Free distribution: marketing boost or brand suicide?

In October, the London Evening Standard dropped its 50p cover price and had gone completely free. They claimed that since then their circulation had increased to 600,000 copies. They also described themselves as the first ‘quality newspaper’ to go free.

I have to admit I have not been a big fan of the Evening Standard and only bought it if there were major breaking news on the day. Personally, I feel that there are not a whole lot of viewpoints in the editorial content which makes it less appealing as an informed and critical read. After it had gone free I did start to pick up copies of it – out of convenience and also out of curiosity of the change of editorial direction. I think being a reader now has not changed my impression about the paper. What I am more interested to find out is:

– Does the increase of circulation translating to quality readership – which leads to confidence among advertisers?
– Will switching to free distribution lead to further dumbing down of the editorial content since they need to appeal to a much broader reader profile?
– Is going free like committing ‘brand suicide’?