Media: Metro on the march again

The success of its London freesheet has spurred Associated Newspapers to attempt the same in the West Midlands and Central Scotland. And it won't stop there.
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The Independent Culture
METRO, ASSOCIATED Newspapers' daily free newspaper in London, is expanding by stealth. Earlier this month, a Manchester edition was launched and last week two more hit the streets - in the West Midlands and Central Scotland, where the arrival of the Glasgow-Edinburgh edition caught even the newspaper industry trade magazine Press Gazette unawares.

Up to 100,000 copies a day of Metro West Midlands have been available since last Friday at railway and bus stations and selected shopping sectors in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. A similar amount of copies for Metro Scotland is now being distributed through the central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh via bus terminals, ScotRail and Railtrack stations.

The new editions have a national and regional editorial and advertising mix - a format familiar to anyone who has travelled by London Underground where the London edition has been distributed on weekdays at local tube stations since its launch almost nine months ago. The colour tabloid runs to 32 to 40 pages a day, with editorial that promises the reader no spin, no editorial opinion or political bias.

The roll out is due to the success of Metro in London, which attracted a larger than expected and upmarket readership, Associated claims. As a result, the company aims to "tie up the major metropolitan conurbations".

According to Roy Jeans, managing director of Initiative Media and former managing director of AMRA, the UK's largest regional press sales house, Associated's West Midlands strike is a timely one. The company, who's parent Daily Mail & General Trust has both national and regional publishing interests through its subsidiary Northcliffe Newspapers, already has extensive interests in the area - in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. Mr Jeans points out: "Coventry and Birmingham were the gaps until now."

The timing also seems good. "Existing player Birmingham Post & Mail is currently immersed in difficulties with ABC over sales irregularities for its three titles, the Birmingham Post, Evening Mail and Sunday Mercury," he adds. "Meanwhile, there have been a number of management changes since the recent merger of its parent, Trinity, with Mirror Group."

Prospects in Scotland, however, are harder to read. While the big urban conurbation between Glasgow and Edinburgh is undoubtedly attractive, Alan Ruddock, editor of The Scotsman, questions Asso- ciated's distribution stra- tegy. In London, Metro is reliant on distribution at underground and local rail stations. Yet Edinburgh and Glasgow have two different and distinctive commuting cultures.

"Commuting in Edinburgh is mainly by bus and car, unlike Glasgow where commuter traffic is more focused. I think it could prove difficult for them to get to grips with," he points out. Associated might also find problems with local retailers. Mr Ruddock adds: "Should retailers see sales suffer, the question is, might they start retaliating against Associated products?"

Mr Ruddock doubts Metro Scotland will have a direct impact on his newspaper's fortunes although, he admits, if a second edition of the title (which currently hits the streets at 6am each weekday morning) were to be introduced, as has been rumoured, this would have more serious implications for local groups.

"It's more a threat to Trinity Mirror (owner of the Daily Record)," Mr Ruddock adds. "I wouldn't have thought it would affect us directly. I doubt in London it's done much harm to the Times, Telegraph, Guardian or Independent. Although any new player inevitably has some impact on the existing daily market. We all have to watch out."

It might seem strange to talk of a new daily freesheet shaking up an existing marketplace, but it's worth remembering who's behind it and what they hope to achieve.

Associated's game plan is to achieve sufficient numbers of readers to make it commercially attractive to local advertisers. In the words of Metro deputy managing director, Mike Anderson: "The extra customers that Associated attracts every day is a marvellous net gain to the company."

The success of a freesheet in achieving this against paid-for competition inevitably comes down to one thing: editorial. And the editorial in the London version of Metro has exceeded many people's initial expectations.

If it takes time to cover the not insubstantial start-up costs and amortise overheads across a number of regional variations on the Metro theme, then so be it. Associated has the expertise to make it work, and thanks to its deep pockets, it also has the time. Well, that's the theory, at least.