Even for a title - and a medium -that has grown beyond the wildest dreams of the people who launched it nearly a decade ago, the results of Metro's global readership survey are impressive.
The research, conducted by TNS Gallup in the 54 cities across Europe, Asia, the US and Latin America where the free commuter newspaper is distributed, is a study of the lives of Metro's core readership: 18- to 34-year-old city dwellers who make up more than one-third of its readers. It reveals that 51 per cent of them now read a free paper where a copy is available: a 3 per cent rise on last year.
But this isn't to say that these "young metropolitans" (as Metro calls them), who have grown used to getting free information on the internet, have turned their backs on paid-for newspapers altogether. Seventy-two per cent read a paid-for title. And of the freesheet readers, only 28 per cent say they only read a freebie, while the other 23 per cent find the time to read both.
This will come as little consolation to the many publishers who have seen their circulations tumble in the wake of freesheet launches. Two weeks ago, a survey by the Zurich-based media research company WEMF found that 20 Minutes, the second-largest free tabloid after Metro, is now the most popular daily in Switzerland - arguably the world's most newspaper-loving nation, where 97 per cent of the population read at least one paper every day.
And the freesheet phenomenon is catching - worldwide, 42 per cent of young metropolitans now read a free newspaper, and there are editions in Hong Kong, Canada, Chile, Korea and, since earlier this year, New York.
Metro's readership is now 14.5 million globally, making it the world's third-most-read newspaper after the Japanese titles Yomuiri and Asahi Shimbum.
Discounting extra readers won from new editions, Metro's readership has grown 7 per cent this year. But it faces stiff competition from quality tabloids and other publishers trying to emulate its formula. The World Association of Newspapers estimates that around 120 different free commuter dailies have hit cities globally since Metro's launch in 1995.
The survey includes a huge "lifestyle" section and, unsurprisingly, there are big regional differences. A New Yorker is far more likely than a person from Santiago to own an iPod or a laptop, for instance. But the results show that these people have more in common with each other than they do with their countrymen of other age groups. "There's common ground between these people. Geography is becoming less important," Wilf Maunoir, Metro's international research manager, says.
Of course, this is exactly what Metro wants to prove. Young commuters are converging, so it makes sense for international advertisers to reach them in one hit by buying Metro across a region, even globally. Sadly, the survey does not ask what is special about this group's beliefs or attitudes to add weight to Metro's argument. There's nothing to account for inevitable cultural differences either. Greg Miall, Metro's pan-European advertising director, thinks the typical young metropolitan is "28, well educated, ambitious and cash-rich but time-poor. The type who lives on macaroni cheese in the week and shops at Gucci at the weekends". Clearly there is a lot more a survey of its size could say.
Still, a growing number of big advertisers are convinced. In the first six months of 2004, Metro's multinational ad sales grew 66 per cent to $27.9 million and now make up 20 per cent of total sales. Nokia, Renault, Ikea, Vodafone and Orange are among its 177 international clients, and Mitsubishi signed a seven-market, $3.6 million contract earlier this month, the paper's biggest multimarket deal to date.
British Airways is another fan. Its "London is closer than you think" campaign, which broke last year, is running again in Metro editions across Europe over the next few months to encourage young continentals to take weekend breaks in the capital. Stephanie Ressort, the BA senior account manager at ZenithOptimedia, says that buying Metro centrally is not only much cheaper than buying locally but there are more creative opportunities that come with a package.
Unusually for a newspaper, Metro offers flip covers and cover wraps, and BA was able to brand its distribution racks and dress actors handing out copies as London icons, such as the Queen and Beefeaters, to support the "London is closer" theme. "As the paper gets no income from subscriptions or copy sales, its sales teams have to be more ad savvy," she explains.
"There also isn't the problem of precious editorial teams that get in the way on the big nationals."
A common criticism of freesheets is that the editorial is too lightweight.
Now that quality compacts are springing up, surely commuters and advertisers will ditch freebies. Ressort doesn't think so. "Our reading habits are changing. We have less free time so we want bite-sized news. It's nothing to do with dumbing down. With Metro, you're more likely to read the whole thing. A compact is still a slog to get through in the morning."
GADGETS POPULAR WITH YOUNG URBANITES
Country Laptops (%) iPods (%) Mobile phones (%) DVDs (%)
Korea 25 1 92 28
Hong Kong 50 3 99 83
Spain 27 1 91 78
Sweden 46 4 92 79
USA 41 10 75 83
Source: TNS Gallup, May 2004.