The cost of free: What's wrong with free dailies

Free daily newspapers may provide easily acquired basic news and information for free, but the social, political, journalistic and other costs are too high to overlook. From limited original content and lack of investigative journalism to environmental impact, everything is sacrificed for the maximisation of profits.


Quick is bad

When Associated Newspapers' London Lite and News International's The London Paper were launched in London in 2006, with 'colourful' designs and an 'upbeat' attitude, many commentators and observers were quick to level charges against the free papers, often contrasting them against the Evening Standard's 'serious' journalism. When the Standard went free, many also lamented that it had "gone downmarket". Few were honest, or brave, enough to point out that very similar criticisms could be levelled at almost all Fleet Street titles, even the so-called 'quality papers'.

To attract occasional readers (mostly commuters), free dailies like the Metro have created an editorial profile based on short stories designed for a quick read (up to 20 minutes, the estimated time of a tube or bus trip in big cities). These papers typically provide the latest celebrity and entertainment 'news', peppered with a selection of national and international headline stories, which are mainly sourced from news wires and PR agencies. Similarly, images and other visuals are also sourced from third-parties.

A typical issue of the UK Metro, for instance, combines collapsed versions of high- and low-brow stories that attempt to please a wide range of audiences. The news headlines - a mixture of political, social and crime stories squeezed into 4 or 5 of the 72 pages – try to shock and attract, but are often less sensationalist than many tabloids (the Sun, say). The Evening Standard (64 pages) has traditionally had an 'upwardly mobile accent', with a focus on 'glamour' and the rich and famous of London. This is most evident in the free glossy lifestyle magazine, ES, that accompanies the paper on Fridays. City AM (32 pages) has a more specifically defined readership (bankers and City workers) and reflects that outlook quite faithfully, but still shares the model of "sound-bite journalism," as one of the Metro's early editors, Tim Jotischky, described his then paper. The same can be said about most regional free papers.

On the defensive, free paper editors and chief executives tend to refuse accusations of 'dumbing down.' In 2006, the head of Associated Newspapers' free newspapers division, Steve Auckland, told the BBC: “It actually requires a lot of skill to produce short copy, to write four paragraphs instead of 12 and still capture the essence of the story.” That might be true to some extent but does not tell us anything about the lack of investigative journalism and original content. The key word is 'copy' not 'short'. As one journalist, Don Berry, put it, “The Metros... are great processors of available news; they are not in the business of digging out the difficult stuff.”


Are paid-for papers any better?

In 2005, a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that reading the whole of Metro, a reader would probably know as much about the world as from reading the first (news) section of any national daily. Indeed, most free dailies do an acceptable job of providing an overview of current affairs compared to many tabloids. Some, such as the Metro and 20 Minuten, actually have more local news than most national papers, and often do a better job of providing local entertainment and life-style material, sports and listings.

This does not mean, of course, that free dailies are doing an adequate job. Rather, it means that paid-for newspapers have become so bad that a free paper, with far fewer journalists and editors and a much lower budget, can compete with them and threaten their readership and advertising base. The 'death of journalism' cannot be blamed on free dailies alone. In fact, instead of emphasising and competing on the basis of what distinguishes them (investigations, in-depth analysis, commentary), most mainstream newspapers opted for 'tabloidisation', pioneered in the UK in 2003 by the Independent. Free papers display more acutely problems with the commercial mainstream press, and their 'success' has only brought paid-for papers closer to this profit-driven model. The transformation of news into mere packaging and marketing of information has simply become more visible and grotesque with free papers.


PR agencies

The reasons behind the shift in editorial emphasis to lifestyle and consumer journalism, particularly in the 1980s, were mainly economic rather than cultural or generational, as it is sometimes claimed. In increasingly tight and competitive markets, the concern of newspapers' owners was on filling pages with as little cost as possible. Much more reliant upon advertising revenues, this was taken even further by free papers. When Associated Newspapers launched its first Metro in London, the paper had only 35 journalistic staff, compared to 250 at the then paid-for Evening Standard. Investigative journalism, in-depth analysis and other costly exercises such as foreign correspondents all went out with the staff, replaced by a heavy reliance on third-party material.

In November 2010, the editorial director of Trinity Mirror regionals, Neil Benson, told the Society of Editors conference that, to look for new money, regionals should move into PR and do marketing on behalf of their clients: “People who work in the regional press know what it takes to hit the spot in terms of press releases. So why shouldn't all regional publishers think about launching arm's-length PR agencies or a full-service agency?” What Benson did not say is that much of what is presented as news today already does that.


