Metro is far and away Britain’s most successful national newspaper. Over the past year, its distribution has increased along with its geographical spread. Its advertising volume and revenue has increased.
It made bumper profits in the 12 months up to October 2010 after enjoying years of money-making before that. Recession? What recession?
I wish I could tell you exactly how much it made, but the paper’s publishers, Associated Newspapers, like to keep quiet about that. The profit is wrapped within the overall figures for the group.
But it would not surprise me in the least if it made the best part of £30m in its last financial year and, quite possibly, even more.
An executive at one of its publishing partners told me yesterday that she thought it might “north of that”, adding: “It’s had one helluva year.”
Though Metro’s managing director, Steve Auckland, is tight-lipped about the figures, he is more than welcome to talk about the rising fortunes of the free paper that is ranked third in terms of national daily circulation (after The Sun and the Daily Mail) with an ABC-audited distribution of 1.38m copies a day.
Given that Metro is not published on Saturdays – when paid-for nationals enjoy their greatest sales – Metro may well be read by more people on some weekdays than its big sister, the Mail.
That readership – affluent, with an average age of 37 – attracts advertisers. Metro’s classified director, Martin Smith, is the only small ads seller in Britain with a permanent smile on his face. His department managed to record 11% growth between 2009 and 2010.
A regional newspaper boss I met at lunch yesterday said Metro was the only paper with a growing take-up on classifieds, with the possible exception of the London Evening Standard.
Metro’s other success has been in winning display advertising, especially from all the supermarket chains. These are lucrative accounts that regionals cannot seem to touch.
It is clear that Metro’s team put in a lot of creative work in order to secure display ads, with innovative work involving glossy inserts, 3D issues and issues for special events, such as Wimbledon.
Journalists might well say that there is precious little editorial innovation. Evidently, there are plans for a refreshment of some kind, but this is unlikely to be revolutionary because, to be frank, the paper has nailed down a formula that works. Why change a paper that does its job?
Its straightforward, non-political news digest manages to hold the attention of the average commuter in 50 cities across Britain (and in the Irish capital). Years ago, it came up with a nickname for these readers, calling them “urbanites”.
Now comes another soubriquet for the people who, it claims, log on in increasing numbers to its website after arriving at work, having previously read its print version on their journey into work. They are “City clickers” and described by Metro’s assistant managing director, Rich Mead, as “urbanites on steroids” who are “surfing to live, not living to surf”. (Don’t you love that marketing speak?)
Anyway, rather surprisingly, the Metro site has trebled its traffic, achieving 3.5m uniques in November 2010 for example. One reason for the increased interest is the site’s expanding gambling and gaming unit.
On a brief visit to Metro’s offices yesterday, I detected the enthusiasm of an executive team that is enjoying its success. There was an upbeat feeling that reminded me of the early 1970s at “the soaraway Sun”. All the hard work seems to pay off, and that helps to generate innovation.
So, I asked Auckland, “is free the future?” He unhesitatingly replied: “Yes.”
Well, he wouldn’t he? But the lessons of Metro and the Standard (and, arguably, City AM) do suggest that the free model has legs, at least in London and within a paper such as Metro created from within the capital.
One thing that upsets the Metro bosses is the way in which the paper is generally overlooked, consciously or unconsciously, by the rest of the media. It doesn’t figure on some TV and radio newspaper round-ups, for example, and its headlines are rarely quoted.
I’m not so surprised by that, however. Metro, by its nature, is never going to set the political agenda. Big government and big business do not fear its reporting. It doesn’t break new journalistic ground.
It offers readers bland, passive, reactive journalism. Clearly, some people are happy with that. But it is passionate, committed, investigative pro-active journalism that makes a difference to and for society.
Though a profitable, free advertising vehicle is all very well, it remains essential for us to maintain newspapers that dig and delve. I am happy for Metro to exist, but not at the expense of “real” newspapers.
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.