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Weathering the perfect storm through lockdown

How Metro is navigating COVID

Weathering the perfect storm through lockdown

Campaign spoke with Metro about how it has continued to print throughout the pandemic – pulling back circulation to focus on key workers and its plans to continue serving the market and the commute, increasing its circulation soon to once again be the biggest weekday newspaper in the country.

After 21 years of continuous growth, Daily Mail and General Trust’s Metro newspaper faced the bleak reality of imminent lockdown. For a title whose very model relied on readers picking up the paper on their daily commute, it would have been easy to have downed tools and given up. But Metro newspaper decided otherwise. 

Campaign spoke with its editor, sales chief and distribution director about how the UK’s number one paper faced a plummeting circulation, advertiser desertion and the unprecedented challenge of running a national paper from home. It was the week before lockdown and Metro editor Ted Young could see “the writing on the wall”.

“We were already looking at contingency plans for our circulation,” Young recalls. “Obviously we realised that if people were going to be working from home, there weren’t going to be as many commuters as before, so we had to cut our costs accordingly.”

Thankfully, Metro had something of an early insight into the reality the UK faced. “At the back end of March, because of the systems we have in place, we saw it straight away,” says Andrew Guiton, Metro’s distribution director. “From the first week, where the numbers dropped rapidly, we had to adapt to that situation very quickly.”

Pulling back to stay ahead
Drastic action had to be taken, and Metro decided it would take the hit, pull back its circulation, targeting a lower number of commuters who were still using public transport. The team worked closely with its national rail and bus partners to understand footfall at a granular level, which helped get the distribution numbers right.

“We were able to adapt at a regional level,” Guiton says. “Initially that was looking at key workers. During lockdown, everyone’s at home, so let’s support key workers and let’s keep the infrastructure of what we’ve got in place. Once you stop something, it’s harder to put it back. The thought process at DMGT was we keep the brand going, keep the brand live.”

Circulation was drastically cut pretty much overnight, from February’s 1.42 million to 350,000 copies. “We didn’t pretend that all our readers were going to stations,” Young says. “Then we started getting emails asking, ‘Where are you, Metro? We’re going down to our station and can’t get our paper.’ And we started to realise that a lot of commuters were still going to the station to get their Metro. So we slowly cranked up our circulation to meet that demand.”

Helping advertisers, many of whom jumped ship, was equally important, according to Metro sales director Jo Mazenko. “Right from the get-go, we made the decision as a business to be really, really transparent and flexible,” she says. “Any advertiser who wanted or needed to cancel — we didn’t ask any questions, we just let them do that.

“Our strategy was to continue to provide a service to commuters. We have a very strong brand and a lot of passion behind it. People love Metro. We wanted to keep our customers and advertisers engaged, whilst giving  them faith that although we went down to 350,000, we’d be back.”

Likewise, Metros editorial team faced numerous challenges. Not least producing a newspaper while being stuck at home. Young and his team used the likes of Zoom and Slack to communicate remotely. It was far from ideal, as he points out: “There’s no doubt it’s better to be in the office because you get a more immediate throwing around of ideas, people coming up with headlines that I might nick and put on the front page. It was much more difficult for me to do that when they’re on Zoom.

“When you’re in the office, you lock your computer with all the layouts and tools for putting a paper together, so I just assumed being at home, the whole thing would fall down. My faith in IT has been completely restored. We have a fantastic IT department and I really want to sing their praises.”

Playing it straight
Editorially, Metro was adamant that it should retain its tone of voice, “playing a straight bat and appealing to all points of view”, as Young says. Supporting frontline workers became key to the new reality. This was manifested in headlines, such as “Thanks and Goodnightingale”, appearing above a story about the closing down of Nightingale Hospital London, thanks to dwindling COVID cases. The article clearly delighted hospital staff, who displayed the page on walls of the hospital. 

“On the other hand, we haven’t been backward in coming forward with criticising,” Young says. “When Dominic Cummings went up to Barnard Castle and had that remarkable press conference in the Downing Street garden, our headline was ‘Stay Elite’ as opposed to ‘Stay Alert’.”

Meanwhile, Metro’s commercial department worked hard at adapting, with initiatives, such as a package for brands to address key workers on a CSR page, where a supermarket could, for example, post a letter to its workers. “We’ve tried to help our advertisers and have been extremely grateful for their support too,” Mazenko says.

This fostering of loyalty paid dividends. From June, after lockdown was relaxed and workers started returning to public transport, revenues at Metro started to recover and the paper put its circulation up from 350,000 to 500,000.

“Then in September we went up to 800,000,” Mazenko says. “We set our cost per thousand (CPM) to be inline with pre-Covid cost per thousand, so it was all relative and we weren’t commanding higher rates than we were before.”

Lockdown v2
On 21 September, the day prime minister Boris Johnson told the public to work from home again if they could, Metro reviewed its plans to potentially move circulation back up to one million in October.

“We deliberated a lot about what to do over that, but we decided to stop at 800,000,” Mazenko says. “One of our toughest jobs at the moment is regaining the confidence of advertisers, assuring them that we are able to deliver 800,000 copies. We felt that if we went up again after Boris told people to work from home, it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Just as behaviour during lockdown revealed some of the positive characteristics of society, Young reflects that his own readers demonstrated similar levels of positivity. Metro’s ‘Good Deed Feed’ was replaced with a ‘Corona Kindness’ feed, which told stories of the “amazing things people were doing for each other, helping out people who had to self isolate”, for instance.

Metro’s own behaviour has been laudable. During the first lockdown it donated 48 premium ad spots to charities, and alongside its sister newbrands, Mail Metro Media gave away £5million in ad inventory to small businesses.

Today, big-ticket brand counts are up and since the end of the first lockdown. “We've had some exciting cover wraps — always a sign of good times,” Mazenko says, citing Argos, Uber and HSBC as recent clients.

Metro’s plan for the remainder of 2020 is to keep circulation at 800,000. “All being well in January, we’ll increase to one million and look to build from there,” Mazenko says. “We want to do it cautiously. Basically, we don’t want to oversupply. We are targeted, we target our readers and commuters.”

At its toughest point, Metro may have dramatically cut back its circulation, but it retained its footprint and today delivers to 93 per cent of its 3,300 locations across the country, in cities including Norwich, Edinburgh, Manchester and Brighton. While the market remains tough and lockdown version two is impacting commuter numbers, there is much to be positive about. With the prospect of a vaccine on the horizon, Metro — like the rest of the world — is optimistic.

With its editorial, sales and circulation teams all pulling together to ensure Metro continued in the successful vein it had become accustomed to, the goal of social responsibility became a priority and an area that went hand-in-hand with the daily production of its newspaper. 

There has been great support and praise from its advertisers and partners along the way, and over the course of the last few months, it has shown how creative and resourceful Metro has been as a brand. And it is a brand that the commuter loves, and will continue to do so once we’ve all become acclimated within this ‘new normal.’

 

On Thursday 26th November, Metro editor Ted Young spoke with TFL and Global about keeping London moving. As the insiders and experts on commuters in the capital, they gave LBC journalist and presenter, Shelagh Fogarty some exclusive and surprising insights, opinion and predictions for the months ahead… 

If you missed The Inside Track webinar, read all about it and watch it back here.

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