'I refute the claim that we've screwed it up," says Steve Auckland. "It's just that a generation of people say 'I don't want to go to a newsagent – I haven't got time to do that.'"
Auckland is sat in one of the great bastions of British newspaper journalism, the Associated Newspapers building in Kensington, west London, defending the charge that the great free newspaper experiment that he oversees has helped undermine the entire industry. "There's a misconception that all these people were reading a daily paid-for newspaper – they weren't. They were either staring out the window, reading a book or a magazine," he argues. "And if you want page three or an opinionated product you will still take The Sun or the Mail."
Anyone who has, over the past decade, watched Metro become the predominant reading matter of those riding the London Underground might take issue with that claim.
But at a time when almost all other sections of the British press are facing falling circulations and staff lay-offs, Auckland is one of the few executives to preside over a success story. As the managing director of Associated's free division, the Yorkshireman oversees Metro, which launched 10 years ago today and can now claim to be a national newspaper, with a circulation of more than 1.3m copies, distributed to 33 British cities across 16 major urban areas. He is also in charge of the evening paper London Lite, which is engaged in a fierce war with News International, and 7 Days, a title given away in Dubai.
When he joined the Metro project seven years ago he thought to himself "this product could go very well", and no one could say he has been proved wrong. It is "a great fun brand to work with", one of the only British print products to have a sense of momentum. It started out a decade ago with a circulation of 85,000 and now distributes 760,000 across the London commuter area, having in the last two years poured papers into outlying railway stations. Auckland leans forward in his seat to draw a diagram of a "doughnut" around the capital, explaining the strategy.
"The big argument with Metro was that it was difficult to get a copy after 8am, so we wanted to put a lot of copies into the outskirts of London so that people could pick it up at their originating station and read it on the way into work."
Across Britain, Associated has struck a series of deals with the big regional newspaper groups (Johnston Press in Yorkshire, Trinity Mirror in Scotland, Wales, Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool, Guardian Media Group in Manchester and Northcliffe Media in Bristol and the East Midlands) to distribute localised editions of Metro.
Whereas sister paper the Daily Mail targets "mid-Brits", Metro defines its audience as "urbanites", ideally aged 30-31, probably male and in a relationship, but not yet married and so out and about spending their income. "There are other areas in the UK which will take a Metro," says Auckland. "The difficulty is the further you go the more difficult it is to get to that urbanite audience. That's the key for us, it doesn't matter how many copies we put on we've got to keep that profile the same. There are more areas in the UK we can go to but it has to be the right profile and if we don't get that we don't want to know."
Though the media commentator Roy Greenslade last week "raised a glass" to redundancies in the free newspaper sector, claiming it had been detrimental to journalism, Metro sees itself as having uncovered "a new generation of newspaper readers".
In an era when digital media rules and user interactivity is considered essential, Auckland claims that many young city dwellers enjoy the chance of a break from their screens and a product that has been edited for them. "Most people who read it will log in to their computers at 9am and for them not to have a screen first thing in the morning but have a look at a paper and have that as relaxation I think is quite a big thing to them," he says.
Metro has delivered annual profits of £8m, partly because of the willingness of its readers to accept a prominence of advertising that wouldn't be accepted by a cash purchaser. But its dominance of the London market is threatened by imminent changes to the contract for distributing papers on the Tube, though these changes are not yet clear. "We'll bid for it, we've a sum in mind. We won't overbid because it will endanger the business. We've learnt a lot from London Lite and know we can hand-distribute from outside stations if we don't win."
Alexander Lebedev's purchase from Associated of a controlling interest in the London Evening Standard has provoked rumours of hostility between the paid-for paper's staff and journalists working for the Associated frees. "The Evening Standard's aim, as far as I know, is to continue pushing the product upmarket to the high end opinion formers in London. High end influentials; Metro and London Lite don't really cater for that end, we cater for a lot of young people. The Standard is aiming for the 45-year-old plus market, who have high disposable income and want investigative journalism."
Metro and London Lite – which pays a "competitive fee" for a stream of copy from the Standard – are hugely dependent on their sub-editors, a dying breed in many modern newspaper offices.
"It's how the sub picks up the story and Metro-ises it," says Auckland. "It's how you sub the story to make it interesting for this particular user group. It's the little spin that they will put on it and the slightly irreverent style."
Metro has a not inconsiderable editorial team of 118. Most of its budget goes on features, with small teams of one or two writers based in regional newspaper offices to produce bespoke arts and entertainment copy for their editions. The best known furniture in the paper includes the gossip-based The Green Room, and a widely-copied celebrity Q&A called The 60 Second Interview. If you want politics or columnists that might shout a little louder than the brand, forget it.
"What we won't do is be opinionated," says Auckland. "It will not be 'Bloody mindless idiots...' The readers have said one of the biggest factors of why they like Metro is that it doesn't give opinions."
And that's probably why – despite almost daily cross-promotion – Associated has failed to lure Metro readers across to the Daily Mail. "I can't say we've had so much success," Auckland concedes. "The problem is that Metro is a very different product to most of the national newspapers and a very different product from the Mail. But I don't think anyone's going to say 'I'm not going to take the Mail anymore, I'm going to take the Metro' – because they're light years apart. And it's the same with The Sun."