OPINION, Julia Hutchison, Chief operating officer, Association of Publishing Agencies - Press Gazette

OPINION, Julia Hutchison, Chief operating officer, Association of Publishing Agencies

A year ago, I used to very much enjoy walking home from work of an evening; a brisk pace through London taking in some of the capital’s most well-known streets and attractions. This has changed. It’s now like running the gauntlet.

Seemingly on every corner there is a battle lying in wait – a competition by free-paper distributors to get you to take their publication. My strategy is to accept a copy of each and hold them in full view of other distributors in the hope they’ll see I’ve got a copy and leave me alone.

Distribution problems notwithstanding, I am very interested in the so-called ‘free media phenomenon”. It seems not a week goes by without some kind of analysis on Metro, City AM, London Lite, thelondonpaper, Sport or Shortlist. But this model isn’t new. It’s borrowed from the customer publishing industry (although we’re not so reliant on advertising).

For longer than two decades, brands have been producing high-quality magazines for their customers. Where they differ from ‘free media’is that they are targeted and it is this that makes the customer publishing industry the second-fastest growing media behind online.

What’s more, it is on track to become a £1bn industry by 2011 – if not sooner. In the first six months of the year, 120 magazines were launched or put out for pitch – one a day, reinforcing the buoyancy of the market.

So what does the rise of free media mean for journalists? Obviously the more papers and magazines launch, the more opportunities there are, which is positive. But at the same time it is important to exercise caution as there is a real risk that free media could erode editorial quality, as it is difficult to identify the audience being targeted and hence articles become increasingly broad and apathetic. Interestingly, the opposite is true for customer magazines.

Journalists writing for customer titles have very few restrictions. Unlike with newspapers and consumer magazines, they are not limited by what works on the newsstand. All titles will have strict guidelines as to what sells copies, be it Kate Moss on the front cover or a certain number of prize word-searches.

The customer publishing industry, however, doesn’t have to sell. The main objective is to understand the audience, engage them and build a relationship. The opportunity for creativity is therefore endless and it isn’t surprising that we are seeing the most innovation of all printed media – for example, in our inaugural Creative Awards, best creative use of print was awarded to John Brown for a feature in Crystallized, Swarovski Crystal’s magazine targeted at its fashion and retail clients. With consecutive images printed on trace paper overlaid on to a striking picture printed on standard stock, the piece artfully demonstrated that there is plenty of imagination and style in the industry.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look at the number of journalists migrating across from consumer magazines and newspapers into customer publishing.