Metro battles for Haligonians’ respect

By Suzanne de Ridder

Readership statistics are not yet available for Halifax, but publisher Greg Lutes says the paper is doing well.

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By Suzanne de Ridder

Readership statistics are not yet available for Halifax, but publisher Greg Lutes says the paper is doing well.

A Friday afternoon finds a cheerful Lutes in Metro’s boardroom, where he calmly shares his thoughts on the paper’s progress over the past 6 months. “We increased our press run by 20 per cent to 30,000 copies, and that’s well ahead of our original business plan” says Lutes.

The paper is handed out by 25 newspaper distributers in the morning, and left in newspaper boxes on street corners, by bus stops, at universities, and in coffee shops and offices.

Lutes says Halifax’s copy of Metro is written and produced by the largest Metro news team outside of Toronto.

Metro’s credibility as a newspaper is precisely what was questioned when it was first launched, and still raises skeptical eyebrows and sour scoffs across Halifax’s journalistic community.

Stephen Kimber, a professor at the University of King’s College Journalism School, says he may have been a bit harsh on Metro when it first came out, but still does not see it as a high-quality source of news.

“They’ve done a respectable job on an individual basis, but the reality is that Metro’s purpose isn’t to be a newspaper, it’s really to sell ads around a sort of cheap, quick news content. That’s what it is,” he says. He adds that what Metro wants is to be picked up and discarded, nothing more.

His sentiments are shared by Dan Leger, the director of news content at the Chronicle Herald. He says people should never expect much from a free newspaper.

“Things that are just pick up, throw away — doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about their value?” he comments.

Peter Duffy, a longtime columnist at the Chronicle Herald, describes the Metro as “almost like a primer, what do they say, journalism for dummies?” He rushes to add that it’s not the journalists’ fault, but the newspaper’s space and word limits.

Even a former Metro reporter, Robyn Young, struggles with her feelings towards the paper. Young was one of the few Daily News reporters offered a job at Metro when the former shut down.

Speaking over the phone from her home in Toronto, Young says working at Metro was difficult, and sometimes frustrating.

“All of us who worked there, we didn’t choose to be there. We wanted to be real journalists, and we didn’t like the fact that they were really short stories,” she says.

Young adds that “all the things people say about it [Metro] I think those as well.”

Rolling with the punches

On a dreary September day at the Metro offices, located on the far end of Barrington Street on the bottom floor of a new apartment building, Jennifer Taplin sits at her desk in the miniature newsroom, slowly shaking her head at all the criticism Metro has had to endure.

Taplin, who was also working at the Daily News when it shut down, says competing for credibility, specifically when you’re a tabloid, is always a difficult task.

“Especially when the only other game in town is this 200-year-old newspaper. It’s hard to compete against that,” she says.

To Taplin, the fact that Metro is free means nothing. She mentions that the money newspapers get from subscriptions barely covers the cost of producing the paper. It’s all about ads.

“In that way, the Herald is just like us, they need the ad revenue. The only thing you’re taking out … is not going to the door. Does that make us less of a newspaper? I don’t think so.”

Rachel Boomer, Metro’s managing editor, also stresses the importance of advertisement.

“As someone who poured her heart and soul into the Daily News for 10 years, I can assure you that no journalist should ever aspire to work at a newspaper that produces great news but isn’t selling any ads. We all know that story doesn’t have a happy ending,” she writes in an email.

The negative comments about Metro’s quality make Boomer angry. She says Metro has made a commitment to Halifax, and that Metro’s reporters work hard every day to deliver the best newspaper possible.

“The suggestion, from anyone, that our news team is producing a ‘cheap’, somehow dumbed-down version of the news … is insulting to every one of the excellent journalists who work for Metro Halifax,” she comments.

Greg Lutes says more and more businesses are asking to have Metro News available in their building.

Metro’s strongest defense and weapon in its battle for credibility, is that people seem to love it.

“Demand in the city has been so great,” says Lutes. A quick scan of the Metro boxes across the city around noon finds most of them empty. The ferry to Alderney Terminal is scattered with people hidden behind a Metro, and on some busses, Metro covers the floor like a carpet.

Taplin says she thinks the large, local component is part of what attracts people to Metro.

“Local news is always the most important. I think you’ll find, in any survey of what people want, it’s all local news,” she says.

On more than one occasion, Metro broke a local story that the Chronicle Herald had not picked up. Taplin herself reported on such a story, about a man who escaped police custody and caused a car accident and a police chase.

“You have this feeling like; you know the Herald is going to be all over it,” she recalls. But the next morning, there was not a single word about it in the much larger and better-equipped Herald; they completely missed it.

“It does feel good for the little guy to beat them at their game every now and then,” smiles Taplin.

