We ARE the world

Global domination is the aim for the world's fastest growing free newspaper, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

The freesheet editor looks across his London office and boasts that he will soon be presiding over the world's greatest newspaper circulation. Given that this man could walk out into the street and be anonymous to passers-by, his claims might appear to have all the credibility of the rantings of a lunatic. Yet they are anything but.

The freesheet editor looks across his London office and boasts that he will soon be presiding over the world's greatest newspaper circulation. Given that this man could walk out into the street and be anonymous to passers-by, his claims might appear to have all the credibility of the rantings of a lunatic. Yet they are anything but.

From his little-known headquarters, tucked away behind a church in Mayfair, Per Mikael Jensen, the editor-in-chief of Metro International, already sits atop a global newspaper empire that stretches across 17 countries and 41 editions. Every morning in 62 major cities from New York to Seoul, 14.5 million people read the paper in 16 languages. During a week, Metro International is read by more than 32 million.

It clearly irks Jensen that the United Kingdom is one country in which Metro International does not circulate. But that could be about to change.

"London is in many ways the capital of newspapers," he says. "It's a very mature and very refined readership because people know what they want because there are so many titles. I'm convinced we could find a small or even a large niche for Metro International."

The news that the world's biggest free newspaper operation has designs on the UK will rattle Viscount Rothermere, whose Associated Newspapers group has enjoyed almost unbridled success with its own free paper Metro, which now circulates in every major British conurbation. Rothermere had the idea for Metro after seeing Metro International on a visit to Stockholm and realising the potential threat to the London Evening Standard.

The two Metros enjoy a good relationship, whereby advertisers that wish to take space in Metro International are offered a deal that also includes the Associated title (and vice versa).

But Metro International feels conspicuous by its absence from Britain, which is largely a result of the monopoly arrangement that Associated enjoys to distribute its paper on the London Underground.

That arrangement is no longer regarded by Jensen as a significant obstacle. "They launched a few months before we wanted to launch and they have a contract with the tubes," he says. "But there are a lot of opportunities. I'm quite sure there is room for a second and in a few years there might even be room for a third one. In Seoul we have five competitors."

Richard Desmond has said he is committed to launching a free newspaper in London but he may find he has additional competition from the world's largest free newspaper group (which will operate with or without the co-operation of Associated Newspapers).

"Five years ago even we would have said that we would be dependent on the tube," he admits. "But we now have so many ways of distributing. To colleges, universities, racks in offices or by hand distribution. In Madrid and Barcelona we have 400 hand distributors, each with 500 copies."

Jensen says that Metro International will have no problem in providing a product that is distinct from the Associated title. "I think Metro UK is very good at making an entertaining newspaper," he says. "We are somewhere between Metro UK, the Evening Standard and the broadsheets. We have quite a lot of international coverage."

In an admittedly random comparison with the Associated paper, the Boston edition seems less substantial than the London paper, with ads enjoying greater prominence and a layout that is not easy on the English eye.

Nevertheless, the progress of Metro International has been extraordinary since it launched in Sweden just nine years ago. It expanded first to Prague and then to France, Spain, Italy, Greece before spreading to North America, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Jensen, a Dane, is a newspaper man to his fingertips having been previously employed by the two largest Danish broadsheets and worked as a reporter, sub-editor, news editor and editor.

The paid-fors, he believes, have repeatedly been guilty of failing to recognise the changing needs of their readers. "What happened in the 1970s and 80s was a structural problem," he says. "When both partners in a marriage started working, private time to spend with family, friends, car, football or newspaper got smaller. Time was the single biggest issue."

In Scandinavia, where Metro International was born, 90 per cent of sales were by subscription. "Too many people realised that they had their newspaper delivered at 6am and started reading it at 6pm," he says. "Yet as readers became less time rich, newspapers were producing even bigger papers. Many editors were not being editors for their readers. We were just very good at spending money and making fantastic newspapers."

When the internet and mobile phones arrived, the newspaper business "had not recovered from one structural problem before encountering a new one", says Jensen. "Young readers don't understand why they should pay for news, because it's given to them for free on the internet and the perception of TV news is that it's free."

Young people are comfortable with a high advertisement content, adds Jensen. "This is a generation that has grown up with billboards, messages on buses and screens, all over the place. Even in the men's loo. That's why Metro has been so quickly accepted. We are reaching a generation that lacks time, that expects things for free and is used to ads making it all possible."

Jensen believes the global trend towards a compact format is a sensible if belated response to readers' wishes. " The Independent started this. More and more papers around Europe are going to tabloid and I am absolutely convinced this is the future," he says.

Metro International has carried out research that shows that readers spend 15 to 17 minutes with the paper each morning. It has pared down the product so that readers are able to get from cover to cover in that time.

"The important thing for an editor is to pick and choose for his readers. I ask all the editors to count all the stories in the paper," he says. When those editors have submitted their data, Jensen evaluates which papers are drifting from his precise formula for attracting an advertiser-friendly young readership with a 50-50 split of men and women. Political neutrality is also a prerequisite.

"My formula for a perfect Metro is a set ratio of national and international stories and a set number of illustrations per editorial page. It's a recipe."

Jensen hopes to raise the profile of Metro International by throwing journalistic resources at international stories, which he hopes might generate exclusives that can run across all the paper's editions. He cites London as a city with a pool of freelance reporters suitable for such a task.

In the meantime, the quest for global supremacy continues. Metro International last week set up in Portugal, where within five weeks it expects to be the country's second-most read paper. Britain cannot be far down the list.

"It should be obvious now even to the old-school editors that [free newspapers] are not going to disappear," says Jensen. "I would be disappointed if we are not by far the most read newspaper in the world in three years' time."