23 September 2006

Beware Of Late Night Badgers

London buses and Underground carriages have been knee deep in newsprint these past few weeks as a cutthroat competition has broken out between Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and Lord Rothermere's Associated Newspapers over who can hand out the most freebies.

It's barely possible to walk into an Underground station or indeed down most high streets without being virtually assaulted by eager young (and not so young) barkers insisting that you take one of their newspapers. "It's free," they chant, mantra-like, as they attempt to stuff a paper under your arm if you're not cooperative enough to hold out your hand for one.

Often representatives of the two competing papers, London Lite (Rothermere) and The London Paper (Murdoch), will set up shop only yard away from each other, each trying to shout down their opposition if not muscle them right off the pavement. The two new evening papers join a market already cluttered with two morning freebies and nearly a dozen for-sale dailies.

And is there enough news to fill that many papers? Not a problem, apparently, though "news" might be stretching a point; much of the new papers' content involves gossip, features on where to go drinking or clubbing, slice-of-life stories about everyday Londoners (if "everyday Londoners" can be taken to mean people who are young, good-looking, and blessed with unlimited resources to spend on clothes and entertainment). And did I mention gossip? And scandal? In other words, a dumbed-down (you wouldn't have thought it possible, would you?) version of Britain's already massively successful tabloid press. The journalistic equivalent of fast food: full of empty calories and thoroughly enjoyable, even if the aftertaste contains more than a soup├žon of guilt. For instance, I've been carrying a very edifying book with me on my journeys around town this week, and haven't so much as opened it once, because I've been too busy devouring the free papers that seem to accumulate in my backpack faster than I can get through them.

With free newspapers becoming almost the norm, what is likely to happen to the more traditional ones, which, even if they're charging money for their print copies, can be read for free on the internet? Some observers are speculating that all newspapers will eventually have to be free, deriving their income entirely from advertising. Which raises the further question: just as one wonders whether the volume of news and features (and aspiring freelance journalists) can expand indefinitely to fill the space available, are there enough products for sale and people with money to buy them to support an unlimited growth in advertising?

If the f0r-sale papers are running scared in the face of their free competition, they're showing little sign of it: already priced considerably higher than American papers, they've lately been raising their prices with dizzying speed. The Guardian has gone from 40p (75¢) to 70p ($1.30) within my recent memory, and the Sunday times is now £2, having doubled its price during the same period. A strange reaction in the face of declining circulation figures, but no doubt there are many things about the newspaper industry that I have yet to understand.

Oh, and lest I give the wrong impression, the new free papers are not all fluff and tittle-tattle. The other day's item about the 40-strong pack of knife and gun-wielding bicyclists was culled from the free press, as is the following, also printed in its entirety:
Beware Of Late Night Badgers

Animal welfare workers are exhausted by badger emergencies late at night. They want motorists to be more aware of the animals.

Perhaps a task force needs to be sent to Wisconsin to observe how that state deals with its own badger issue?


Mark said...

A couple years ago, here in Vancouver, three free daily "newspapers" all started up within a couple weeks of each other. There were newspaper boxes everywhere. On one intersection, I counted six boxes from each of the papers. One on each corner, and then one at each of the two bus stops that were about 10 feet from the corner. I was once walking around a residential neighbourhood, and saw a box for one of the papers sitting on the corner of an intersection of two completely random residentail streets. It was getting to the point where they were actually starting to block pedestrial movements.

This was combined with the people who would give away the papers to pedestrians, even though there would never be a box more than 15 feet away from them. The three papers would send their people to the same place, and the people would give you a paper even if you told them that you didn't want one. At my school, I would always walk in the door, and see the garbage (not recycling, either) cans overflowing with these stupid things.

As a result of this, it has become my life goal to destroy the free daily newspaper industry.

Joe said...


crystal said...

that happened in nyc a few summers ago. one was called metro and the other was something else. i can't remember. and they'd stand, literally, outside the same subway entrance and force them on you. it ended up just being a lot of garbage down in the actual stations. then they just disappeared.