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What happens to the arts when a newspaper goes free?

The London Evening Standard, which I served as Assistant Editor from March 2002 until stepping down in May this year, will become a giveaway paper from next week.

The paper was selling 440,000 copies daily when I joined and about half as many when it was sold at the end of last year – after a battle with two free newspapers – to a Russian investor, Alexander Lebedev. The full-price sale in August 2009 was down to 107,000, according to the Financial Times, indicating that the new ownership and editorship have lost about two in every five readers. That would appear to be a reason for abandoning the cover price and giving the paper away for free.  

I do not wish to argue the merits of that decision, except to express a hope that the paper will survive as a quality product. I like and admire many of the people who work for it and hope they can continue to flourish.

My chief concern is what will become of the arts – not so much how they are covered in the Standard as how they are received.

The public does not, on the whole, value unsolicited opinion – which is to say, opinion for which it does not pay in some way. And the arts industry does not turn to freesheets for response, quotation and stimulation. In the decade or so of Metro’s existence, its arts pages have had no discernible impact either on public debate or on box-office activity.

A review in a free newspaper, even by a recognised writer, carries about as much weight as a plug on Amazon. Arts in the free Standard are threatened with creeping devaluation. Much as I hope to be proved wrong, I fear that the erosion of value perception will be irresistible.

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Comments

  1. I’ve written for several free newspapers over the past 30 years, starting with the Chicago Reader, continuing through the Village Voice and currently City Arts New York. I’ve also contributed to National Public Radio, for which listeners pay no immediate fee, and many publications — newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad — which do charge by the issue or subscription. Perhaps the experience is different in London, but to those in America who’ve looked to the alternative and often free-of-charge press for coverage of cultural events and trends, an opinion is as good as the evidence or bias a commentator brings to it and the consistency, concerns, depths they establish fro their personal perspective over time.

  2. Major Tom in Toronto says:

    I value your unsolicited opinions, I do.

  3. Howard Mandel’s points are important in terms of the distinction between the U.S. (in some cities/markets) and the UK. However, this distinction does not apply to the more direct analogy — What happens when traditionally cover-priced papers go free (see the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye and other such “papers”) or commercial enterprises produce free commuter sheets such as Metro, or those successful and otherwise in recent years in London. This is when the arts go out the window to make room for even more “entertainment,” gossip, and celebrity. Alternative presses were started in part to cover the arts, but many of them, too, including several of those that Howard cites above, have cut into their arts coverage in recent years.
    NL replies: These are valid and valuable perspectives.
    Correct, what you read here is free. Does it have value? I hope so, as a personal reflection that is freely shared. Were it to appear in print, I suspect its value might be more questionable since print adds an illiusion of permanence.
    Both Howard and Andrew are right to draw distinctions between US frees and those that appear in Europe. But I think they have one common denominator. Often, free newspapers start out quite high in the brow, only to droop as advertisers – their only income generator – demand instant mass appeal.
    Let’s keep the discussion going.

  4. “In the decade or so of Metro’s existence, its arts pages have had no discernible impact either on public debate or on box-office activity.”
    Presumably you mean only in London? Not the other nine UK cities where Metro Life offered, until very recently, often the only serious daily arts coverage – and where its recent demise(as a quick rummage on Media Guardian will show) has caused genuine dismay amongst the arts community?
    “And the arts industry does not turn to freesheets for response, quotation and stimulation.”
    Really? Well here’s one example to the contrary; you won’t have to look far to find many, many, more. In my experience, arts organisations large and small will take whatever endorsement they can get; and if The Times, say, gives them a bad review, they’ll very happily reprint the rave from TheLondonPaper instead:
    http://lso.co.uk/detailedrecordinginfo&showdetailstype=recording&detailID=45
    No question, the London Evening Standard going free is an important and disconcerting development – but with the majority of UK “quality” newspapers’ readers now reading them for free online in any case, the issue of a cover-price on a newspaper becomes increasingly irrelevant.
    What will matter in future is surely not whether readers pay for content, but whether news sources (whether online or in print) pay their writers – and apply professional journalistic criteria to what they publish. There will always be a readership for professional arts writing; all that’s changing is the method by which publishers make money from it.
    NL replies: Richard, you make some very good points. Let me add a couple of cavils. Metro has just slashed its arts coverage outside London: so will anyone cover the triumphs of Petrenko in Liverpool, Nelsons in Birmingham, Karabits in Bournemouth?
    On the whole, arts promoters quote from frees only when they cannot find a good line in a paid-for newspaper. The example you quote is a rare exception.
    It is a misnomer to suggest that ‘publishers made money’ from arts writing. The value it added was never on the balance sheets.

  5. “A review in a free newspaper, even by a recognised writer, carries about as much weight as a plug on Amazon.”
    I’d disagree with you there. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just cut most of its arts coverage, including the Theatre Critic and Music/Dance Critic. Those two individuals moved on to free online publications within days of leaving the paper, and have the same recognition & credibility (and following, if not more) at their new homes as they did at MJS.
    NL replies: Delighted to hear it, but for how long?

