help but feel the width.

The two prime contenders - and there are others - are the Daily Mail-owned Metro and the London Evening Standard, both free, stitched tabloids and running in the 52-76 pp bracket during a week which included a much-commercialised Halloween. Wednesday's Standard had a 40 pp property pullout which brought it up to 100 pages, and a 44 pp glossy ES magazine (wrapped with another of 20 pp for the San Miguel beer brand) at the end do the week.

The clear winners here are Rupert Murdoch's Newsprinters Broxbourne outfit - which prints both tabloids on its hugely-productive line of triple-wide Colorman XXL presses - and Wyndeham Bicester which did the Standard's glossy WSOP stuff.

In Berlin the week before, Metro editor Ted Young talked with pride of the newspaper, 1.47 million copies of which are distributed at 3200 locations - including on 21,000 buses - across the UK every weekday between 5.30-9.00 am. Claiming on its masthead to be the "world's largest free newspaper" (a qualification which saves it from comparison with paid-sale ones in India and Japan), it is also the only newspaper distributed via buses as well as rail and underground stations.

It's not a deep read, with similarities to the publisher's DailyMailOnline, but that's a comparison with which Young might not be unhappy. He calls it "the point of entry" for millennials and says other newspapers envy its 18-35 readers. "We are the must-have for many young commuting workers and students," he told an Expo audience, adding that its "interactive" Metrotalk section - in which readers seek to meet up with fellow passengers they've been attracted to - is very popular.

Not that it's all print. Young says that while millennials are harsh critics of advertising - hating the hard sell of pop-ups and pre-roll ads on digital - they do like brands. "They don't mind the new instant ads located in breaking news stories, and the advertising agencies love them."

Advertising agencies apparently also like native and the variety of display formats in the print edition. Friday's copy was branded 'Matchzone' for bookmaker Ladbroke's, which accounted for eight pages of a 12-page pullout - the remainder a promotion for telco Vodaphone - and there were plenty more inside.

But in a world where truth is the new currency, "we are trusted," Young says. Making the comparison with mobile, he says the print edition is easy to read, "we provide a screenbreak, you can write on us, tear pieces out and we won't break if you sit on us - what's not to like?"

Profits are up 3.5 per cent this financial year and display revenue by 5.6 per cent in the past 12 months, and Young says the newspaper DMG Media sees as a portal will later lead millennials to spend money on obtaining news. "We are a smart newspaper in a world of smart phones so let's make them both work."

The London Evening Standard is a somewhat different proposition, taking itself seriously and reviving many of the features which distinguished the paper when it was a paid-sale broadsheet. Recent attention has been focussed on the qualifications and possible conflicts of new editor and former shadow chancellor George Osborne, whose main claim to journalistic fame was as a contributor to the Telegraph's Peterborough column.

Meanwhile former Russian former spy Alexander Lebedev - about whom much has been written since he bought the Standard for £1 (about $1.72) - has been rearranging his publishing investments, and was being talked of last month as a possible buyer for Metro.

Last year he ceased print publication of the Independent, and sold i, its clever compact 'child', to Johnston Press, another national publisher suffering from falling print advertising and problems with monetising digital. i is not free, but at 50 pence (86 cents) for a sometimes hefty tabloid - rival Trinity Mirror gets to print this one - not bad value.

As I flew on to Asia after the Expo, some of the UK papers were speculating about the role Norwegian "former dotcom wonder" Christen Ager-Hanssen might have in Johnston's future.

It seems a long time since the canny Scottish publisher of the Falkirk Herald - which Archibald Johnston bought a year after its 1845 foundation - set off on the growth phase which has led to it becoming one of the UK's biggest publishers.

Ager-Hanssen has already accumulated 12.6 per cent of the quoted company - which also owns the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post - having entered the newspaper publishing industry in February with the £4.6 million purchase of Swedish Metro with Mats Qviberg. Despite his net worth having fallen from a reported £1.9 billion to "£50-70 million" today, he is also reported to have looked at bidding for the British version.

Ager-Hanssen wants to be "the next Murdoch for the new age of newspapers," he says in an emotional but generally uncomplimentary interview in the Sunday Telegraph. He offers a fight for survival at a time when he claims Johnston - with £220 million in bond debt to repay by next June - "has little left to lose". Describing himself to reporter Christopher Williams as having "a passion for the impossible", he sees newspapers' future in developing new online businesses which monetise data, as "advertising is dead".

However, later reports say a snag could be a bondholder agreement clause which requires the debt to be repaid before three or more new directors could be appointed.

The Reuters Digital News Initiative's figure of six per cent of people paying for news in the UK is seen as likely to rise to nine per cent "at some point in the future".

But with The Sun having dropped its paywall, the Guardian free online and international titles such as the New York Times and the Washington Post looking for growth overseas, it's hard to imagine that being any time soon.

with Maggie Coleman

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