Yesterday the Evening Standard sold its final copy. 50p bought you the latest London news, a Sudoku to do on the train home and a copy of the nauseating, straight-into-the-recycling ES magazine. From Monday everything changes. The Standard's ditching its cover price and giving itself away for free, in the hope that increased circulation will bring a profitable advertising bonanza. They're printing hundreds of thousands more copies than usual, so surely it'll much easier to pick up a copy than ever before? Ah, actually, no. And a lot of regular Standard readers are about to become seriously disenfranchised.
When newspapers are sold, there's a recognised distribution network to shift the product from the printers to the consumer. Vans rushing around the capital with the latest edition on board, delivered to street vendors, shops and newsagents, from which the eager reader could easily purchase a copy. Be it Romford, Ruislip or Purley, a copy of the Evening Standard used to be simplicity itself to locate.
When newspapers are given away free, the method of distribution changes. You need an army of low-paid hander-outers in brightly coloured jackets thrusting copies of your paper into the hands of as many passers-by as possible. Most of these locations need to be in central London, where the homebound commuters are, especially close to major road junctions and station entrances. But you no longer whisk copies of the paper to newsagents, because they're not going to be keen on customers coming into their shops and walking off with an unpaid-for freebie. Shoplifter's charter, that. Not a runner.
Hence the problem. If you're in the centre of town it should be easy to grab a Standard, they'll be everywhere, just like the London Lite is and londonpaper was. There'll be vendors outside every single Zone 1 station, for example, so that's great. Just so long as your commute takes you near a station, that is. Whole swathes of the City have no nearby stations, and here the Standard will no longer be available to those travelling home by bus or bicycle. Work in Clerkenwell? Sorry, bloody long walk to Angel or Farringdon required. Want a copy on Fleet Street? Nah, ain't none here guv'nor. Most unbelievably of all, not one single distribution point has been designated in Chelsea. Given that the Standard still targets itself at the affluent nanny-hiring classes, this unavailability is surely economic madness.
Once outside central London, the nu-Standard's distribution gets even feebler. Take where I live in East Tower Hamlets, E3. There are at least five newsagents within a ten minute walk of my front door in Bow. None of these newsagents will have any Standards come Monday, neither will there be a bloke down by the flyover trying to flog the paper to queueing motorists. Meanwhile for anyone living in Mile End the nearest giveaway point will be well over a mile away, so who'd bother even trying? Indeed there's only one distribution point planned within the whole of my postcode area, and that's at the Tesco superstore in Bromley-by-Bow. It's off the beaten track for most, and I can't say it's somewhere I make a habit of visiting every evening. But if I'm at home and fancy a free Standard fix, that'll be my only option. My local Tesco will be the sole distributor node between Hackney and Docklands, and between Whitechapel and Stratford. My chunk of East London is about to become an Evening Standard desert.
And it's even worse further out. Swathes of outer London will have Evening Standards available only in certain superstores, which are to replace newsagents as the publisher's outlet of choice. In Romford your only options are two Sainsburys and an Asda, in Ruislip a single southern Sainsbury, and in Purley a lonely Tesco Extra. Devoted Standard readers in the suburbs, many of whom don't commute into central London, are suddenly going to find themselves paperless unless they hop into their car and drive for miles to an out-of-town supermarket. They won't like that. They might even write a letter to the editor, although they'll only be able to read the response on the internet.
From Monday the Evening Standard may cost nothing, but that's no good if you can't find a copy. It seems that the newspaper is launching free before its distribution network is really ready, with an emphasis on suburban supermarkets that's a massive comedown on last week's newsagent network. The Standard's about to become an inner London commuter freebie, not a capital-wide voice. Never mind, there'll still be somewhere in Zone 6 to find a Standard, and that'll be littering the floor of a passing train carriage. Only time will tell if that's where the relaunched paper belongs.
» To check the Evening Standard news desert near where you live, click or search on this map. And then zoom out to view the problem on a wider scale.