Readers or consumers?

Studies of time consumption patterns across the world show a steady reduction in reading time, which started with the introduction of TV in the 1960s and culminated with the advance of the Internet in the late 1990s. This, coupled with a loss of trust in deteriorating mainstream journalism, has led many people to stop seeing newspapers as their main source of news and information. Efforts to make newspapers more accessible so as to attract younger or less-well-educated readers have often been translated into oversimplification of complex issues. Free paper editors often seem to equate youth interests with entertainment and celebrity news. Similar assumptions underlie much of the material dedicated to woman readers, who are assumed to be only interested in fashion, cosmetic products and keeping 'fit'.

In addition to content changes, free papers have tried to attract readers by changing aspects of the format, making it more flashy, clumsy and messy. The underlying assumption has been that this will attract younger generations who are not habitual newspaper readers. However, studies (for example among Belgian students) have shown that young readers do not actually like flashy layouts that stress format over content, but prefer to be taken seriously and treated like adults.

The stereotyping often applied to 'youth' and 'women's' content is a consequence of prioritising the needs of advertisers to create and maintain easy consumer 'profiles' amongst the general public. By viewing readers as mere marketing target groups, free papers maintain consumerist lifestyles and turn papers into little more than advertising vehicles to reach potential consumers. Newspapers not only respond to what readers supposedly want but also make them. By creating a particular selection of 'news', edited in a particular way, a particular reader identity is gradually constructed, with readers identifying with certain social and political ideals and attitudes.


To the right

Whenever free papers do take an editorial angle on current political affairs, it is often as bad as that of most right-wing tabloids and broadsheets (the Mail, Telegraph, etc.), though the Metro does try to be more 'balanced'. This is most obvious in their support of the Conservatives (remember the Evening Standard's pro-Boris, anti-Ken campaign in the London mayoral contest?) and their coverage of immigration-related issues, which is packed with both outright and more subtle racism. This is unsurprising given that most free dailies are owned by the same companies that publish some of the most notoriously right-wing paid-for papers, the classic example being Associated Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mail, Evening Standard and the Metro, among other titles.


Bad for the environmental too

A few months into the so-called London free paper war between News International and Associated Newspapers in 2006, the Westminster Council threatened to ban free paper distribution in the capital due to increasing litter problems. Free papers apparently accounted for a quarter of street litter in some parts of the West End. In January 2008, the two companies finally agreed to install only 35 recycling bins each in the West End and Victoria areas of London. Each recycling bin cost no more than £500. According to the council, only 120 tonnes of paper was collected via the scheme in six whole months. According to tube maintenance firm Tube Line, 16 tonnes of rubbish was collected from the underground every day during that period, following a 43 percent rise caused by the arrival of the two free papers.

The amount of paper used in the production of free papers is huge, with much of it going straight to landfill. In an attempt to polish their image, both The London Paper and London Lite initiated campaigns urging their readers to recycle newspapers after reading. Whilst this PR exercise may have looked good on paper, it certainly contradicted with the line both publishers were selling to advertisers: that free papers offered more bang for advertisers' buck with each copy being read by multiple readers. If each person were to diligently put their free paper into a recycling bin once they had finished their 20-minute read, they would not be left for the next reader to pick up.

The campaign also fed into a framing of 'solutions' to environmentally damaging activities that is universally convenient for corporations: individualising both the damaging activity and the proposed solution, and holding consumers responsible for them. Thus, the problem is careless readers rather than the newspaper producers, and the 'solution' is the reader recycling the newspaper rather than the company changing production methods or ceasing production altogether.

However good and responsible it may sound, recycling does not get to the heart of the matter: the source of the paper used in the first place. To make one tonne of newsprint, or print 14,000 average-sized tabloids, 12 substantial trees are needed. At the height of the London free paper war, it was estimated that 1.5 million free papers were distributed in the city alone every day, equivalent to 107 tonnes of newsprint and 1,284 trees. This figure is cut substantially when recycling is taken into account with a simple equation. However, as unsold magazines make up most of the recycled paper usable to make newspapers, and because newspapers can only be recycled a maximum of 5 or 6 times before the fibres are too short, the original source is very present within the supply chain.