MEDIA FORUM: Which newspaper sector does Metro endanger? - The national roll-out of Metro, the commuter freesheet from Associated Newspapers, certainly seems to be worrying regional publishers. But isn’t there an even greater threat to the circula

Back in March, when Associated Newspapers launched Metro, its free morning newspaper for commuters in the Greater London area, many observers believed it to be a defensive measure. After all, there were two rival companies - including the Modern Times Group, which has successfully launched freesheet titles in several European markets - supposedly eyeing up the London market. Associated had to protect its Evening Standard and there were those who believed that Metro was merely a spoiler and that it 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 commuters in the Greater London area, many

observers believed it to be a defensive measure. After all, there were

two rival companies - including the Modern Times Group, which has

successfully launched freesheet titles in several European markets -

supposedly eyeing up the London market. Associated had to protect its

Evening Standard and there were those who believed that Metro was merely

a spoiler and that it 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 the West

Midlands battle of the buses, 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 the Associated 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, which 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, believes that 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 he

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 was 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 believe that 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. By definition, the

readership is on the move and where they’ve come from and where they’re

going to is a huge imponderable. It’s a good bet that 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 problematical

too.



Chris Stanley, the marketing director of the Newspaper Society,

maintains that Metro is far 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 they face no competition but in a market like Manchester they

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

are to make it pay. That will be a stiff challenge. 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, and the London Underground 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.’



However, some observers argue that the market is missing the wood for

the trees - the simple fact is that the rules have changed. Tim Kirkman,

the press buying director of Carat, comments: ’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. That has to be an exciting prospect.’



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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).