News feature

By The Drum, Administrator

January 26, 2005 | 5 min read

Two months in and 2005 is heating up. We’re not talking about the weather – at the time of going to press, it’s snowing and very cold – but about the newspaper industry, where a series of new arrivals in London have started to have an effect on the rest of the country.

In January, GMG-owned newspaper, Manchester Evening News (MEN), announced (via Media Guardian – also a GMG product) that it was considering the launch of an afternoon freesheet. The statement followed the December launch of Associated Press’ Standard Lite – a bite-sized and free edition of The Evening Standard in London, designed as a spoiler to Express’ proposed free evening newspaper.

Through its editor, Paul Horrocks, MEN claimed it was discussing the possibility of launching a free edition of the paper. While it was stressed that no decision had yet been taken, Horrocks was quoted as saying: “We’re going through a dialogue both with staff and at board level... we’ll be evaluating responses and putting together what we think would be a business case – or not – for a similar product in Manchester.”

Since the announcement, many industry figures have speculated as to the reasons and merits of MEN’s consideration. According to Horrocks, MEN is merely “doing what a lot of newspaper companies will be doing... looking at and evaluating what the Standard are doing, why they are doing it and what impact it will have.” However, the significance of MEN announcing its plans (through a fellow member of the GMG family) suggests that the newspaper is keen to fire a warning shot to Associated Press and other companies considering launching a similar freesheet into the Manchester arena, notifying them that MEN will get there first.

An industry insider told Adline: “If Associated were to attempt to launch a freesheet into Manchester, MEN may be forced to launch a spoiler and so need to be ready.”

Acting as a kind of Mini-me to MEN’s Dr Evil, any ‘lite’ version of the paper that comes about would be expected to hit the streets in the late afternoon (unlike Standard Lite, which has launched at lunch time) as the final edition sells fewer than 4,000 copies.

MEN has taken steps in recent months to increase revenue and tap into previously untapped markets. The firm has announced the launch date for V Magazine, aimed squarely at the over-45s and in November introduced a further edition of MEN, available from 6am.

Despite a long-term decline in sales, as mirrored across the country, the new edition of the paper has seen a significant increase in copies sold.

However, while the announcement was seen as a warning shot by many, one industry insider claims that like former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, MEN is anticipating the death of paid-for evening newspapers relatively soon. Preston believes the continued drop in sales of paid-for evening newspapers will see publishing houses turning to a free alternative to maintain a high readership. Adline’s source commented: “MEN is simply recognising and reacting to the changes in the industry.”

However, Chris Broadbent, managing director of Brilliant Media, refutes suggestions that this could see the death of the paid-for evening newspapers. He argues: “I don’t think it does. The MEN is in a strong position and it is just looking to enhance that. If you look at the advertising in the MEN, it looks vibrant and healthy. I think they should be applauded.”

Broadbent also believes a new free edition would benefit the industry and the paper itself. He said: “It’s a good thing. The more formats and the more editions of it, the better. It seems that everyone’s trying to reinvent themselves this year. I think the MEN in Manchester is in a very different situation to the Standard in London, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens down there. If you’re a newspaper it’s important to be able to change and adapt – you can’t stay as you are.”

As well as acting as a spoiler to Express’ proposed free evening paper, The Evening Standard’s freesheet has been pitched towards a younger, predominantly female readership – a previously untapped market for evening newspapers. Likewise, a ‘MEN Lite’ would be expected to attempt filling a similar void. An Adline source from the Northern media scene, stated: “There’s a significant number of people in Greater Manchester that aren’t reading an evening newspaper and it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to reach that audience. In signalling their intentions, MEN will be looking to fill that gap.”

When Horrocks revealed MEN’s plans, he also suggested that other newspapers would be looking at Standard Lite and considering their options. If the Standard’s move works out to be profitable in terms of readership, it won’t be long before it triggers Associated Press, or other newspaper companies, to look at other parts of the country for introducing free evening newspapers. Any success there and paid-for newspapers may just bite the bullet.

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