Can Ad-Based Free Newspapers Dethrone For-Pay Papers?

Using the launch yesterday of the Baltimore Express as a point of departure, the Wall Street Journal asks a troubling (for the newspaper business) question: Can free newspapers eventually destroy paid newspapers in the U.S.? The Baltimore Express, which is a fully staffed daily, complete with its own photo desk, is but the latest in a series of big-town freebie papers that have sprouted in the last couple of years. Not all are doing equally well, and a couple have fizzled. But overall, they present a new–and unwelcome–level of competition to the industry. They are especially robust in areas thick with commuters, where the papers can be easily distributed in boxes at train and bus stations. Given the traditional ad model in the newspaper business, some think the new-breed freebies might make long-term inroads. "What I think is interesting about this economic model is its concession that newspapers are really about the advertising stream anyway," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the school of journalism at the University of Maryland. The little-known secret of most papers, he says, is that income generated by selling the paper barely covers the costs of attracting and keeping readers. "So what the freebies are saying is 'Heck, let's stop the charade.'" – Read the whole story…

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