Editorial - The cost of free papers

Over the last two years, Corporate Watch has been contacted by various people asking whether we, or anyone else, had done any work on the Metro, the London 'free paper war' and suchlike. The lack of critical analysis was surprising, given that the phenomenon of 'free' papers has existed for a few years now. Indeed, one caller expressed her shock saying, “I am very surprised that you haven't done anything on this given how obviously bad and evil they are.”

More than 45 million copies of free papers are read everyday by some 80 million people around the world, but mostly in Europe. Since 1995, when the Metro was established in Sweden, over 250 free dailies have been introduced in almost 60 countries. In some countries, they have become the most widely read dailies. But while academics, journalists and newspaper publishers have been busy analysing this 'new' business model and its effects on the press industry, other fundamental questions have been conveniently forgotten about. In an article titled 'Business as usual', Shiar Youssef argues that claims about the novelty of the free paper model are often exaggerated and that the dichotomy created between free and paid-for papers is a false one. This is partly due to the fact that most free papers are published by the same media giants that also publish paid-for papers. If anything, they are just another way to rejuvenate a flagging industry and generate profits for these same companies. Putting things in a historical perspective, as Hannah Schling does in an article on the history of freesheets and regional papers, should make this clearer.

Profit-driven, cost-cutting policies are, of course, not the only thing wrong with free dailies. Another article in this issue, 'The cost of free', investigates what else is wrong with them: from limited original content and lack of investigative journalism, through treating readers as mere marketing target groups, to poor labour conditions and environmental pollution.

To complement these, we have included a commentary piece, rare in its honesty, by Jonathan Cook talking about his experience of “intellectual cleansing” whilst working as a journalist for free and paid-for papers in the UK. In another opinion piece, Michael Barker argues that real newspapers should not be free and that the price we pay for cheap or free “propaganda rag sheets” is “our freedom.”

It should become clear from these articles, and the rest of material included in this issue, that by criticizing and highlighting the problems with 'free' papers, we are by no means trying to defend or save paid-for tabloids and broadsheets. On the contrary, we argue that free papers are simply an acute manifestation of the fundamental problems inherent in corporate media, namely commercial, profit-driven policies that have turned news into mere packaging and marketing of information in the service of economic and political elites. And that is precisely why we chose MediaLens for this issue's Campaign Spotlight slot.

We would have liked to include more contributions on alternative media and grassroots initiatives challenging corporate media's dominance. We have, however, included a fictional discussion between three media activists on the problems facing Indymedia and other grassroots media projects. This issue also showcases some of the best political spoofs that have been produced in the UK over the past decade or so.

Whether it is challenging corporate media and correcting their distorted version of events (MediaLens), or 'hijacking' and subverting them (spoofs), or providing an alternative platform for reporting directly from the streets (Indymedia), the common goal of these initiatives, as well as Corporate Watch's news service, is reclaiming journalism for what it should be: a critical, honest and compassionate reporting on what really matters.