Where next will embrace the free daily paper?

LONDON - Pelle Tornberg, arguably the godfather of the free daily newspaper, reflects on how the market has developed over 12 years

When we set up Metro International in 1995, traditional newspapers looked at us as a start-up that was here to steal their readers. They were right.

Today, there's no getting away from free daily newspapers. The World Association of Newspapers asserts that "the free daily market is giving renewed impetus to newspaper reading".

There are now 210 free daily newspapers, published in 50 countries, with a total worldwide circulation of more than 40 million copies. Any writing on the impending demise of newspapers is unfounded, or at least misplaced. It's crucial to make the distinction between the free and paid-for market. Last year, while global circulation of the paid-for market rose by a sedate 2.3 per cent, the circulation of free daily newspapers increased by 46 per cent. And staggering as this is, it is nothing new. Free dailies' circulation has risen by 195 per cent over the past five years.

So, has the free revolution run its course? Not at all - it's barely out of short trousers. Worldwide, the combined circulation of free dailies now represents 7.3 per cent of total worldwide newspaper circulation, up from 5.2 per cent in 2005.  A good start, but there's so much more potential. This is especially so, when you consider that in four of the five largest newspaper markets - China, India, Japan and Germany - there are no, or only a few, free newspapers published.

Yes, the sheer size of the developed markets of Japan and Germany mean it will require a sizeable investment to launch and compete effectively, and China has its own press ownership restrictions. But I do expect these markets to eventually embrace free newspapers and open up a new route for advertisers. In the meantime, the Latin American markets look attractive propositions for development.

The US represents the largest newspaper market in the world.  The free culture is not as developed as in Europe, with penetration at around 7 per cent, but we are starting to see things happen. Canada is a great example of where the wider North American market could be headed. Healthy competition is driving the whole sector and free papers now have a 27 per cent share of circulation.

So, what's the story in Europe?  Here, the culture of free dailies has gripped like nowhere else on such a large scale. They now account for more than 22 per cent of total European newspaper circulation - and almost 27 per cent if you remove Germany from the equation.

In Spain and Denmark, more than half of all newspaper circulation is now free. In fact, in most countries where free dailies are published, total circulation would be decreasing without the contribution of free dailies.

But after significant growth between 2004-06, some markets are showing signs of saturation. The number of readers per copy is decreasing and several newspapers have already closed down in markets such as Denmark (Dato, Centrum), the Czech Republic (Praha Kuryr) and Spain (El Crack 10, Penalty). The London evening market is also saturated. The next year is, therefore, likely to see more consolidation.

So, why is the continued global development of free newspapers so important for advertisers?  Quite simply, it's now one of the most effective ways of targeting that elusive group of urban young affluent men and women across the globe.

Before the launch of our product, Metro, the profile of newspaper readers was basically people like me: too old and too male. But when we launched the first edition on the subway and streets of Stockholm in 1995, it was a big hit with younger readers and female readers - just the sort of people who didn't usually buy newspapers.

And this coveted reader profile continues to this day.

And where these young affluent eyeballs go, advertisers follow.  Over the years, we have consistently attracted pan-regional campaigns from global brands, such as Microsoft, Nokia, British Airways, Canon and many more. They appreciate Metro's advantages over any other free press: our unique global reach and our true independence from the paid-for press. 

As an independent public company, we have been able to develop not only our editorial, but also our whole approach without the constraints of fitting in with sister paid-for titles - our entire portfolio is free.

As the fragmentation of TV continues, free daily newspapers are becoming the last bastion of a simultaneously targeted global mass media. One call to the London office of Metro International can have advertisers appearing in issues across 100 cities in 23 countries with a daily readership topping 23 million. As readership continues to grow, I expect more brands to take advantage of precision-targeted campaigns using free newspapers.

In my time at Metro, free newspapers have come a long way. When we started, sure, small advertisers loved us because they soon found that if they put an ad in Metro, their products would fly off the shelves. But pretty much everybody else hated us, especially the competition. Now, though, I feel we've turned round the sceptics and given advertisers a robust and strong alternative medium, which is only set to grow further.

And to think, without Metro, the morning read for many across the world could still be limited to the station timetable.

 

Pelle Tornberg is the chief executive of Metro International

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