Free papers: Some history

Free daily newspapers have, in the past decade, been heralded as a wholly new model for the modern newspaper, one which 'challenges' the 'traditional' business model, but which also holds the potential to 'save' an ailing industry beset with falling readership and circulation figures in the age of online news content. [1] However, the history of free papers is longer than that presented by many of the scholars and journalists commenting on their current manifestation, Hannah Schling writes.

The history of free daily newspapers is most notably situated within the sphere of regional and local papers, and is tightly knitted to the wider transformation of the newspaper industry from overt allegiance to a political party into vehicles for profit-making dominated by a handful of large publishers with a more veiled political agenda. This transformation was precipitated and accompanied by dilemmas over the financing of newspapers in the second half of the twentieth century. As the model of wealthy patrons proved increasingly unworkable [2], advertising revenues gradually came to account for an increasing proportion of newspapers' incomes. Newspapers faced the choice between expanding into a mass readership (and therefore competing fiercely with other publications for readers and advertisers) or a 'high-quality' and wealthier readership (therefore often tempering more radical political critiques). [3] The second, it is said, attracts fewer but more lucrative advertising contracts.

The emergence of regional freesheets, often owned by smaller proprietors, in the 1970s presented a challenge to paid-for local daily newspapers, and further catalysed a transition within their management, funding and editorial structures. Journalist Matthew Engel has described the attitude of many of the paid-for papers at the time as one of “joining 'em rather than beating 'em”, with publishers transforming regional papers into “cash cows”, whilst driving down costs to compete with freesheets for readers and scarce advertising contracts. [4] In 1970, 1.4% of advertising contracts in the regional press were held by free papers. By 1990, this was 35%. It is argued that freesheets helped precipitate the technological transition within newspaper production, which resulted in the Wapping disputes and the crushing of newspaper unions. Between 1977 and the Wapping strikes in 1986, 681 new regional titles appeared, bringing freesheets up to almost 50% of the provincial press. The response from many paid-for papers was to either issue their own freesheets in direct competition, or to buy out the new freesheets. As Kevin Williams puts it, with 'streamlined production' and the utilisation of new technologies, “the free newspapers propelled paid-for dailies and weeklies to change; Eddie Shah's march to Fleet Street began in Warrington and Stockport.” [5]

In the 1970s and 1980s, with falling circulation and readership figures and the consequent closure of many regional and local papers, the interaction between free and paid-for papers led to more 'streamlining', or centralisation, of regional paper ownership. Between 1947 and 2002, the top five publishers increased their proportion of regional evening paper circulation by over half. Four major publishers now dominate the market: Northcliffe (a division of the Daily Mail and General Trust), Johnston, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest (a subsidiary of expansionist American publisher Gannett Corporation). With the ability to merge back-office departments and buy paper more cheaply, these large companies also own job, property and motor advertising papers and websites. For example, one of the biggest online employment websites in the UK,, is owned by Newsquest; Johnston Press owns,, and so on.

Regional newspapers were once thought of as important, critical components of local democracy, cultivating investigative journalism and providing information and political commentary for a specific community. The dominance of these markets by corporate publishing monopolies has largely eroded this role and left many regional papers 'streamlined' and lacking real editorial and news content. Recent disputes at the Newsquest-owned Brighton and Hove newspaper The Argus reflect this reality. Sub-editing, printing and other production processes were relocated to Newsquest offices in Southampton, where they are being merged with the production of Newsquest-owned Southampton paper The Echo, resulting in redundancies for Brighton-based journalists and editors and a three-year pay freeze. Meanwhile, Newsquest chief executive Paul Davidson enjoyed a 20 per cent pay increase between 2008 and 2009. The Argus journalists held three days of strike action in December 2010 and January 2011. One NUJ member involved in the dispute highlighted the changed nature of local news production: “What’s astonishing is that a local newspaper company doesn’t seem to realise how damaging it is to keep shifting jobs out of the local area. There will be advertisers and readers who must wonder why they should support their local newspaper when it doesn’t support them.” [6] The FT and Guardian journalist Matthew Engel also reflected this view when reporting on one of many such disbutes: “My wife’s job as editor of Herefordshire Life magazine has now been merged and is being done from Stoke-on-Trent, 100 miles away, which suggests that Archant [Norwich-based publisher of Herefordshire Life] treat the communities they serve with exactly the same respect they give the staff.” [7] Newsquest claimed 'financial necessity' as reason for this quality-cutting streamlining, whilst Gannett, its American owner, boasted to US investment analysts of Newsquest's 'healthy profits', making a cool £71 million in 2009. [8] Quality, critical local journalism does not feature in their equation.

