News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch has a “philosophical problem” with free newspapers, according to London Evening Standard editor Geordie Greig.
Greig, who last week oversaw the historic conversion of the Standard into a “quality free” title, told Press Gazette there hadn’t yet been any sign Murdoch’s plan to end unlimited access to all his newspaper websites would work.
He said: “Over the years he’s been generally a person to back, but in recent times he’s closed his London paper, he’s gone against the common wisdom that it’s very difficult to make money from charging for news digitally.
“I wish him luck, I hope he finds a way to make it work, it would be fantastic. But there is no sign of it yet.”
Greig talked to Press Gazette about the decision to take the Standard free as other London free newspapers – admittedly aimed at a more tabloid market – were ending production.
Associated Newspapers, which holds a 25 per cent stake in the Standard, announced last week that it was consulting over the closure of its loss-making free paper, London Lite.
Murdoch closed his freesheet, thelondonpaper, last month after losing an estimated £40m to a “difficult free evening newspaper sector” in London.
Greig said taking the Standard free had already met with an “overwhelming” response from readers who realised how “undersold the Standard was as a brand”.
Distribution was at 600,000 by the end of the first week of going free, he said, with more than 1,400 newsagents making enquiries about the paper as rivals in the London afternoon market fell by the wayside.
Greig said: “Murdoch didn’t have a quality product, he was rumoured to have been looking at a quality free product, so that’s a huge difference, and he had this philosophical problem with freeâ€¦
“He seems to forget that Channel 4 is free, and that going to the British Museum is free, Google is free, the NHS is free. People under 28 are very used to the idea that quality and free are not disassociated from each other.
“The key is to find out how to make money out of it, and we think this is the business model.”
Greig said news that the London Lite may close felt “bitter sweet” as while journalist jobs would be lost the Standard would be put in a stronger position.
Others were more outspoken about the relationship between the two papers. A well-placed insider told Press Gazette the Standard’s decision to go free led directly to the closure of the London Lite.
The insider said the initial expectation was that the London market would be unable to support three free afternoon titles but that before it closed thelondonpaper was considered the bigger threat to a free Standard.
The source said: “The Standard going free prevented the London Lite ever having a life on its ownâ€¦The move not only surprised many people but is also the reason London Lite is gone now.”
The full interview with Geordie Greig appears in this month’s edition of Press Gazette magazine.