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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The newsroom has the energized atmosphere of a college newspaper.

"What unifies everybody is that they get it," Varrial says of his staff.

But two weeks ago a report citing an unnamed Metro executive surfaced that the papers in Boston, New York and Philly were up for sale. This came on the heels of year-end reports that the Metro brass were reviewing the performances of their holdings.

Now the newsroom that finally gelled over the last two years is sweating.

"To my knowledge, we are not now nor ever were targeted for sale," says Metro publisher Mayberry.

(The newspaper company that was rumored to be the Metro's buyer, Clarity Media Group, has denied any interest in the papers.)

Mayberry suggests the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that the parent company is looking to expand its U.S. operations and is seeking partnerships like it has in Boston, where The Boston Globe owns a 49 percent stake of the Boston Metro.

The hard reality, though, is that advertising sales dropped 5 percent in Philadelphia during the third quarter of 2007 alone. Sales overall for the year were flat, although the Metro won't provide definitive figures.

The paper draws more entertainment advertising now, but it still doesn't grab the high-end retailers. Instead readers are offered used-car dealers, fast-cash-now joints and the Tru-Tone Hearing Aid Center. It seems the Metro can't shake its reputation as the medium for the mass transit crowd.

"A free, general daily newspaper is kind of an anachronism because it's not very niche-y," says Ken Doctor, former head of Knight Ridder Digital who now consults news organizations about new technology. "By nature it's general. It's print. What's working is targeted and niche, not general and mass. The world doesn't want mass media at this point."

During the first nine months of last year the Metro's parent company, which operates 83 free daily newspapers in 23 countries, reported a net loss of $32.7 million. More than $9 million of that came from the three American papers.

"Come on, sugar, you can do it!" Metro hawker Brenda Bowens belts out to a jaywalking woman hustling to avoid oncoming traffic.

By 8:45 a.m. Bowens' stack of newspapers is all the way down to her knees. When she arrived at 5:45, there were two stacks that were both nearly as tall as her 5-foot-2-inch frame. That means Bowens has handed out around 2,000 copies so far.

And each paper comes with a glorious and infectious grin. "She does a wonderful job," says Antoinette Waymer, a mother of four who girl-talks with Bowens every morning for 20 minutes before catching a transfer to Conshohocken. "She keeps this corner smiling. If they take her off this corner," Waymer says, "I don't know what I'm going to do."

G.W. Miller III (gwmiller@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about having a gun pulled on him in Northern Liberties.

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