MEN and Enquirer boldly going where others fear to tread

There are several terms used by the media to discuss innovations in our sector that the instigators would probably rather not read.

Clearly, hearing that your latest idea to boost circulation or ad revenue is "misconceived", "foolhardy" or even "dangerous" does not bolster confidence.

But when a new idea comes along which the industry can't make its mind up about — and is just relieved another group has decided to test the choppy water first — we tend to fall for the cliché of it being "brave".

This term has been used recently to describe two ventures on my home patch of the Northwest.

The first was the launch of the North West Enquirer — an "intelligent" paid-for, mid-market weekly covering a large region.

As I was researching this column, the Enquirer was just announcing seven redundancies — four journalists, and three sales and admin.

The timing of its launch could not have come at a worse time with regards to the advertising market, and the group has struggled to persuade ad agencies to add it to their schedules.

And it has the added issue of visibility.

The Northwest is a huge patch, and the Enquirer does not have the expectation of a huge paid-for sale, so too many of its prospective AB audience are simply not seeing it.

Although it is keen to remain paid-for, it has upped the number of complimentary copies (another word for freebie) at up-market venues such as airports, in a bid to get the paper into the right hands.

The second venture is the Manchester Evening News' decision to go part-paid, part-free.

The MEN has built up a reputation for grasping the nettle first (think of its now disbanded Lite edition) and would rather use a dock leaf judiciously than slowly wilt away.

A combination of facts led it to take this "bold" move (another cliché it is getting used to hearing). The first was it had been told, after analysis, it would sell the last MEN in 2025; the second was it got a new chief exec, Mark Dodson, who put the part-paid, part-free case forward as part of his interview process.

Unlike politicians, who are too worried about getting re-elected to think beyond five years, the dynamic Dodson decided to put something radical in place which will, he believes, ensure that his successors have something to manage.

That the MEN is part of Guardian Media Group has helped get this idea agreed at the highest level. It will have concentrated minds in London, as Manchester is a lucrative part of the portfolio, but the business is not run as a PLC with all the inherent pressures from institutional shareholders.

Having got the green light from the board, the Manchester exec team put its plans into place fairly quickly.

Using a 3p price rise to pay for the venture, it now hands out about 60,000 free copies of the paper to Mancunians in the city centre.

The outlying areas are unaffected, and don't appear to be that bothered that some of their neighbours are getting for free what they continue to pay for.

The proof of this is very much in the pudding, and certainly ad agencies will be keen to know how people are treating the free.

It's all very well to boost availability by producing more and handing them out free — but are those consumers reading the paper and, more importantly, responding to the ads?

Critical research by the newspaper group has proved reassuring — the free element is particularly attractive to that holy grail of the young affluent, and they are spending the same time reading it as their paid-for counterparts.

Two other factors are giving people cause for early encouragement.

Firstly, Dodson has an experienced editor, Paul Horrocks, at the helm.

He's been around the block enough to not be taken in by something shiny and new if it's not going to work, but he's also one of the few to be genuinely excited at seizing innovative ideas and running with them.

The rest of Dodson's senior team are youngish, highly motivated male execs who have come through the ranks with their boss and are determined to stand by him in Young Turk fashion.

The second factor is that society is now more than happy to embrace the concept of free.

The free newspaper entrepreneurs of the '80s made shed loads of money from their ventures, but were still viewed by the industry as fairly low down the food chain.

And few readers would happily boast that they were a free newspaper reader — I know, I spent several years working on them.

Now, with the advent of Metro, CityAM and the like, there is a happy expectation from readers to get something useful and high quality for free.

With no-one properly bucking falling circulation, going free is a way of getting your product into people's hands and being able to prove to advertisers that they should still be spending with you.

Presumably this model has been adopted by Channel 4 with its decision to put the previously subscription-based Film4 onto Freeview.

In our house this has meant us tuning into the channel about three nights a week for the film at 9pm, for the first time, and possibly being influenced by the ads they show.

So with the "free" stigma disappearing fast — will other newspapers follow the MEN's course?

It's probably too early to tell. The new ABC figures will, no doubt, show an understandable decline in the MEN's paid-for figure. And although the industry is working hard at it, we still have not cracked how to genuinely show all the elements which make up the net reach — particularly with internet usage.

Until that can be thrashed out, newspaper groups may still be wary of giving advertisers a big stick to hit them with in terms of price and negotiation.

But the MEN's research vindicates their nerve and shows that this is not just a brave decision. I don't predict a riot in others following, but I do predict a fairly serious affray where several similar newspaper operations will be emulating this model within the year.

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