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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"We broke stories," says Andrew Busch, one of the Metro's two original reporters. "We generated a lot of original features."

Busch was the first journalist to report that Philadelphia would be a venue for Live 8, the massive worldwide concert event.

But the news cycle quickly overwhelmed the small staff that also had to frequently edit copy, proofread pages, shoot pictures, help with budgeting and even lay out pages. They tried to cover local events, but wire stories filled most of the paper.

In 2004 the Metro started pushing for stronger local coverage. "The reporters knew that if they did a good local story, it would go out front," says former news editor Eric Fisher. "That didn't happen before."

The change spurred the staff to work even harder, and it brought results. The Metro averaged 143,000 papers a day that year, slightly topping the Daily News, which remained at 141,000. And after four years in business, the paper finally became profitable. During the Eagles' run for the Super Bowl in 2005, there were days when circulation topped 170,000.

But around that same time the New York Metro was created, and some duties, like page layout and copy editing, were centralized there. The Manhattan office began to edit Philly stories and even write Philly headlines.

When editorial decisions started coming out of New York, frustrated Philadelphia staffers started leaving the paper.

Office space: The Metro's spacious new digs belie its financial troubles.

"New York felt we had too many crime stories, and that ongoing violence wasn't really a big story in Philadelphia," says Chris Baud, who did stints as news, entertainment and sports editor during his three years at the Metro. "It's hard to imagine what could be more important to Philadelphia readers than the chronicling of its horrific crime problem."

One of the most infuriating days for Baud came on Jan. 21, 2005, when the New York office decided to run a large photo of George Bush dancing at his inauguration party on the cover. That same weekend, the Eagles were playing in the NFC championship game.

"We were told to make the paper interesting to professional 28-year-old women," Baud remembers.

In May 2005 circulation reached an all-time high, averaging more than 160,000 copies daily. But morale was low, mistakes were frequently published, and a downward spiral began. Circulation declined to around 120,000. Then the paper severed its ties with SEPTA, making distribution that much more difficult.

When Ron Varrial, who had been sports editor at the New York Metro when it launched, arrived in Philadelphia to become news editor in June 2005, the remainder of the original Metro staff vacated. It wasn't coincidental.

"When I got here, newsgathering was sitting down to watch the 5 o'clock news," Varrial says. "All you had to do was watch the news at night to know what was going to be in our paper the next day."

(For the record, every former Metro staffer interviewed for this story denies they simply rewrote TV news stories).

The Metro didn't have the staff to be comprehensive or become the paper of record. So Varrial directed his personally assembled staff to stay away from reacting to breaking news and to focus instead on issues and trends.

"Just because it happens doesn't mean it's news," he told them. "We're supposed to be the anti-newspaper."

Forget the stories about retirement, the police blotter or the evening's TV lineup. He told his staff to quit writing about who's going to win American Idol and instead write about the acts that were going to appear at Johnny Brenda's.

"We have news in the paper so readers can do well in quizzo," jokes entertainment editor Dorothy Robinson. "But they also have to know what's going on in Philly. I kind of think of my section as a cheerleader for the city."

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