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23-04-06, 23:43
MEN to mint it with a hole in the centre

Peter Preston
Sunday April 23, 2006
The Observer (http://www.observer.co.uk/)



Here's a grisly game any apprentice newspaper manager, with or without Sir Alan, can play. You're running a big-city evening newspaper and, inexorably, your future is draining away. Once, a long time ago, you used to sell 350,000 a day. Now, spiralling downwards between 3-5 per cent a year, that's 134,000. Put this rate of decline into a computer and your predicament is brutally clear: by 2025 you won't have a paper left. You must do something. But what?

There are various answers on offer if you look around. They include going down to a single edition, butchering costs, scrapping Saturday publication, producing special Lite giveaways - or just awaiting nemesis with a lame grin. Evening papers are moribund across the States, after all. You can't turn that tide, can you?

Well, we'll see - imminently - as the Manchester Evening News tries something new. Enter the two-edition MEN, priced 35p for the outer city but free in the city centre, where 50,000 copies a day will be handed out or picked up from newsagents. And these frees won't be lite. They'll be the full Monty.

Mark Dodson, this Guardian Media Group's regional CEO, hopes to see a sale-cum-distribution of 180,000, an ABC circulation figure that includes both paid and distributed, and an end (as he puts it) to just sitting there, watching a brand with history and quality on its side wither.

The MEN only has 7,000 sold copies a day to lose in the city centre, so the downside may be less precipitous than it looks. And the free morning Metro, topping a million a day around the country for Associated, is part of most evenings' problems. Price matters. Cutting it helped the Express grow a bit last month. Something for nothing works, and something good for nothing works better.

Bright idea? It is perilous, in the wider world, to pretend that news is free. You can argue that dishing out more of it makes other problems worse. But here, at least, is a specific idea full of fight. At least it dares to hope. Come back in the autumn and see what happened next. Get fired up, not fired.

The most important story in China

Chairman Hu goes to Washington, Mayor Ken goes to Beijing - and what testimony are we scribblers supposed to remember amid so many high-level perambulations? One thing's certain: we need to remember, because we're part of the story.

Call Reporters Sans Frontières. 'China was the world's largest jailer of journalists' for the seventh straight year as 2005 ended, with 31 reporters and editors behind bars (as well as 64 internal dissidents).

Call the Committee to Protect Journalists. China 'is sending a clear and disturbing message that it intends to crack down on free impression on the web' - recruiting 10,000 surfer/ censors, enforcing registration of all domestic sites, driving and dragooning foreign net companies to sign the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline.

Call Human Rights Watch to testify about a new and 'brutal crackdown on Uighur religious expression, cultural traditions and social institutions in Xinjiang' - not to mention the gagged and intimidated Tibetans.

See the latest International Press Institute annual report, detailing the fate of foreign reporters who incur Beijing's wrath: Zhao Yan of the New York Times, imprisoned for 'leaking state secrets'; Ching Cheong of the Straits Times, held without charge for 'spying for Taiwan'; the Malaysian Leu Siew Ying of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post and Abel Segretin of Radio France Internationale, viciously beaten up while investigating corruption allegations in Taishi.

And so on. China 2005 was a growing morass of intimidation against and repression of free journalism, constantly unveiling fresh laws, curbs, threats of incarceration. But do we - members of the profession in the firing line - care about that? Not overmuch, it would seem. We're mostly stuck alongside (or rather to the rear of) Mr Rupert Murdoch, who has just informed Newsweek that no government can 'ultimately' control or censor the net.

'In China you can bar a certain word, but Google will still enable billions of people to get a great deal more knowledge and education, though it may not be political information. Still, all of that has to be good. China made a deliberate decision to let in the internet. They are going to have to live with the consequences.' Ultimately, that is: but let's get the Olympics over first.
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,1759303,00.html

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