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March 17, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:03am

Free newspapers face possible print circulation collapse as commuters stay home to halt coronavirus spread

By Freddy Mayhew

Free newspapers are facing the prospect of a collapse in circulation after the Prime Minister advised people to work from home in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19).

The Metro, City AM and the Evening Standard all rely on commuters to read their free print editions providing advertisers with an affluent and hard-to-reach audience. But their publishing model is now under threat.

Train stations have been quiet since the start of this week as people stayed away from offices. Within the news industry a number of publishers have already told their staff to work from home this month.

Yesterday Boris Johnson asked people to work from home where they can and avoid all non-essential contact and unnecessary travel in issuing the latest Government advice on tackling the pandemic.

The majority of office workers now appear to have heeded this advice. London Bridge Station was almost empty (pictured top) during the evening rush hour on Monday, 16 March, with similar scenes at Waterloo.

A journalist at one of the three major UK freesheets, who wished to remain anonymous, said online traffic is “through the roof” as people search for the latest news on the coronavirus pandemic.

But, they asked: “What is this going to do to the paper?

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“If people start working from home and avoiding the Tube it could kill the paper off, or at least lead to a reduced operation. Our website is doing pretty well, but print is still the big money spinner.

“Our raison d’etre is to serve commuters with papers.”

They added: “It could really accelerate the move online – and put a massive hole in the finances of any publication that is dependent on print advertising.

“People are worried about it because we’re thinking: ‘Are we going to survive this as a paper?'”

The Metro has the biggest daily print reach of any UK newspaper, with 1.43m copies distributed across the country, of which more than half (860,000) are in London mostly targeting trains and bus stations.

It used a full-page advert on page two (pictured below) yesterday to point readers to the fact that they can still pick up the paper and get the Metro app for free even “if the commute says no”.

City AM distributes 85,500 copies a day at mainline stations and key pick-up locations, with a focus around London’s financial centres. About half are given out by hand.

The Evening Standard distributes 800,000 copies a day, of which more than half are handed out near train stations in the capital.

Press Gazette asked Metro, City Am and Evening Standard for comment.

City AM chief operating officer Harry Owen told Press Gazette last week: “We are agile enough to adapt our distribution footprint in the event that commuter flows change in the weeks or months ahead.

“Furthermore the daily edition can be downloaded from the website and this is already a hugely popular feature. Cityam.com continues to enjoy record levels of traffic.”

City AM is testing its ability to produce the newspaper remotely this week.

In a message to staff, editor Christian May said: “We have faith in the company, even if our publishing or distribution or even our entire commercial model has to be rewired.”

The Metro and Standard have yet to comment.

Paid-for titles are also at risk as people stay at home and avoid the shops.

Newsagent WH Smith has issued a profit warning as the coronavirus pandemic has led to a drop in shoppers at its airport outlets.

In a statement, the retailer said: “For UK Travel, we expect revenue for the six months to be down approximately 15 per cent on expectations which includes airports, our most affected channel, down 35 per cent in March and April.”

It estimates a fall of up to £40m in pre-tax profits for the year to the end of August 2020.

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