Most newspapers are experiencing stagnant readership numbers. This free newspaper defies the trend.
By Sarah Kraus
Carol Smith cancelled her subscription to the Chronicle Herald when Metro began circulating in 2008, and she hasn’t looked back since. According to a recent newspaper readership study by NADbank, Smith is one of over 74,000 residents from Halifax Regional Municipality who pick up the convenient and concise newspaper every weekday.
On a chilly fall morning, Smith shuffles aboard the Halifax-bound ferry with her fellow commuters. She’s heading to work downtown. Like everyone else, she gravitates towards a sun-bathed seat, trying to soak up whatever warmth she can.
Clutched in Smith’s hand is a copy of Metro. “I pick it up everyday from the box and when there’s none left, I get quite upset!” she laughs. First, she’ll peruse the local pages – she wants to know what’s going on in her community. Next, she’ll look at “the silly stories for a little chuckle” before skimming through the advertisements.
Everywhere you look on the ferry, people are reading Metro.
There are 305 Metro newspaper boxes strategically placed around HRM. The majority are located in high-traffic areas, like the ferry terminals. Metro is also delivered to many local businesses and distributed each morning by 17 hawkers wearing distinctive green aprons. According to NADbank, Metro‘s Halifax readership has increased 31 per cent since last year – which is a staggering figure considering many newspapers around the world are struggling to retain reader.
Halifax’s Metro is part of Metro International, the world’s largest newspaper corporation. It began in Sweden in 1995 as the brainchild of Per Anderson, Monica Anderson and Robert Braunerhielm. The trio designed Metro to target an untapped audience in the newspaper market – the morning commuters. Their innovative idea rested on the presumption that the paper could make enough advertising revenue to support itself without charging consumers for the product.
Today, Metro International publishes newspapers in more than 100 cities in 22 different countries around the world. Every weekday, over 17 million people of various nationalities read Metro. In Canada, Metro International is currently partnered with its former competitor, Torstar, owner of the Toronto Star. On Oct. 14, 2011, Torstar increased its shareholdings in Canada’s English editions of Metro to 90 per cent, leaving Metro International with only a 10 per cent stake. Shares in the Halifax Metro are also held by Transcontinental Media.
The Metro format is consistent wherever you go. While the number of pages in the paper fluctuates daily, its physical size remains tabloid-like and convenient to read on the run. The stories are short and snappy, with rigid word-count restrictions. Metro is printed in full-colour and brimming with photos to catch the reader’s eye. With a circulation of 40,000 copies each weekday in Halifax, the free newspaper earns revenue by selling advertisements.
While Smith’s ferry floats across the harbour, Philip Croucher is just getting to his office. As the editor of Metro, Croucher’s days are long. He arrives each morning by 9 a.m. and won’t send the paper to print until shortly after midnight. His office is relatively neat, except for the large stack of Metro newspapers perched on the end of his desk. Croucher has been the editor for more than two years now. “My whole goal is just to get as much local news in the paper each day as possible, because that’s the number one reason why people are reading us.”
Two news writers, one sports writer, and a photographer make up the editorial team that delivers Metro’s local news. Surprisingly, that includes an extra reporter and photographer that other Metro newsrooms across the country don’t have.
Metro’s first Canadian edition launched in Toronto in 2000, igniting a newspaper war. When rival media corporation Torstar discovered that the international free daily was expanding to Toronto, it created its own commuter newspaper, called GTA Today. Sun Media Corporation, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher, wanted to protect its audience as well, so it established FYI Toronto to stay on pace with competitors. With so many free and convenient newspapers in the market, advertising revenue dissolved rapidly and, as a result, all of the papers lost money. Metro in Toronto eventually ended up laying off all of its full time staff in 2009 and now relies on the work of freelancers and interns to fill its pages.
Today, Metro is published in nine cities across Canada – most recently popping up in London, Ontario and Winnipeg, Manitoba earlier this year. Winnipeg and Halifax have comparable newspaper markets, as both cities are home to three main newspapers. In Halifax Metro competes with the largest independent newspaper in Canada, the Chronicle Herald, and the weekly arts-based publication, the Coast. Likewise, in Winnipeg Metro competes with the Winnipeg Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press. Although Metro internationally has a reputation for targeting subway commuters, both cities also lack mass-transit systems.
Winnipeg Metro publisher Steve Shrout says his paper was very well-received. His newspaper launched a social media marketing campaign in advance of its physical release. “When we arrived the market was already buzzing about it.”
Although Metro was greeted with open arms in Winnipeg, its counterpart in Halifax received no such welcome. Instead, it was born into a whirlwind of controversy. Metro established itself just days after the Daily News folded, a newspaper that had been in business for 34 years. While a number of Daily News employees were invited to work at Metro, the sudden closure of the paper sent many journalists in search of jobs elsewhere.
