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17 May 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Born free, showing the way

What is the secret of the hugely successful Metro? Could it possibly be that it gives the news strai

By David Cox

Over the past five years, daily sales of national newspapers in Britain have fallen by a million. What would you expect, with ever more rival sources of news emerging and ever-growing claims on our time? Yet during this same period, one paper has managed to crack the market from a standing start.

Metro, the morning daily distributed free to rail commuters in major cities, was started by the Mail group merely to queer the pitch for any would-be rival to its London Evening Standard. Now, however, the newcomer is not only making a healthy profit, but has succeeded in grabbing the readers every editor and advertiser most covets, the young and affluent. Seventy-seven per cent of Metro‘s readers are under the age of 44; 62 per cent are well-heeled ABC1s.

No wonder that the paper has burst out of the capital to conquer Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester, with bridgeheads in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east. New editions to be launched in the East Midlands and the West Country over the next few weeks will take the combined circulation above the million mark, and make Metro Britain’s fourth-biggest national daily.

What is striking about this triumph is that it has been achieved by defying the industry’s conventional wisdom. The paid-for papers are waging their losing battle for readers by becoming more and more strident and opinionated, and indulging in emotive campaigns and dubious scoops.

Metro has taken another tack. Slim, calm and classless, it eschews glamour, clamour and pretension. The rest of the industry takes it for granted that competition from other media obliges today’s papers to find something other than news to justify their existence. Metro begs to differ.

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Its uncomplicated pages are filled mainly with stories that you might indeed have half caught on TV, but here – set out clearly, concisely and objectively – they suddenly become comprehensible. News coverage is backed by thorough, but equally concise, metropolitan lifestyle guidance. You are told whether a film or gig is good or bad and why; you are not expected to wade through 800 words of waffle from a self-indulgent reviewer. The whole package is designed to be absorbed in a 20-minute commute and, unlike a paid-for paper, it comes stapled together so it will not fall apart in your hands.

It is not only in Britain that this form- ula has delivered. Kinnevik, the Swedish group that launched the first commuters’ freesheet in 1995, now prints five million copies a day in 100 cities, including, from this month, New York. In Marseilles, trade unionists stormed a printworks and destroyed copies of the Scandinavian invader as they came off the presses, but today French commuters are hooked on their handy freesheets. A stark message is being sent to the conventional newspaper industry. But what exactly is it?

Though Metro‘s circulation more or less matches the losses of Britain’s other national dailies, “There is no evidence that the arrival of newspapers like Metro has dented the circulation of paid-for papers,” according to Peter Goodwin, who heads Westminster University’s department of journalism and mass communications. Yet the Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, admits Metro has hit his London sales.

Some optimists argue that Metro is actually helping the paid-for press, by inducting the prosperous young into the reading habit. As they get older, it is suggested, they will graduate to conventional papers. Maybe. It all rather depends on just why Metro is succeeding. Sally Feldman, a media academic, thinks the answer is obvious: “It attracts people who would rather not pay for their newspaper.” Yet Metro‘s readers spend a fortune on CDs and DVDs and could easily afford to buy papers.

Feldman compares what is happening now with the impact of freesheets on the local newspaper market in the 1970s. “They did have a very, very dramatic effect,” she says, “but the really excellent local newspapers survived, as will the serious national newspapers.” Yet local freesheets usually get thrown away unread. Metro readers are clearly attending closely to what they are getting.

Is the startling truth that today’s upmarket young are just too cool to fall for the tacky hullabaloo that is still the stock-in-trade of our febrile traditional papers?

Steve Auckland, Metro‘s managing director, offers this observation: “Thirty-year-olds want to make up their own minds on the basis of the facts. They’re tired of spin.” Already, some broadsheets are copying Metro‘s shape. Perhaps its content also holds a message for its ailing, paid-for rivals.