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World: 'Metro' Newspapers Create Publishing Phenomenon

  • Don Hill

The first "Metro" newspaper began publishing six years ago in Stockholm and the second started two years later in Prague. Now Metro International is issuing 21 editions in 13 languages around the world and has established a nationwide newspaper in Hungary. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill traces the growth of the free-newspaper phenomenon and describes the principles that support it.

Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Around the world, established newspapers are in trouble. Young people increasingly are turning for news to radio, television, and the Internet. Readership is shrinking, circulation costs and subscription prices are rising, and advertisers are seeking out less cluttered media to carry their messages.

That's what makes the story of the free "Metro" newspapers so phenomenal. From a modest beginning in Stockholm in 1995, the company now called Metro International has established 21 new newspapers in little more than six years. The second "Metro" newspaper opened in Prague four years ago. Budapest's "Metro" newspaper has gone national -- distributed in 15 cities. There are "Metro" newspapers in Poland, South America, and Philadelphia and Boston in the United States. The latest city is Hong Kong.

The newspapers' publishers decline to say which, if any, other cities can soon expect to see the slim tabloid with the green logotype, crowded front page, and news stories the length of dictionary entries. The best bet is that it will pop up somewhere unexpected.

Metro International Chief Operating Officer Jens Torpe says the company expected to do well when it established "Metro" in Prague, but was surprised at the newspaper's ready acceptance and its quick turnaround from startup to profitable venture. Based on its two years of experience in Stockholm, Metro International had no sure way of knowing what it was getting into when it entered an entirely different kind of market.

"But we did know that the interest [in] newspapers would be very high in the old Eastern Europe," Torpe said, "so therefore we thought that a paper like 'Metro' would indeed be very much appreciated in both Hungary and the Czech Republic."

He said the cost-free element was a special hit: "We knew from the circulation figures of some of the traditional newspapers that were down there that they looked quite high, but also the pricing of those titles [was] quite high if you took [into account] the average salaries in the countries. So we thought that the 'Metro' concept -- and distributing it free-of-charge in the subways -- [would] hit home with the readers and the populations in these cities."

The "Metro" idea took root in the mid-1990s when Sweden's largest media group confronted a growing problem with a new idea. Newspapers were fading, they said, because young people didn't have time to read them and newspapers were so fat that advertisers feared their messages were drowning in the competitive flood.

Why not, they suggested, develop a newspaper thin enough to be read in limited time, delivered by unconventional means and circulated specifically to the upscale young readers that advertisers wanted most to reach?

The marketing firm was so impressed that it took on the challenge and invested heavily in the enterprise itself.

Metro International's Torpe says the marketing experts and the newspaper people pooled their experience to turn the liabilities of traditional newspapers into assets for the "Metro" papers. As Torpe describes them, his newspapers sound like printed radio.

"What we believe is to give the reader an update or a summary of everything that goes on in the world," Torpe said. "What we do also is we recognize that people have less and less time. So we're doing it in a way so people can catch up with the day's agenda in about 20 minutes -- which indeed, our surveys show, [is the time] that people are using in reading the papers."

Traditional newspapers incur large circulation costs with deliveries to homes, offices, and newsstands. Most defray circulation costs by charging fees equivalent to anywhere from 25 U.S. cents to several dollars a copy. The "Metro" founders saw a way around this also.

In Prague and Stockholm -- and in about half of the cities in which the publications circulate -- "Metro" newspapers are made available free of charge on public transportation.

The minimal cost of circulating the newspaper through mass transportation has meant no subscription fees. Equally important, this delivery method meant they were reaching young readers and others as they headed into the city center where the advertisers' stores are located.

This approach didn't work everywhere. Some cities lacked widely patronized public transportation systems. In others, transportation authorities failed to welcome the concept. In Philadelphia, traditional newspapers sought to block the "Metro" papers in the courts, charging that they misused public facilities. The case was eventually settled in "Metro's" favor.

These difficulties only sharpened the company's ingenuity in minimizing delivery costs and targeting readers. In Hungary, where the newspaper circulates in 15 cities, "Metros" are handed out by human hawkers wearing large "METRO" signs beside stands carrying equally large signs. Gradually, as Hungarians grow accustomed to taking the paper, the hawkers are being removed, but the stands remain.

In Italy, where well-off office workers traditionally stop by cafes for espressos and pastries on the way to work, "Metro" stands grace coffee shops. In the Boston area, packed with universities like Harvard and MIT, the stands dot campuses.

Metro International investor relations director, Matthew Hooper, speaks with pride of "Metro's" publishing as well as commercial successes.

"Whilst we're not stealing the readers of the traditional press -- because in actual fact we're creating a new readership of young people who don't actually read newspapers -- what we are doing is stealing their money, because ultimately we're competing with them for advertising revenues," Hooper said.

The company's latest innovation is establishing what it calls a "loyalty club" of faithful readers, essentially an international list of consumers for direct-to-the-customer marketing offers.