Local council freesheets are another type of free publication that has helped shift the character and impact of local 'news' production. Heather Brookes, author of The Silent State, has labelled these papers 'Pravda rags' and placed their emergence as stepping into the vacuum left by the decline of regional papers. [9] Between 1986 and 2000, half of Britain's 8,000 or so local journalists lost their jobs; between 1985 and 2005, nearly one quarter of all regional and local papers closed down. The competition brought by these government freesheets is keenly felt. For example, Tindle's South London Press announced in November 2007 that it had lost over £500,000 in advertising revenues since Lambeth Council launched its own freesheet, Lambeth Life. [10] Critical, original content was almost non-existent in the council freesheet, and criticism of the council policies and activities omitted. An LG Communications survey of council-funded freesheets found that the third most reported topic, at 52% of coverage, was “How the council provides value for money.” [11]

In the 1970s,freesheets launched by smaller proprietors and wholly funded through advertising entered the market in a context of financial crisis and falling circulation faced by paid-for local newspapers. They provided one model to ensure the survival of many of these papers, but with their aims and quality of journalism transformed. Indeed, this was observed by many as a wider trend within the press industry at the time. In 1977, the Third Royal Commission on the Press noted that advertising contracts meant “the press has become a subsidiary of other industries.” [12] This transition continues to be noted today with the introduction of another 'new' business model: free daily newspapers such as the Metro. In the words of Matthew Engel, “If the local press is to be saved, it cannot be left in the hands of the groups whose obscene profit demands have wrecked real journalism.” [13]

The Metro


Launched in Stockholm in 1995 by the Modern Times Group, a subsidiary of the Swedish telecommunications group Kinnevik, Metro was the first modern free daily newspaper. In 2000, MTG sold the majority of its shares in the newly formed, and now Luxembourg-based, Metro International S.A. Group. Editions in other countries followed soon and, by 2002, there were 23 editions in 15 countries, with a readership of 10 million (some 50% of the world's total circulation of free dailies).

Not all Metro titles are owned by Metro International, however. In Russia, Belgium and Britain, Metro is published by local publishers. The Canadian and South Korean Metros are published, for legal reasons, in partnership with local firms.

The Metro business model was summarised by Arnoud and Peyrègne in the words, "Outsourcing is a keyword in the Metro business model." Metro publishers try to save money on everything, from news gathering, printing and distribution costs, to journalists. In 2005, only 10% of Metro International's total budget went to journalists.

The UK Metro was launched in London in 1999 by Associated Newspapers, part of Daily Mail and General Trust, to keep Metro International out of the UK market - except in Newcastle, where Metro International launched Morning News. The paper soon expanded to Birmingham and Manchester and later to other regions. It is the largest and one of the most profitable free papers in the world, with 10 different regional editions and a total circulation of 1.3 million. In most regions, Metro is a franchise, a model designed to stop local publishers from starting their own free morning dailies.

[1] See, for example, Robert G. Picard, 'Strategic Responses to Free Distribution Daily Newspapers', International Journal on Media Management, vol.2, no.3, 2001.

[2] Peter Robins, 'The Death of Newspapers, 1921: London Evening Massacre', The Guardian, 23 September 2009,
[3] James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, London: Routledge, 2003.

[4] Matthew Engel, 'Local Papers: An Obituary', British Journalism Review, vol.20, no.2, June 2009.

[5] Kevin Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper, London: Routledge, 2009.

[6] 'Argus journalists to go on third strike', Brighton and Hove News, 2 January 2011,
[7] Matthew Engel, 'Local Papers: An Obituary', ibid.

[8] Argus journalists to go on third strike', ibid.

[9] Heather Brooke, The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy, London: William Heinemann, 2010.

[10] and
[11] Heather Brooke, ibid.

[12] Royal Commission on the Press, Final Report, Cmnd 6810 July 1977.

[13] Matthew Engel, ibid.