The London edition of Time Out, the weekly listings magazine, is scrapping its cover price this fall to become a free-distribution publication in the hope of boosting circulation to 300,000 a week from 50,000.
Time Out, which began in London in 1968, now has editions in 37 cities across 25 countries around the world. It carried out extensive research among advertisers, readers and nonreaders before deciding to drop the $5 price. Executives are thought to hope that advertisers will pay higher rates for space in Time Out London once it reaches an audience six times its current size.
A media buyer said the move might well work. "The scale of Time Out's online offering is amazing, but the magazine has been sitting alongside it in its old format and old ways," said Vanessa Clifford, head of press at Mindshare U.K. and one of the people consulted by Time Out on the move. "The scale will make it more attractive to advertisers but like anything else, the editorial has to be right, and the look needs to be cleaner and fresher. People won't keep picking it up just because it's free if it doesn't add anything to their lives."
Ms. Clifford reserved judgment on how much more her clients might be prepared to pay for the new-look magazine. "It will appeal to a young urban audience which is attractive to advertisers, but it's a tricky call," she said. "There's the layer of 50,000 people paying for it vs. 300,000 who have no financial commitment."
The new Time Out will focus more on information, recommendations and features, reserving much of the listing element for the website and apps, so that the print edition will carry fewer pages than the 134 it averages now.
"The new Time out will give advertisers a quality, weekly vehicle for reaching a social and outgoing London audience and complements our digital products," Time Out CEO Aksel van der Wal said in the statement.
London's free-newspaper and -magazine market is thriving. The Evening Standard, for example, ditched its cover price in October 2009, when sales were 256,000. By June 2012, its free circulation was up to 700,506, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The newspaper has been printing an increased print run during the Olympic Games.
The Metro newspaper, which launched as a freesheet in 1999 and paved the way in the quality free-newspaper market, had a circulation of 777,396 in June 2012, according to the audit bureau.
The move to becoming a free magazine in London will not affect Time Out's other magazines around the world, including those published in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. "Absolutely not," a spokesman for Time Out said. "There are no plans to change distribution in any other markets. This is a Time Out London decision. The free market in London is well-established, and there's a lot of good free quality product."
The free magazine will be distributed at London Underground stations and other major transport intersections as well as at key cultural institutions, arts venues, bars, cafes and shops. It is hoped that the boost in ad revenues will more than make up for the loss of cover price revenue.
Time Out London had a peak circulation of 110,000 in the 1990s. Private-equity company Oakley Capital acquired a 50% stake in Time Out last year.