i-1e4683f7b28fc947b1bf21ff895ce99b-20minutosnewsroom.jpg
20 Minutos newsroom in Madrid

As big newspapers struggle with shifting business models, a new breed of free newspapers have have found their niche in many parts of the world. According to the Newspaper Innovation blog, 36 million free papers are distributed daily in 49 countries. As newspaper subscriptions lag, advertisers turn to these papers that have a captive audience of commuters desperate for a way to while away their time.

Much of the popularity of these “free sheets” can be attributed to the fact that they are so convenient, but in some cases, free newspapers have used the Internet to augment what they do and give them a chance to evolve in the future. While print products give publishers a finite amount of space for advertising, the Internet offers seemingly endless inventory and a chance to broaden readership.

Some U.S. free papers, such as European-owned Metro, are doing a mediocre job at making their web versions compelling to readers and therefore attractive to advertisers. But more and more free papers are beginning to make online extensions of their publications a priority, and in doing so they are adding features to make their sites more compelling to readers. In some cases, free papers were quick to let readers voice opinions, read blogs, and participate in the news, adding to their publisher’s business success.

The Case of 20 Minutos Spain

There is no better example of this than Spain’s 20 Minutos, a pioneer in the free newspaper space in Western Europe and now Spain’s most distributed newspaper. 20 Minutos began as all free newspapers do — following the same model of quick reads derived from wire reports and limited local content. But something amazing has happened in the years after 20 Minutos decided to put its content — much more expansive than its print offering — online. The popularity of its website has contributed exponentially to the popularity of the title as a whole, and is influencing the way the paper does business.

Because of a stint living in Spain in 2002, I took an interest in Spanish daily news. Over the past four years or so, I’ve observed the Spanish press’ response to a demand for online content. Like in the U.S., Spain’s big newspaper names dabbled in content-for-a-fee, struggled with technology and were relatively late to the game in terms of offering readers more interactive features such as comments, blogs and recommending articles.

20 Minutos did something that the big guys were not even thinking about: They gave readers the option to add comments at the end of stories. The comments sections of the articles began filling up — sometimes with over 1,000 comments — and it was clear that 20 Minutos was on to something. This integration of an interactive feature was helping build a community, and in turn would influence the way all Spanish newspapers — including the traditional press — serve up content online.

Since 20 Minutos began adding the comment feature, effectively making what once a one-way conversation an interactive experience, big press in Spain has followed. Traditional newspaper giants El Pais and La Vanguardia have followed suit, and have also added blogs and citizen journalism to their online content mix. I can’t be sure that 20 Minutos’ early success is responsible for everything that’s come since (and incidentally, 20 Minutos.es trails behind traditional press in online readers), but the once pay-only El Pais now invites readers to “help them build ElPais.com” through their citizen journalism site called “Yo, periodista” (“I, journalist”). Plus, El Pais lets readers participate in blogs and and comment on articles.

Editor Arsenio Escolar points out in a recent blog post that, in the past few months, the online version of 20 Minutos has been introducing new features practically every week. From 40 different city editions in Spain to citizen journalism pages to a music channel, new features keep coming in order to increase page views and time on the site, the better to woo advertisers. And maybe some readers notice that, too. A comment on Escolar’s recent blog post announcing a new initiative reads “All of these initiatives sound good, but there is only air behind it all. It’s pure marketing and nothing else. A shame.” The commenter may be right but it’s a formula that works, and it works well.

Last year, 20 Minutos made the decision to consolidate its newsrooms, putting both print and online in the same place, just as the New York Times is doing. It was the first Spanish paper to make this move and Escolar explained on his blog that the goal was to “eliminate the duplication of tasks…and to augment the quality of 20 Minutos as well as 20Minutos.es.” Given the popularity of the online version of the newspaper, it’s that property that’s now guiding the title’s growth strategy and even inviting more competition to the online space.

Slower Going in the U.S.

Spain’s 20 Minutos isn’t the only free sheet that’s nailed its web strategy. Schibsted Group, the Norwegian newspaper publishing company that owns 80% of 20 Minutos and publishes versions with the same name in other European countries, has had similar success in other parts of the region. According to The Economist, its online business contributed 35% of its profits in 2005. The New York Times reports that a whopping 60% of Schibsted’s operating earnings will come from its online businesses this year, some of which, like its financial news title E24, were created by skipping the print version altogether.

Schibsted, a traditional publisher with a nearly 150-year history, has also found ways to monetize some of their content on more specialized sites, such as finn.no for classifieds.

And the pattern continues in other parts of Europe. In Switzerland, the regional version of 20 Minutes (called 20 Minuten and owned by Tamedia Group) is now the third most popular newspaper website in the country.

What has happened in Spain and other parts of Europe doesn’t seem to have happened in the U.S. — yet. Here in San Francisco, we have a local free paper, The Examiner (with editions in Baltimore and Washington D.C.), which has struggled with its online edition. The website recently relaunched with a slew of new features such as RSS feeds and blogs, but it’s still not there yet.

In attempting to purchase ads on Examiner.com for marketing clients, I’ve found that the traffic numbers were lower than I expected and the sophistication of their client services left a lot to be desired. When I signed up a client earlier this year I was told that there wasn’t even an online advertising team in place at the Examiner, which made me think that online just wasn’t their business focus. However, I was recently told by a sales rep that more attention is turning to Examiner.com and they do plan to build out the website and its advertising capabilities.

i-6122e341b6deb6d8b958983c7f35f205-washpostexpress.jpg
The Express’ website

The Washington Post’s free paper, The Express, however, seems to have a good hold on what the target audience of a free newspaper — presumably younger, professional commuters — wants online. With a focus on interactivity and blogs, useful Web 2.0 features (such as the Metrolinks interactive map) and a smart design, The Express online looks like something I would want to read independently of whether or not I picked up the print edition. I think the realization that the web property should not only be an extension of the print publication, but also a great stand-alone product, is perhaps the most valuable lesson these free papers can learn.

The Chicago Tribune has had success with its niche free daily RedEye, which is geared toward a younger audience interested in lighter news and that would probably not buy the parent paper. Apparently well tuned to its target audience’s online behavior, RedEye not only has a website which reflects its readers but also a MySpace profile and a Twitter account.

While there is a lot of change taking place on some of these sites, Erin Teeling of the Bivings Report blog points out in a recent post that the vast majority of free newspapers online don’t have a consistent set of feature offerings, and there are varying degrees of sophistication and even updating between the various sites. Some offer everything from RSS to article comments while others seem inactive. My experience in buying media in the print editions of these free papers has been that the online ads are often thrown in to sweeten the deal, meaning that the website exists solely as “an extra,” which could be why a richer site experience isn’t the primary concern.

While free papers take a lot of flack for the quality of the content and many are written off as just fluff, it’s clear that there still is potential for innovation with free papers online. Perhaps it’s because the kind of content that free papers deliver — quick, punchy and direct (if flawed) — is exactly what we’ve come to expect on the Internet. It could also be that the target audience of a free paper is more likely to go online than pay for a newspaper subscription, and the print edition of free papers is merely a prelude to what that person wants anyway: interactive news online.

It is possible that, as we move towards a greener society and free publications continue to get in trouble for not taking care of the environment, these publishers might be forced to forgo printing all those undistributed copies and take their business online. If that happens, perhaps free sheet sites could take some pointers from 20 Minutos and others that are doing it well, so that if the shift from print to digital is necessary, it’s a bit less painless.

What do you think? Will the success of the online versions of these free papers continue? Do you read the print or online versions of free papers or pass on them altogether? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Photo of 20 Minutos newsroom via innovationsinnewsrooms.com

Related