MEDIA ANALYSIS FORUM: Who is most under threat from Metro’s success? Is Metro more likely to damage the local or national press? Alasdair Reid investigates

Back in March, when Associated Newspapers launched Metro, its free morning newspaper for London’s commuters, many observers thought it a defensive measure. After all, two rival companies - including the Modern Times Group, which has successfully launched freesheets in several European markets - were supposedly eyeing up the London market. Associated had to protect its Evening Standard and there were those who believed Metro was merely a spoiler that would be around for just as long as a threat from rivals was perceived to exist.

Back in March, when Associated Newspapers launched Metro, its free

morning newspaper for London’s commuters, many observers thought it a

defensive measure. After all, two rival companies - including the Modern

Times Group, which has successfully launched freesheets in several

European markets - were supposedly eyeing up the London market.

Associated had to protect its Evening Standard and there were those who

believed Metro was merely a spoiler that would be around for just as

long as a threat from rivals was perceived to exist.



It hasn’t quite happened that way. Metro is clearly more than a

spoiler.



And the big surprise is not so much the quality of Metro and its success

in attracting readers, but the fact that it is becoming a potent weapon

in the Associated armoury. Last week, it even triggered battle of the

buses in the West Midlands, when Metro West Midlands was kicked off

1,800 buses at the behest of Trinity Mirror, which is defending its

patch with the launch of its own title, Metro News. There’s more than a

touch of an Ealing comedy about all of this - but no-one should doubt

the seriousness of Associated’s strategy. In November it launched Metro

North West for the Manchester area and Metro Scotland for the

Edinburgh-Glasgow region, as well as the West Midlands title.



The three titles that launched last month each have a print run of

100,000; but London Metro, which launched at a similar level, now has a

run of 350,000 and its October ABC was 338,705. More Metros are on the

way: last week, Mike Anderson, the deputy managing director of the

Associated Metro division, confirmed that Metro titles would soon be

available nationwide.



It could conceivably be the ITV of newspaper publishing - a network of

regional titles combining to provide a quasi-national title, serving a

virtual community of people on the move.



Nor should anyone doubt the potential effectiveness of Metro. It

undoubtedly expands the market - figures from Associated indicate that

80 per cent of Metro readers in London did not previously buy a morning

paper. But the red tops and the mid-market tabloids have suffered

slightly in circulation terms, losing a total of 6 per cent according to

some estimates. Will the nationals have most to worry about as Metro

continues to roll out?



Laura James, the head of press buying at New PHD, thinks the markets

outside London could behave completely differently. She comments: ’In

London, Metro is competing against national dailies or attracting new

readers to the sector and it has a neat distribution system. It also has

a sister title and is treated accordingly. Outside of London, not only

are the distribution methods more complicated but Metro is providing

national news in regions where there is a higher propensity to read a

regional rather than a national daily. These are regions with a

one-title stronghold - the competition will fight back, resulting in a

tougher battle than Metro has so far experienced in London.’



Neil Hepburn, the regional media director of BMP OMD, agrees but argues

that although Metro is unlikely to steal huge amounts of readership from

the existing regionals, the advertising story could be very

different.



He states: ’If there were a whole network of Metros, advertisers might

look at them for building a national schedule or at least as a flexible

way of upweighting in relevant ITV regions. If that happens, it will be

a direct challenge to the traditional regionals. On the other hand, if

planners start thinking about using Metros to upweight, that mindset

could be good for the traditional regional press too.’



However, there are those who think the various Metro ad sales teams may

face an uphill struggle. In the bigger cities, they might have genuine

problems in going after local advertising. The readership is on the move

and where they’ve come from and where they’re going to is a huge

imponderable.



A fair chunk of the London Metro’s readership lives outside the

Carlton/LWT region, for instance - which makes selling it as an upweight

slightly problematic.



Chris Stanley, marketing director of the Newspaper Society, thinks Metro

is more of a threat to national titles. He says: ’You have to look at

the launch costs for the various Metros, which have been

substantial.



In London it faces no competition but in a market like Manchester it

will have to carve out a pretty large share reasonably quickly if it is

to make it pay. Regional publishers are extremely strong players and

they will defend their patches. It will take exceptional circumstances

for them to lose.’



Stanley also points out that London’s infrastructure and commuting

patterns are unique: ’No other city offers the sheer numbers that London

does - the Tube has 300 stations. In Manchester there are about 40 Metro

stations, in each case representing a relatively narrow catchment area.

Commuting patterns are different too - journeys are shorter and you

don’t tend to get 30 minutes or so in which there’s nothing else to do

but read.



’But typically when there is a lot of activity in a market like this, it

tends to grow the market as a whole. It brings more people into the

market and it can stimulate those already there to spend more.’



Tim Kirkman, the press buying director of Carat, says: ’Associated is

giving free newspapers credibility and the implications are massive. In

London the threat would naturally be to the Evening Standard but because

both are Associated titles, the Standard is protected by pulling Metro

fairly early. Elsewhere, Metro will be distributed right through the

day.



The next stage will be to distribute it everywhere: in every motorway

service station and in every train station. It could do five million

copies a day. It’s an exciting prospect.’



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