News of The Evening Standard going free has been a major trending topic these last few days - both among London's Twitterati and in the Twingly channel I've set up on journalism & media (in beta, password-protected but see screengrab below).
We may speculate whether or not taking it free is a wise decision, but we're not entirely without case stories to compare it to. Standard-owener Alexander Lebedev and his editor, Geordie Greig, are apparently convinced that they can make a virtue of being the first "quality free": they may be that in the UK market, but Baugur-funded Dagsbrun ran "quality freesheets" for years on Iceland and in Denmark, the company's short-lived US-based free, "Boston Now", may also have fallen under that umbrella. I'm most familiar with the readership figures of their Danish start-up, Nyhedsavisen - a start-up which ended well, not in tears, both its competitors and its journalists, and I talked to both, seemed to drink to its demise albeit for different reasons, but at least in a humbling defeat.
The Icelandic-initiated Danish freesheet was at times the most read newspaper in all of Denmark, and its content, which was designed to compete with paid-for quality dailies rather than other freesheets, seemed to be a hit with well-educated women - often the big spenders in a family. At least I recall making a note of how it had a larger per centage of female and well-educated readers than other freesheets, whereas the Danish freesheets in general led to a larger percentage of young people, who wouldn't normally read papers, reading newspapers. I'm only quoting from memory but I'm sure I've written articles on this - though I fear it was for a print-only magazine.
Also, there are major differences between Nyhedavisen and The Evening Standard, the former was started from scratch in August 2006 whereas the latter has long traditions and a well-established audience, but Nyhedsavisen's readership figures certainly suggest there is a market for quality frees even among more affluent groups. Free daily Frettabladid, which Nyhedsavisen was modelled on, is still Iceland's most read newspaper as far as I know, but its business model is based on door-to-door distribution - a fact many felt was a major reason for the model's demise in Denmark. Earlier this year, Wired's Chris Anderson described it as a tale of free gone terribly wrong after Jon Lund asserted it was this model of "double free" which made Nyhedsavisen an unsustainable project in the end (both blog posts worth reading in full).
Update 05.10.2009: see also Piet Bakker's post questioning the assertion that ES is the first "converted quality".