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Cooking the Books 2: Free is cheaper?


  On 12 October the London Evening Standard converted itself from a paying into a free newspaper, claiming to be the first “free quality newspaper”. That’s a bit pretentious since, as class-conscious Londoners know, the Evening Standard has been a consistently anti-working class rag opposing any strike by London workers, and a rag remains a rag even if it’s free.

  Ironically, a couple of months earlier its business page had commented:

“It had to happen: after the £1 store, came the 99p variety, and now the 89p shop is on the way. Retail Week says the Annauth family, who dreamt up the 89p store ("at least l0p cheaper than elsewhere") in Dorset, will create 20 jobs. They intend to open other branches. Soon, there will be the 79p store, then 69p. In fact, why not have the ‘nothing store’ and have done with it?” (17 August)

  Why not indeed and that’s what will happen in socialism (though the quality will be much higher than the shoddy sold in these shops today). But we’re living in capitalism, so how can a paper be free and still make a profit? From advertising, stupid. What newspapers are selling is not so much news to their readers as advertising space to advertisers. To this they do of course have to attract readers and so contain material of interest to them or which fits in with their views or prejudices. But that’s not their main purpose, nor their main source of income.

  The more readers a paper has the wider the audience of potential buyers it can offer advertisers. Requiring people to pay inevitably puts some off and so reduces readership. Hence the rise of the free, give-away paper. There are already a number of London-wide free papers and competition from them has affected Evening Standard sales. So, under its new owner, Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, its business strategists have decided to bank on an increased readership from being free bringing in more in advertising revenue than the loss of revenue from sales. As Dan Sabbagh explained in the Times (9 October):

  “This is a title that sold about 450,000 copies as recently as five years ago, but competition from freesheets (including News International's thelondonpaper) pushed its paid-for sales down to 110,000 in August. At that sort of level, cover price income of a miserable £10 million or so is so small that it might be worth gambling on a massive increase in advertising income by printing twice the number of copies and giving them away.”

  Even before he became a socialist Marx had remarked that “the primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade”  (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1842/free-press/ch06.htm). That’s a good point. The commercial newspapers, which proclaim themselves the “Fourth Estate” and trumpet that they are essential defenders of our “freedom”, are not a free press at all. What they mean by freedom of the press is the freedom for them as newspaper businesses to print what they like without government interference or any degree of democratic control.

  The only free press today is small-circulation magazines like us whose main concern is to get ideas across, not to make a profit. And in socialism all papers will be free to take and read  – and free also of commercial advertising.

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