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June 16, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:24am

Return of the frees: How City AM proved sceptics wrong with post-Covid comeback

By Charlotte Tobitt

The editor of City AM has said the “underdog” free paper’s return to pre-pandemic distribution levels “probably proves a lot of sceptics wrong”.

Referring to City AM as well as competitors which include Metro and the Evening Standard, Andy Silvester said: “I think the free sheet market – I don’t think it’s going away, but I just think all of us have had to work bloody hard to keep our readers’ attention.”

Silvester discussed City AM’s journey through the pandemic and digital transformation, as well as prospects for his competitors, for the fifth episode of Press Gazette’s weekly podcast The Future of Media Explained.

The City AM presses turned off in March 2020 for what they thought at the time would be three to four weeks – turning into an 18-month hiatus which included two cancelled plans to relaunch in autumn 2020 as commuter footfall remained low and, then, two more lockdowns followed.

Silvester said if he and the team had known how long the print break would be, “we might not have thought that we would have survived”.

But in the meantime City AM became a digital-first operation for the first time, putting more focus on SEO, early and late breaking stories, launching podcast The City View and email newsletters, refreshing the website infrastructure, and building relationships with platforms from Google to Flipboard.

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In addition the website attracts certain sets of readers that go beyond its core City print readership, for example people who may come for its Crypto AM section each day.

City AM’s website surpassed three million monthly unique visitors according to Comscore for the first time in February 2021 and now regularly tops two million, which Silvester said was around a 100% increase since pre-Covid.

City AM editor Andy Silvester in the office

City AM editor Andy Silvester in the office. Picture: City AM

Silvester, who succeeded Christian May as editor in November 2020 and was The Sun‘s head of PR before joining City AM in 2019, said: “We’ve changed a bit as a company and our focuses have changed but fundamentally the newspaper is part of our DNA.

“The City of London, Canary Wharf is part of our DNA and being there back in a physical presence has been really satisfying and I think, you know, it sounds odd to say it, but, actually we’ve probably come out of the 18-month hiatus in a stronger place as a media organisation, as a newsroom, than we were going in because we were forced to accelerate our digital transformation…”

City AM Awards tables at The Guildhall

City AM Awards 2022 at The Guildhall in London on 28 April 2022. Picture: Gretel Ensignia/City AM

Events have also returned, with around 400 people attending City AM’s first awards evening since the pandemic began in April at London’s Guildhall.

A number of staff were made redundant during the pandemic, primarily those involved in the production of the newspaper, but “many” have since returned. There are now around 25 members of editorial staff, about the same as pre-pandemic despite nine being made redundant in autumn 2020.

Silvester said: “Without the legacy costs of some of the other publications that are out there we are able to actually focus most of our resources and spend on reporters and making sure that we’ve still got news reporters with enough time and space to actually get to know their beats.

“You look at some of the other places, it always seems like reporters and subs end up on the cuts list and obviously that’s not in the long-term going to do anybody in the media any favours if the people that end up getting lost in tough environments are the people who are out there chasing the news because without actually producing decent original content we’re all buggered, I think is probably the best phrase I can use.”

Since returning in print City AM’s free distribution has ranged between 76,465 in January and 81,713 in April. This compares to 85,738 in February 2020 just before the pandemic.

Silvester said this "probably proves a lot of sceptics wrong - on getting the paper back, step one, but also getting it back at those circulation levels. I think there's been a lot of discussion about the death of the freesheet and whether or not freesheets can survive.

"I fundamentally think that they can and they will and that if they're done properly and done well you can keep an engaged audience..."

This distribution level has come despite some "teething problems" which included a shortage of van drivers able to run the papers into central London each night.

However the paper has "significantly upped" its office distribution and the team are now considering home delivery for the first time later this year, which would follow in the footsteps of the Evening Standard which experimented with delivery during the pandemic. City AM also has new distribution points further out in the commuter belt to reach people who may be working at home more but leaving their homes in the morning to grab a coffee.

Silvester added: "There's a value in a print newspaper and I know there are some people who think that such a thing doesn't exist but I think if you put it together well, if you are a friend of the reader and giving them something they can't get online, if you're allowing them to sit down for five, ten, 15 minutes and feel informed but also feel like they're a part of this revival of the City of London and of London more generally I think people will still pick it up."

Silvester noted that it probably helped City AM that it is smaller in "ownership, size, legacy costs" than other free newspapers it is often compared to like Metro and Evening Standard and therefore has different commercial pressures. But he said: "More power to all of them."

Of the market, he added: "What I would say is there remains a place for free sheets in the same way there remains a place for paid-for newspapers, which is giving people properly curated, thought-through, news, features, analysis. I don't think the desire for newspapers and print newspapers is ever going to go away.

"What I think has changed is the level of competition that we've got to grab five, ten, 15, 20 minutes of people's attention has gone through the roof. So we've got to get better and become more engaging and innovate every day in order to keep those audiences.

"The eye-catching front page still matters. The championing of certain causes that your readers care about still matter. And there's always elements of that online and there are some online-only publications that do that really well. But I think print papers that have personality, that can be trusted and that people are really spending time putting together and designing so that you get light and shade and all the news you need and all these phrases that editors use and throw around - I think that's still there and I think we're just being forced to compete more and more...

"It's just doing it in slightly different ways and making sure we're staying ahead of the competition, because people talk about who our competition is, and maybe there's a bit of me in my head that thinks the FT, the Telegraph business desk, et cetera but it's just as much people being sent Instagram videos of golden retrievers on the commute in so how do we make our product as interesting and engaging and as valuable to our readers. That's what we're trying to do every day."

Hear more from City AM editor Andy Silvester, including about the commercial response to the newspaper's return and digital transformation, in the latest episode of Press Gazette's podcast Future of Media Explained.

Picture: City AM

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