Three months have now passed since the North West Enquirer was given its official launch and the Manchester Evening News (MEN) opted to ‘go free’ in the city centre. And while not in direct competition details have begun to emerge on the initial success of both propositions.
Distribution of the free edition of the MEN has jumped from 50,000 to 60,000 and the paper has announced its delight in growing its young and wealthy readership, while the Enquirer has established a settled down circulation of 11-12,000, just short of its initial targets.
So just how well are both parties performing? For the MEN, there have been important points for consideration. Predictably, there are reports of growing discontent from people based outside of Manchester city centre in having to pay for a product that others can acquire for free. Then there’s the added cost of having to employ people to hand out the paper in the city centre.
Steve Blakeman, managing partner of PHD North, remarked: \"The MEN\'s decision to go free in the city centre is certainly a bold move. But given the success of Metro, maybe it wasn\'t such a maverick decision. Clearly they learnt plenty from the MEN Lite test and that paved the way for free city centre copies of the MEN.
\"Actually, if my reading habits are anything to go by, then it\'s proving to be a success. I only used to buy the MEN on a Friday, but now I pick it up several times a week. And it’s becoming a habit.\"
Blakeman also believes that consumer attitudes towards newspapers have changed significantly enough to help MEN’s plight. \"I think the stigma of free newspapers has diminished. And as an industry we are ever chasing the numbers and the MEN\'s diversification into broadcast plus online now means they reach more people than at any other stage of their history.\"
Brilliant Media managing director, Chris Broadbent, believes the younger market that MEN is believed to have acquired will be a major boost to advertisers. He said: \"We applaud the initiative from the MEN and continue to support it, as it is important to get the product into the hands of younger readers who previously rejected the offer.\"
Kerry King, press investment director at MediaVest Manchester, likewise added: \"I think this was a very bold and innovative move to take which has made the other regional titles address their future in terms of both pricing and product. As one of the largest regional daily titles, the MEN has to consider all opportunities to boost its circulation. We have already encountered this move in London with ES Lite and as long as the circulation is measured accurately it can only assist planners in buying a greater audience.\"
The North West Enquirer has had to endure both scepticism and enthusiasm in near equal measures in the first couple of months since its inception. While its commitment to editorial content has been well received, some advertisers seem doubtful as to whether the paper has been able to attract the kind of circulation it was hoping for.
Commenting on its initial performance, the Enquirer’s publisher, Nick Jaspan, said: \"We would always want more; more sales, more advertising revenue etc. But we are pleased with how it has gone so far. Overall, I feel like we’re becoming a fixture in the regional media scene.\"
Jaspan identified the paper’s editorial as probably its biggest strength after \"breaking a number of big stories,\" however it’s not yet clear whether this will be enough to attract the major advertisers.
Jaspan admits that the response from advertisers, agencies in particular, has been mixed.
\"Some agencies have come forward immediately, while others are waiting to see how things go. I think agencies can be quite cautious about something new like this.\"
Broadbent feels that the paper may face a difficult battle to survive, but does have a strong enough proposition to become a success. He commented: \"They are clearly struggling to sell advertising with a paid for circulation of only 14,000. Again, we have supported the title and if it can hang on in the tough climate for a few months then perhaps it will survive. But clearly having an attractive, readable proposition does not necessarily translate into healthy advertising revenue figures, when the market is tough and there is little or no compelling data to bash media buyers over the head with.\"
Blakeman had reservations about whether the paper would be able to make its mark in the industry. However, as a reader, he admits to finding the Enquirer an engaging proposition. \"I must admit I was a little sceptical they would reach their target,\" he said. \"A paid-for regional newspaper format has never really been successful in the UK outside Scotland and I thought the cover price of £1 was too high. That said, their commitment to quality journalism appears to be reaping some reward. The product is undoubtedly a good read although to be honest I can\'t say that I\'m that bothered about what\'s happening in places like Preston.\"
Unit Communications’ managing director, David Wilkinson, said: \"The circulation figures look very promising but need to continue to grow to reach a significant proportion of the North West market.\" However, he added: \"The good news is that clients are now pro-actively inquiring about the Enquirer.\"