London's toppermost listings magazine, Time Out, finally threw in the towel and went free this week. From a cover price of £3.25 to diddlysquat, the intention is to drive up readership with a Tuesday morning giveaway. Other publications (such as the Evening Standard) have had success with this model, but it relies on increased readership of adverts replacing income lost at the newsstand. It might work, especially if punters can be directed online where Time Out hopes they'll book tickets and stuff. You'll see evidence of the magazine's new "book now" rationale if you scan the listed events promoted on the Time Out homepage, or if (as they hope) you download the dedicated Time Out app. The risk is that punters might see their new freebie as another chuck-on-the-floor lightweight, not an invaluable guide to the week ahead, but we'll see.
I wasn't sure I'd get a copy now they're only being given out in a single morning rush hour. Imagine my surprise to find a bloke in a red cap doling out Time Outs outside Bow Church DLR, which is not somewhere any other free periodical bothers with. A few hundred yards later at Bow Road station another free issue was thrust into my hand, and all this before eight in the morning. This suggests some considerable amount is being invested in distribution, or else they were just making a special effort for the launch. But at the other end of my journey, at a major tube station in central London, no copies whatsoever. On my way home the bloke at the kiosk where I bought last week's copy told me there had been "loads of 'em about" later in the morning, but I passed through as a wholly missed opportunity.
And what of the new slimlinemagazine. To be fair it's only one-third down on last week's pagination, which isn't bad for a 100% reduction in price. A couple of longer articles remain, but the content's mostly granular recyclable 100-word snippets. The font size has increased, so it's taken rather fewer words to fill the 80 pages (and no doubt a corresponding cut in staff costs). Almost all of the familiar sections remain, thinned down rather than cut. But we're now talking highlights only, as the comprehensive listings for which Time Out was once famous are summarily dumped.
Let me analyse the new Time Out properly by tallying the pagination of three separate editions. A fat issue from five years ago kicking off with The Big Smoke and ending with My Favourite Londoner. Last week's issue, starting with the now defunct letters page and ending with Michael Hodges' Slice of Life. And this week's zero pence 80-pager, from The Hot List at the front to London's Top Ten at the back. I've counted up all the content, occasionally approximately, and the table below shows how each section's declined in size.
12 Sep 2007 196pp, £2.80
20 Sep 2012 124pp, £3.25
25 Sep 2012 80pp, free
Much bittier, and briefer (but still something to read)
Things To Do
Now only selected top-level events get a mention (sigh)
Want listings? Bugger off to the internet (or get the app)
For all future gig-booking opportunities, it's adverts only
Time Out's not really for the classically-inclined
Apparently London now only has 14 clubs (last week 59)
With no more than three stand-ups a night (usually one)
Several highlights, but no depth (and minimal fringe)
Hanging on in there (barely)
Doing its best in not much space
Nuggety promos a la Stylist or Shortlist
Food & Drink
Unexpectedly limited, and oddly uninspired
From the mag that fought for listings, no more listings
Dead. Books are officially dead. Sorry.
Small ads have entirely migrated online
There's no money in this, it's long gone
A greater proportion of ads, but not by much
In attempting to cover almost everything, the new Time Out covers nothing in depth. Film and Music come out best, relatively speaking, but each has fewer than five pages of editorial reduced from considerably more. The film section fares particularly badly, without even a complete list of this week's new releases, and box office listings entirely jettisoned. Sure, that's all on the internet these days, but the magazine's next to useless for planning a decent night out. The other enormous casualty over the years is Theatre, where Time Out's gone from a comprehensive overview of West End and Fringe to, well, not much really. If you're in town for the week and looking for a night in the stalls, Time Out won't help you. The future's smartphone enabled, obviously, but a significant proportion of the population aren't anywhere close yet.
On the Time Out blog the magazine's editor, Tim Arnold, says "It’s bigger, bolder, funnier and I truly believe it’s better." He's clearly lying about it being better, because his highlights-only Time Out Lite can only skim the capital's surface. Those seeking detailed information will now be at the mercy of the Time Out website - fine for film, but whose searchable event listings I've never found a rich source of inspiration. But at least the magazine has retained its independent and comprehensive editorial stance, unlike the equally-free Shortlist and Stylist which are no more than platforms for PR puff. And come on, what do you expect for nothing? Time Out's not what it was, nor will it ever be again, but it is still worth grabbing a copy.