Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev is to transform the London Evening Standard into a free newspaper in ten days time – ending a near 200 year tradition of charging for the title.
The Standard’s publishers confirmed this morning that from October 12 it will become one of the first quality newspapers in the world to cease charging readers for its print edition.
Converting the 50p newspaper to a free title will see it more than double its daily circulation of around 250,000 to more than 600,000.
Lebedev controls 75 per cent of the Standard after buying the title for a nominal sum in January. Its previous owner, the Daily Mail & General Trust subsidy Associated Newspapers, retains a 25 per cent share.
The decision to switch the Standard from paid-for to free draws immediate attention to Associated Newspapers’ freesheet, London Lite. Speculation is mounting that DMGT could close down London Lite, which takes a proportion of its editorial material from the Standard newsroom.
London Lite, set up in 2006 as a rival to News International‘s thelondonpaper which closed last month, has yet to show a profit. If it stays open, it will now have a significant new rival to deal with.
Andrew Mullins, managing director of the Standard, admitted today that even before the launch of the rival freesheets in 2006, sustaining a paid-for afternoon newspaper was challenging. He said conversion to a free paper would significantly help the fortunes of the Standard.
He said: “There are so many competing distractions to potential readers, particularly with new technologies.
“Being a quality newspaper with large scale and reach should transform our commercial fortunes. Our London reach will be at multiples of the quality national titles and our London classified business will once again have significant scale.”
Lebedev said he expected other leading quality newspaper across the world to follow the Standard’s lead and convert from a paid-for model to free distribution.
Despite taking the Standard free Lebedev said he would preserve the editorial quality of the paper.
He said: “I want to invest in newspapers in general for this purpose and in the London Evening Standard in particular. The Standard has been producing exceptional journalism since 1827 and that is not going to change under my ownership.”