Pushing Paper

Amid a flurry of sale rumors, Philly's Metro turns 8. Will the free daily make it to the decade mark?

By G.W. Miller III
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 23, 2008

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"I noticed every page today feels like it has Nutter on it," says editor Varrial in his fast-talking Jersey accent.

"And he probably hasn't even unpacked yet," says copy editor Jody McClain.

Varrial ends the brief session without reaching a decision, and then announces, "Of everything we've tossed out here, nothing's really getting my juices flowing."

The Metro first published in Stockholm in 1995, and within a few years there were editions in Prague, Budapest, Helsinki and several other European cities with well-used transit systems that carry commuters to downtown areas.

The Swedes decided to make Philadelphia their first operation in the United States in large part because they'd made an arrangement with SEPTA, which has 350 million riders annually. The Metro would be distributed at more than 850 locations in and around train stations and bus stops, and stacks of papers would be left on buses and trains.

Three days before the Metro first hit Philadelphia streets, the publishers of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, along with lawyers for USA Today and The New York Times, filed a lawsuit claiming the Metro's partnership with SEPTA created an unfair advantage because the paper would be made available where the other publications couldn't distribute.

"That kind of shows where their head was at," says Jack Roberts, the Philly Metro's original publisher. "They weren't interested in innovation. They were interested in protecting the monopoly in their markets."

Then, on the second day they published here, 10 inches of snow blanketed the city, shutting down schools and offices and even much of the transit system. The power in the Metro's Broad Street office went out, and they moved the staff--including visiting Swedes from corporate headquarters--to temporary facilities in the Courtyard Marriott near City Hall.

"For starting a daily newspaper," says former publisher Roberts, "it was the worst nightmare you could think of, between the lawsuit and the snowstorm."

Because of the lawsuit and its new daily newspaper business model (free!), word of the Metro spread, and dozens of brand ambassadors like Brenda Bowens were recruited to put the paper in the hands of Philadelphians every day.

"Within two months our market knew we existed," says Roberts. "Within three or four months we had a market that really considered the paper its own."

By the end of its first year circulation hovered around 138,000, with estimated readership around 443,000. The paper brought in $3.6 million in sales revenue during its first year. But the operation lost $8.8 million overall, much of it due to startup costs.

The newspaper industry, which had suffered declining readership for more than a decade, and was facing serious advertising revenue declines, watched the Metro closely.

A free daily newspaper could erode a traditional daily's circulation even further, and nobody needed that. In a defensive move, several big-city dailies--the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News, among others--created free versions of their paper. By 2005 more than a dozen free daily papers had been launched across the country, each mimicking the Metro formula--brief summary stories in a colorful tabloid format.

The Metro knockoffs were criticized internally as journalistically light, a glorified vehicle for ads. Many longtime journalists scoffed when asked about the free dailies. Most didn't consider the papers journalistic competition then--and they still don't.

"I can't say there's a lot of conversation about the Metro here," says Daily News editor Michael Days. "On any given day 90 percent of the papers we sell are sold on the street. So people are willing to go in their pocket and take out 60 cents. You're not going to get the varied voices we offer in a free paper. Not in this market."

The Daily News itself worked on a free-paper prototype called Sizzle for more than a year before Knight Ridder, then its parent company, pulled the plug in 2005. The much-maligned project--bringing up Sizzle to Daily News editorial staffers still elicits shaking heads and rolling eyes--was one of Eric Mayberry's final assignments before the Metro hired him.

"Being free isn't bad, but being thin on content is," says journalism professor Philip Meyer. "Free newspapers? They might be the saviors of print journalism."

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