‘Game-changing’? A free future for Mirror, Record, other papers on iPad?

Imagine if a national newspaper dropped its cover price and went free to readers. That’s what UK title Daily Mirror and Scottish sibling Daily Record are doing — at least, on iPad.

For their first iPad app, the publications have launched e-edition replicas that mimic the printed red-tops in every way, save for the £0.45 ($0.72) price.

Many publishers like The Guardian and FT, for their first iPad foray, launch for free on the device, often with a big advertising sponsor, in order to build audience, only to require subscriptions a few months later. Though most newspaper websites, including on iPad, are free, the typical iPad newspaper app subscription pricepoint has settled at £9.99 per month.

For the Mirror and Record, however, there is not yet any suggestion that the zero cover price is a temporary, audience-gathering exercise.

That makes this launch interesting. In a possible future where print is replaced by tablet consumption, the Daily Mirror and Daily Record just became freesheets. Former Mirror digital publisher Matt Kelly calls it “game-changing”.

London’s Evening Standard has already successfully gone free in print on the city’s streets, increasing advertisers’ exposure through heightened circulation, and recently moved back in to profit. Some industry observers believe only a free future is viable in an age where paid circulation is declining for most titles.

In the Mirror and Record‘s cases, the e-edition downloads are free only on weekdays — weekend editions still require payment.

But newspapers’ historic strength has been their financing by multiple revenue streams — ads and cover price. So are the Mirror and Record crazy to lock themselves in to a future where no-one pays anything for them?

Last year, the papers jointly circulated over 1.4 million printed copies per day, making £256.6 million in annual circulation revenue and £135.1 million in advertising revenue.

So, in a future in which they replaced their paid, printed newspapers with free tablet editions, the publications would be losing their largest income source.

Last year, they reached around 4.1 million readers per issue combined. But this secondary readership in a tablet world would certainly diminish, since few people will share their iPad in the same way they will share a low-cost printed paper. So even advertiser outlook may be diminished.

Also, tablet ownership amongst the Mirror and Record reader demographics are not yet at the levels of, say, The Times.

However, there is one big benefit that likely rides above all others for the titles — any free downloads they do get will be added to their declining print circulation. That is because, while native-looking tablet apps don’t count toward ABC data, e-replica distribution can be pitched, by canny ad sales staff, as extra circulation.

What we are likely seeing is the iPad being used to prop up circs, more than the definition of a whole new business model in its own right.

All in all, this is likely a smart first move for publisher Trinity Mirror to gently build up a tablet audience and stabilise its declining print base. When readers open the app — which, by virtue of being a replica, was likely cheap to build and which requires zooming to read text easily — they are asked by Apple to share their name, email address and post code with the publisher.

That information can be used to target future promotions — perhaps future subscription invitations?

Many a publisher tweaks its tablet and mobile business model along the way, and I would be surprised if Daily Mirror and Daily Record are yet committing themselves to a free future forever.