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Newspaper Circulation Up! (For Free Papers)

June 9th, 2007 · 1 Comment


The big story about the mainstream newspaper industry in the 2000s has been the decline of circulation and revenue for the print version, and the slow but promising growth of online editions. But in one segment of the newspaper industry–free newspapers–circulation is actually up, way up.

Unless you live in a large city with public transportation, you might not have even noticed. But take a trip to places like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Diego, or San Francisco, and you’ll find free newspapers at news racks, pushed by hawkers at entrances to subway and rail stations, and even delivered to certain neighborhoods.

There have been free alternative weekly newspapers in the U.S. since the 1950s. But the free newspapers that have emerged in the past decade are different: they’re daily, they’re widely available, and they are becoming immensely popular in the U.S. and worldwide.

Piet Bakker, a communications professor at the University of Amsterdam, is the leading expert on the free newspaper industry. He notes that 36 million copies of free dailies are now circulated in 49 countries, including Korea, Chile, Austria, and Botswana. The growth in Europe–where the world’s first free commuter daily began in Sweden in 1995–has been especially phenomenal. The continent’s total circulation of free dailies has grown five times since 2000, to 125 titles with a combined circulation of 26.5 million by 2007. The market is highly competitive, with most of the Europe’s major cities having three or more free dailies. In at least a dozen European countries, the top paper is a free daily, and in Spain, Denmark, and Iceland, free dailies command a greater total market share than paid newspapers.

Free dailies are available in every major Canadian metro area, and now account for 20 percent of the nation’s newspaper market share. In the U.S., where growth has been steady but not quite as fast, there are now 40 free newspapers, with a combined circulation of more than three million.

New York has one of the most lively free newspaper markets. Hawkers wearing green vests for Metro New York and red vests for amNew York plant themselves at opposite sides of sidewalk entrances to busy subway steps, and press their papers into commuters’ hands. The two newspapers illustrate ownership patterns in the free daily market, as some companies specialize in free dailies, while others develop free dailies to complement their established “paid” daily newspaper business. Metro New York is published by Metro International, a Luxembourg-based company that is the largest free daily publisher in the world, with newspapers in over 100 cities. The Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and several other newspapers, owns amNewYork as a way to maintain a presence in the New York market.

Although the free dailies don’t make money on subscriptions, they are inexpensive to operate. They tend to be slim tabloids, with wire copy and short, easy-to-read stories developed by a small editorial staff. The newspapers are designed to be read in 20 minutes, the time of the average commute (in fact, some European free dailies call themselves 20 Minutes). As Metro International says, their newspapers target “a high proportion of young and active, professional readers. This demographic group is not typically reading daily newspapers but is most attractive for advertisers.” One company in the U.S. goes one step further in targeting upscale audiences. In 2004, Denver media billionaire Philip Anschutz bought the San Francisco Examiner (once the flagship newspaper of William Randolph Hearst) and converted it into a free daily. The company has since launched the Washington Examiner and Baltimore Examiner, and deliver them free to wealthy neighborhoods, a practice one Bay-area media critic likened “a kind of 21st century journalistic redlining,” where the poorer neighborhoods get excluded.

But, a study by the New York Times and Scarborough Research found encouraging news in the free newspaper trend for both traditional newspapers and democracy. First, they found that free dailies don’t cannibalize paid newspapers. In fact, many paid newspaper readers use free dailies as a secondary newspaper source. Second, the study also discovered that free papers bring in new readers who have often shunned the paid papers–“the young, those from lower to moderate income households and non-white ethnic groups.” Acculturating new people into daily habit of newspaper readership is ultimately a good thing for the future health of the newspaper industry, and for democracy.

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Tags: Journalism · Journalism Ethics · Media Economics

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Solution to newspaper woes is less news | Prodigeek // Jul 4, 2008 at 1:38 am

    […] aren’t dying.  Just big ones that charge too much for too little.  Free dailies have been steadily growing in the United States after years of success in Europe, helping bring in new readers who don’t […]

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