Monday, April 20, 2009

Media: The Free Daily's Impact

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A visitor from the Boston area recently noticed that the free weekday "Metro" paper he found on the subway here in Toronto looked exactly like the "Metro" distributed in Boston. There's good reason for this reaction. As a quick perusal of Metro's worldwide website reveals, similar such papers the world over are all related through at least partial ownership by Luxembourg-based Metro International. Everywhere it is published, Metro seeks to provide a very basic summary of the news of the day that one can read completely during an average public transit commute, supported exclusively by advertising.

When I first moved to Boston, the most common newspaper seen during the subway section of my commute was likely the Boston Globe, with the Boston Herald not far behind and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal also often noted. (In the brief period when I subscribed to the International Herald-Tribune, I was a real oddball.) After the introduction of Metro in 2001, that quickly changed, and the free Metro paper soon became the dominant paper seen in the subway, well ahead of the Globe and the Herald.

Granted, Metro itself only publishes in three United States markets (New York, Boston and Philadelphia), and only a handful of additional cities have a similar product from another company (and the public transit infrastructure where such a paper makes sense). Yet, the impact of these papers seemed so obvious in Boston, where the Globe's very existence is now threatened, that it is surprising that the trend hasn't seemed to have gotten much attention in the current hand-wringing over the future of newspapers.

Turning all the daily papers into smaller, advertising-supported papers that can be read on a public transit commute or work break time obviously does not represent a way to save today's newspapers. It does nothing to solve the problem of how to fund investigative journalism. However, just because what may be learned from the success of Metro International is not obvious (at least to me) does not mean that it should not be thoroughly explored, which it does not yet seem to have been.

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