Ride, read, and rag the competition
More than a niche: Free dailies on subways worldwide pressure older papers.
Commuters around the world can thank their counterparts in Stockholm for the most-talked-about addition to the subway since the turnstile: a free daily paper.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
People from Scandinavia to South America might still be staring out windows during their morning rides if the newspaper-loving Swedes hadn't embraced a new paper called Metro in 1995. Now, the commuter-paper concept has spread,helping develop a market of new and young readers in an industry that covets both.
"There are a lot of people reading the newspaper that didn't before Metro arrived," says Ingela Wadbring, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Gothenburg, who has studied Metro's impact in Sweden.
Free daily papers number almost 40 worldwide, according to the International Newspaper Marketing Association. Most debuted in the last several years, and 18 are owned by Metro International, Metro's publisher. Its aggressive expansion brought it to the US last year when it launched Metro Philadelphia, with other major US cities reportedly targets.
While the impact on advertising and subscriptions at traditional papers is still being assessed, the trend has caught the attention of the world's newspapers -which have launched their own free dailies and challenged Metro's exclusive rights on transit systems.
"We view Metro as competition, pure and simple," says Pamela Browner-Crawley, spokeswoman for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, a party in a lawsuit involving Metro.
In many cities, competitors are racing to get underground ahead of the stealthy Swedes. In London, Oslo, Zurich, Toronto, Montreal, and New York publishers have started their own free daily papers, sometimes competing directly with Metro.
To keep the upper hand, Metro International has become secretive about target cities, where it can set up shop practically overnight. Two new Metro editions were launched in the first week of this month alone, in Montreal and Barcelona -even while elsewhere other editions were being closed or merged.
"They're like stealth bombers now. They come in and you don't know they're coming," says Ed Trayes, director of the master of journalism program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Metro's payload is light, mostly wire-service items that can be skimmed on a 20-minute ride.
"It's enough information -not too little, not too much," says Tomas Wrobel, a computer specialist at a downtown Stockholm bank, who is still reading his copy of Metro as he walks to work on a recent morning.
Some traditional papers compare Metro with fast-food journalism (much as they did USA Today). But Metro says it has no plans to change its format - which is an inexpensive-to-produce news summary supported entirely by advertisers.
"That's what we do. We summarize the world for people," says Sakari Pitkanen, editor in chief of Metro Stockholm. "We don't want to be one of the boys, we still want to be the new kid on the block, which no one really likes except for the readers."
Metro's management says it has to offer a quality product, or it can't stay in business. "We are and see ourselves primarily as a sales company, and it's nothing that we are ashamed about," says Jens Torpe, Metro's London-based chief operational officer. "Having said that, if you want to sell something to advertisers ... the only way you can do it is if you have good and high-quality [product], because otherwise you don't have any readers."
A Gallup survey commissioned by Metro last November shows that the paper has a readership of more than 6.6 million people worldwide, many of those women and young people. At the end of 2000, 41 percent of its daily readers were between 13 and 29, the company reports.
Associated Newspapers Ltd. in London says that its free daily is also attracting young audiences. The average age is 32, with 77 percent of all readers under 44.