  6. I agree with your general point that people attach more importance to things for which they pay. Yet in the special case of reviews, I count my investment not in dollars paid, but in whether the reviewer writes in a way which causes me to invest the time to read. I don’t need to agree with the reviewer, but the analysis has to something in which I will “invest my time”. I think that people will like arts reviews in a free paper if the content of the review sparks this investment of time.

  7. Peter Chun says:

    If you really think about it, no one (w/ the exception, perhaps, of magazines such as Gramophone) pays SOLELY for music commentary/journalism.
    Good music coverage might lead me to buy the New York Times, but I haven’t subscribed to it because of it. I take the time to surf the web and seek out news, and sometimes run into good music criticism/journalism in a source I have never encountered before.
    Solicited or unsolicited, good writing on music, written by credible and reputable writer, will be noticed and sought out over time, whether on free medium or paid.
    As controversial as he is, I’ve followed, bookmarked, and bought Mr. Lebrecht’s writing over many years, because it’s interesting, thought provoking, as well as entertaining. Writers will give respectability or interest to their medium, and vice versa. Even if a writer is less than well-known, if the the latter is respectable the “consumer” will give the former a benefit of the doubt. Cover price, or lack thereof, is less of an issue.
    The only difference it, or the brand image of the medium, may have is when there is competition. One example of it I can think of is Boston Globe vs. Boston Phoenix. One is a newspaper of august reputation, the other a well-overshadowed underdog, but the classical music editor is a Pulitzer winner. When I lived there (even now, to an extent) it was hard to remember to seek out the Phoenix, even though I know that there is quality music criticism there, simply because the brand difference was so strong.
    I appreciate the opinions expressed here and value the forum, and I appreciate the opportunity to read and contribute to it for FREE.

  8. The issue addressed here is not unlike the one examined on a broader scale in Malcolm Gladwell’s review in The New Yorker of Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”
    Regard whether criticism in a free paper is less valued than that of a priced paper, I find the arguments here unproven. On my site, I wrote (in part) the following:
    “The whole notion of the cultural avatar is inherently bad for art because it concentrates too much tastemaking power in too few hands and hearts. Whether a publication in today’s media world is free or not, or in print or exclusively online, is secondary to the idea that a critic, if he or she is good, can still contribute meaningfully to the cultural equation without insisting on determining whether wallets are opened or shut. What Lebrecht mourns is not the death of a business model, but the demise of a power center.”
    I’d like to see some metrics that place value on cultural coverage. Then we can see whether a free or priced paper really matter in terms of impact. I suspect it’s mostly negligible.
    Leonard Jacobs
    Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report
    The nexus of arts and politics.
    http://www.clydefitch.com

  9. “Metro has just slashed its arts coverage outside London: so will anyone cover the triumphs of Petrenko in Liverpool, Nelsons in Birmingham, Karabits in Bournemouth?”
    Very true; the cities formerly served by Metro Life outside of London are (in most cases) now in a pretty poor way for serious arts coverage. There’s now no daily arts coverage of Metro Life’s scale and quality in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, to cite only the cities of which I have direct current knowledge.
    But while it lasted, it was genuinely valued; possibly rather more so than in the capital. 2 seasons ago, the RLPO printed a quote from Metro on the title pages of its main season brochure, alongside endorsements from the other national papers: hardly a barrel-scraping exercise.
    It’s quality, not cover-price, that counts and will continue to count, surely – for readers, at least, if not(as the case of regional Metro Life shows) corporate accountants. Which is why, hopefully, the LES will have less to fear from going free than many people seem to think.
    As for who’ll now cover the big emerging success-stories in Bournemouth, Liverpool and Brum; well, this is when we find out just how “national” the “national” broadsheets actually are! Some already have a rather better track-record than others.

  10. My experience as a theatre producer in London is that, contrary to Norman’s assertion, freesheet arts coverage – especially in Metro – can generate a real boost to ticket sales (whether that be a preview or a good review).
    Unfortunately the recent squeeze on the pages allocated to arts in all titles, including the Standard, has meant that it becomes increasingly difficult to get coverage – especially for the fringe/ off West End level where most of my shows are staged. In particular, there is a tendency to run copy without a photo and that always takes the edge off the impact that the article has in terms of visibility and interest it generates.
    I think that the argument about ‘unsolicited opinion’ doesn’t really stand up to examination, because the reader is still choosing to read the paper in the first place – even if it doesn’t cost them anything to make that choice.

  11. I agree with your general point that people attach more importance to things for which they pay. Yet in the special case of reviews, I count my investment not in dollars paid, but in whether the reviewer writes in a way which causes me to invest the time to read. I don’t need to agree with the reviewer, but the analysis has to something in which I will “invest my time”. I think that people will like arts reviews in a free paper if the content of the review sparks this investment of time.

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