Although representatives from both papers have stressed that they are different entities with different goals, it is hard not to compare the two. If a reader lays out a copy of both papers on the living room table, it will show that both papers report the same stories, but the Chronicle Herald provides more depth.

The story of Rosamond Luke, a former Conservative candidate who was cast aside when her party discovered her criminal convictions, got attention in both papers. Metro reported her criminal convictions in a concise, eight paragraph news blurb on page four of the paper. The Chronicle Herald featured the story on the front and second page, with a detailed description of what she did and to whom she did it. The reader was given what he or she needed to know from both stories, but depth and details made the Herald version longer.

Depth vs. brevity

Metro is all about shorter stories, says Lutes. Traditional newspapers are for older people; the new generation wants its news quick, brief, and looking good.

“Young people don’t want to read a full broadsheet on some issue,” says Lutes.

Taplin agrees, and adds that when she first saw a copy of Metro, an image of ‘internet news site on paper’ popped into her head.

“It’s lots easier to read, and it’s all in chunks and bits and pieces … I think most people don’t have time to read long stories.”

Jane Davenport, the former managing editor of Metro Halifax who now works for the Toronto Star, also sees benefits to short stories.

“Everybody’s heard the alarming statistics about what percentage of readers you lose with every paragraph in a story, so I think there’s something to be said for a shorter format where people actually are consuming the news that’s given to them on a page,” she explains.

When working for a paid daily, Boomer said she had a tendency to think of her stories as gold.

“You think people are reading your stories at great length and clipping them … but for most people, they’re reading it quickly and they’re using it to wrap their compost in at the end of the day,” comments Boomer.

Journalists sometimes forget that many people outside of the news business don’t have time to read everything they have written, adds Boomer, who stresses that “the length of a story is no measure of its quality.”

Across town at the Chronicle Herald headquarters, Duffy expresses a strong dislike for such short stories.

“It follows the trend towards small news, sound bites. When I read it, it leaves me wanting more,” he explains. He argues that Metro’s local coverage is not as wide-ranging as a regular newspaper, and the audience it targets with its short stories has a much longer attention span.

“If I thought that young people really had the attention span of a monkey or a squirrel, I’d shoot myself,” he says. Duffy thinks Metro insults young people by assuming they cannot absorb in-depth news coverage.

Leger heartily agrees with Duffy.

“If Metro actually says that, then that’s a really stupid thing to say because younger people … want to know what’s going on in their environment, they have similar pre-occupations,” he says.

But Leger is more concerned with the effect the popularity of Metro’s fast news has on Halifax and other newspaper markets. He says that as part of a multinational, globalised corporate structure that exploits newspaper markets, Metro commoditises news. Newspapers, he says, are supposed to reflect the culture and identity of the area.

“How can that be reflected in a newspaper like the Metro, with no roots here and is just an advertising vehicle for a multinational corporation based in Europe?” asks Leger.

He adds that if Haligonians were to only read Metro to get their news, they would miss out on a lot of news that he considers to be identity issues, such as local arts and culture. Leger feels that Metro only diminishes the respect people have for news organisations.

Future or failure?

Metro does not give Haligonians what they need, says Kimber, and adds that it would be a scary and dangerous thing if people began to get more of their news from Metro. That would be bad for journalism as well as the community.

“But do I think it makes any real difference to the quality of journalism or the quality of life here? My answer is no,” he adds.

University student Michelle Arbus says she thinks Metro is headline news to be read in a rush. Photo: Suzanne de Ridder

Young says the key to looking at Metro’s success is not comparing it to the Chronicle Herald or any other lengthy newspaper, but to see it as its own entity. Metro is meant for Haligonians who normally would not read the newspaper, and can now pick up a shorter version on their way to work.

“I would see a guy panhandling for money and he’s sitting there reading the Metro, and I thought that was kind of cool ’cause I don’t think he would normally spend a dollar on getting a newspaper,” says Young, the former Metro reporter.

Traditional dailies are simply going out of style, and Young adds that Metro Canada is one of very few newspapers that are bringing in more readers every year.

From the other side of the country, Beth Haddon, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism who reads the Vancouver and Toronto versions of Metro, says she has grown to appreciate Metro.

“When it first came out I thought ‘Oh God, this is a deterioration in the state of journalism.’ But I think after time I came to see it differently and I think that it’s probably a good thing from the point of view of people reading newspapers,” she explains. The fact that Metro is popular means people are reading the news and continue to be well-informed, even if they have stopped reading traditional dailies, she adds.

From Metro’s boardroom, a determined Lutes says Metro is here to stay.

“We are credible, we’re serious and we’re not going to stop at 30,000 circulation and I think as the traditional dailies continue to lose circulation, Metro will continue to flourish.”

As Haddon says, not everyone reads the New York Times or the Globe and Mail, so Metro is better than nothing.