How that disposable pamphlet of infotainment that’s an inescapable part of our daily commute—a.k.a. Metro—is now the most-read paper in the country

How that disposable pamphlet of infotainment that’s an inescapable part of our daily commute—a.k.a. Metro—is now the most-read paper in the country

(Image: Andrew B. Myers)

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday, and Metro’s Church Street newsroom is quiet and empty. By now, reporters at every other paper are shuffling into work, slowly gearing up for the daily sprint toward afternoon deadlines. But here, the production team won’t arrive at their desks until 1 p.m., at which point they’ll begin assembling a product that will be read by 1.4 million Canadians—more than any other daily paper in the country. The team includes editors and a production manager, but not a single reporter or writer. Nevertheless, Metro becomes more popular each year, gaining new readers and revenues as the newspaper industry itself implodes.

Is Metro really a newspaper? Even Metro is unsure. “We don’t view ourselves as a newspaper per se,” says Metro Toronto’s gregarious publisher, Bill McDonald. Instead, Metro describes itself to advertisers as a “news summary” and a “multi-faceted marketer of information, entertainment and education products.” Metro has no opinions, no political sympathies and no pious reluctance to give over its entire front page to an ad.

“News is a commodity,” explains McDonald. As such, news is something Metro pays as little as possible for. The news items in Metro’s Toronto edition are credited to wire services such as the Canadian Press, the Associated Press and TorStar News Service. All newspapers print wire content, of course, and as budgets tighten and foreign bureaus close, they’re relying on it more and more, but Metro Toronto avoids newsgathering entirely. TorStar owns a stake in Metro Canada’s English papers (of which there are nine), and the brunt of Metro’s Toronto coverage comes from the Toronto Star, which is still the most-read newspaper in the city (Metro is second). So readers can either pay for a copy of the Star or read much of the exact same content for free in Metro. I ask McDonald why the Star would cannibalize itself this way. “Eighty-five to 90 per cent of our readers don’t read the Star,” he explains. And the Star is gambling that they never will. Which, if you think about it, is an extraordinary surrender.

Metro is a daily simulation of a newspaper, a collection of snackable news tidbits, charticles, celebrity pics and Sudoku puzzles, assembled using a faceless formula (they call it “the Metro concept”) into an unavoidable and undeniable offering that promises to tickle, if not scratch, your itch to know what’s happening in the world. In other words, Metro is an aggregator—a curator of other people’s content. It’s a blog that happens to be printed on paper.

Yet blogs have snark. The witty editorial spin, the personal point of view that bloggers bring to stories is the value they add to other people’s reporting. Metro has no voice, no discernible perspective on the news it prints. It adheres to an unfailingly generic house style that discourages the notion that humans had any hand in assembling it. When Metro missteps, as it did in December 2009 by printing a photo of a teenager at the Peterborough Santa Claus parade whose penis had snuck out of his boxers, such errors seem more like a computer glitch than a case of human error (proving once again Asimov’s lesser-known Fourth Law of Robotics: if you program a machine to edit a newspaper by algorithm, it will eventually run a photo of a 17-year-old Peterborough kid’s wang). When asked about the penis incident, McDonald shifts the blame to the Canadian Press, which provided the image. “We rely on our wire service providers to do their due diligence. We rely on that safety net.” No one lost their job for briefly turning Metro into a source of porn, but one imagines that to prevent a recurrence, Metro’s newsroom computers were turned off, and then on again.

Metro’s Swedish parent company publishes 99 editions in 25 countries, which, if taken collectively, form the world’s largest newspaper. Its Canadian operation, launched in 2000, is now the most profitable. Last year, Metro’s Canadian franchise beat out its original Swedish papers to become the company’s largest division.

How and why did this happen? Our own newspapers have spent the last 10 years in free fall, laying off writers, outsourcing editing, frantically rebranding and redesigning themselves in increasingly feeble attempts to reverse their decline. How did a Scandinavian interloper enter our market at precisely this troublesome time and proceed to eat everyone’s lunch?

Much of it has to do with marketing; Metro packages the news well and delivers it in a free, transit-friendly format. The free part is important—if Metro cost even a nickel, who would buy it? Metro is also refreshingly populist—a classic feature of the urban newspaper forgotten by stuffy incumbents like the Globe and the Post. Historically, newspaper circulation rose with each wave of immigration. But much of what you’ll find in Canada’s older papers is written by and for comfy, established Canadians. Though Metro denies actively courting new Canadians—they prefer to characterize their readers to advertisers as condo-curious “YAMS,” or Youthful Active Metropolitans—in reality, 62 per cent of Metro’s readers are over 35, and 44 per cent do not speak English as their first language (a higher percentage than any other Canadian paper). They might indeed be active and Metropolitan, but if the ads are any indication, they also might be interested in phone plans for dialing India at cheapo rates, certificate job training and socking away a few bucks in “Welcome to Canada” accounts at RBC. Metro hearkens back to Pulitzer’s penny press of the 1890s, a populist exercise with colourful layouts and easy-to-read articles that pulled new readers into the public conversation.

There is one final ingredient in the Metro recipe, says Charlotte Empey, its editor-in-chief. Empey’s background is not in news but in women’s lifestyle magazines (Canadian Living and Homemakers among them). She tells me that when she first took over at Metro, she held focus groups with readers to help steer her editorial approach. “They said they wanted the news, but sometimes the news is not good. Sometimes it’s hard to face early in the morning.” She arrived at a Metro motto—a guiding principle to help her “choose the news our readers want,” as McDonald puts it. That credo, reflected in each page of Metro, is that “it’s good to be alive.” Whatever disasters, diseases or wars afflict the world on a given day, readers should emerge from their 10-minute Metro flip-through feeling happy. This is an extraordinary innovation—a newspaper that asks readers what kind of news they’d prefer, and then chooses it for them.

But again, Metro is not really a newspaper. It’s a way to pass a few minutes on a streetcar. It’s something to do on the subway when you lose your 3G signal. Once the TTC puts Wi-Fi underground and enough riders come packing Kindles, Kobos, iPads and Androids, who will pick up Metro? It’s just as hard to imagine anyone visiting Metro’s website or installing its iPad app. Its fortunes are inexorably linked to the utility of paper, a utility that lives within the dwindling profit margin lying above the cost of printing and distributing 300,000 papers every weekday. Eventually, the economic (if not the environmental) unsustainability of newsprint will catch up with Metro. True, print may never fully die, but then again, neither will candles.

This is Metro’s moment—a brief hiccup in a time when generic news content is cheap and portable reading screens are expensive. It’s the final sad gasp of the city newspaper. It won’t last long.