Metro premiered in Halifax on Feb. 14, 2008, and was quickly criticized by a number of prominent journalists in the community. Some argued that the hard-news content was overshadowed by advertising and pop-culture stories, while others felt that the condensed format didn’t allow readers to grasp the complexities of the news.
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Since that time, several critics have been converted. Take columnist Stephen Kimber, for example. In a 2008 story from the King’s Journalism Review, he said, “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.” Kimber never thought Metro would be able to survive in Halifax because the city lacks the subway commuters the paper traditionally appeals to.
Four years have passed since its inception, and Metro Halifax is holding its own. The once critical Kimber is now a weekly columnist for Metro Halifax, who defends the paper. “I think Metro journalistically punches above its weight. It’s a very small newsroom but it does more than you would expect.”
Other Haligonians are not convinced. Christine Oreskovich, the Coast’s publisher, says her paper is not at all concerned with Metro’s rising readership numbers. “When I read Metro my city just is not reflected in it. It’s very bland, very corporate, a very pop-culture, inane kind of content. It’s the McDonald’s of newspapers.” Oreskovich insists that Metro doesn’t stack up when it comes to local news. “They don’t have the pulse of what’s going on in Halifax. I think you get that from the Coast.”
While Michael Cross isn’t quite as outspoken in his criticism of Metro, he doubts its journalistic quality. The retired Dalhousie professor, who specializes in media, says “It’s a pretty insubstantial paper. To say people read it may be an exaggeration. You can go through the whole paper in about two minutes.” Cross believes that if people obtain their news solely from Metro, they are not well-informed. “It’s a very bald version of the news. It lacks any nuance, it lacks any evidence. With the amount of space you have in that tabloid, there isn’t room to present enough evidence that would allow you to form your own judgment on whatever it is you read.”
Conversely, Philip Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper, defends Metro’s journalistic value. “Any way you can get information out to people, I’m in favour of it. I’m not going to look down on any form of information.”
Meyer’s book discusses how most newspapers are struggling to remain viable while their readership declines and their advertising dollars are lost to the internet. “I applaud the Metro papers because they’re trying something new.”
As the director of Carleton’s journalism school, Christopher Waddell’s opinion falls in the middle of the spectrum. While he agrees that Metro helps people “get a sense of what’s going on around them,” he also says that such short stories may not always provide enough context. “In some cases a 200 word story is enough, in some cases it’s not.”
Aly Thomson who works as a frequent freelancer for Metro, agrees with Meyer. She was finishing her journalism degree at the University of King’s College when the Daily News went under. The closure caused her to question the viability of print journalism in Halifax.
Since working at Metro, however, Thomson’s outlook has brightened. “I have opinions about the old style of newspaper; I don’t think it will really survive. Print will survive in the future of journalism, it’s just going to be a bit different, and I think Metro is on that track. It’s changing as the industry changes, rather than resisting that change. I definitely think people will pick it up more and more.”
In January, Metro plans to increase its circulation by 10 per cent to accommodate its rising readership numbers. That means 44,000 copies of Metro will be available throughout HRM starting in 2012.
Surprisingly, that doesn’t concern Dan Leger, the director of news content at the Chronicle Herald. He says he won’t lose sleep over what his competitors at Metro are doing because – like Oreskovich at the Coast, he thinks the papers appeal to different audiences. “In terms of serious coverage of Nova Scotia, I just really don’t think they’re in the same league.”
Leger also questions the conclusions of the readership study. “NADbank numbers are one of those things that are always fun to play with. They’re statistical ping-pong balls that you can knock back and forth.
He adds that percentage increases for Metro mean less than they would for the Herald, as Metro is growing from a smaller readership base. “If you start from zero, where they did a couple of years ago, no one should be surprised if they go up.”
No matter what your stance is on Metro, one thing cannot be denied – the residents of HRM are picking it up.
News reporter for Metro, Jennifer Taplin, says her proof is in the number of people that pay visits to the Metro van as it is driven around the city. “We get stopped all the time on the street. People knock on the windows saying ‘Got any papers?’ and ‘I love Metro! I read it all the time.’ We get wonderful compliments and it’s fantastic.”
Readers are attracted to the concise nature of the stories, as well as the accessibility, bright colors and the local content – despite what Leger at the Herald and Oreskovich at the Coast may think. Some, like Terrance Scanlin, would even be willing to pay for Metro, “if the price was right.”
As a mature student at NSCC Waterfront, Scanlin says that his entire class routinely competes to see who can finish Metro’s crossword puzzle the fastest. He wishes the paper ran seven days a week. “I miss it on the weekends.”
Despite being a student on a budget, Metro reader Melissa Savage would also be willing to pay a dollar for the newspaper. She religiously picks up a copy on her commute across the harbour. “It’s not too much information, they give you just enough. It’s current, it’s convenient, it’s there. It’s not overbearing, it’s just enough to finish on your ferry ride.”
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