From Hunan to Stockholm

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 September, 2018
Editorial: 236
Fecha de publicación original: 10 octubre, 2000

The degree of interest knows no limits

Five years ago, when the Web was just starting to make its public appearance, a company began to distribute a free newspaper on the underground in Stockholm. Not long after further editions were launched in Göteborg and Malmö. Today it is the most widely read newspaper in Sweden. The invention did not confine itself to Scandinavia, however. The publishers, the Modern Times Group, a conglomerate with interests in radio, TV and the Internet, amongst other things, set up Metro International with headquarters in London and repeated the formula in Prague, Budapest, Helsinki, Santiago de Chile, Zurich, Newcastle, Philadelphia, Rome and Toronto. In the next six months they are aiming to do the same in 6 more big cities including some in Italy and Spain. If we include all editions, it is now the fifth most widely-read newspaper in the world with a circulation of 2.6 million copies daily. Before the end of the year the company hopes to distribute as many as 3.8 million copies which would push it up two places. Its most outstanding feature is the way it functions “a la Internet” without being on the Net. And this model is taking hold all over the place. The Swedes are no longer the only ballplayers in this game.

Their main competition comes from Schibsted, another transnational group with its headquarters in neighbouring Norway. They distribute free newspapers in Cologne and Zurich, amongst other cities, and are fighting a hand-to-hand battle with the Swedes for distribution licences in the undergrounds of a number of European capitals. In addition, The Associated Press of the British journalists produces its own free newspaper for the London underground. Over the last few months similar initiatives, either in the project phase or ready for launching, have appeared in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Paris and Rome under the umbrella of the Scandinavian group and/or local groups trying to get their share of a pie that didn’t even exist just five years ago and that nobody imagined would be such a juicy one.

So where did this idea come from? The closest thing to these papers are undoubtedly China’s “dazibaos”, the popular mural newspapers that gave expression to the ideological debate and bloody ups and downs of the Cultural Revolution there. In this modern version, a far cry from the turmoil of events set in motion by Mao over 30 years ago, rather than pinning news up on walls, it is distributed free along the cities’ most frequented routes, the underground or the entrance to it, by staff or automatic dispensers.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that the first people to come up with this idea were two Swedish Maoists whose project was snatched from them at the price of several million dollars. If their idea was to foment ideological revolt in Stockholm it was quickly stifled by the figure on the cheque which contained a few more zeroes than the number of kilometres that separate the distance from the cave in Hunan, where Mao began his Long March, to the Swedish capital.

It is probably no coincidence either that the idea took hold just as the Internet was making its first public appearance thanks to the Web. In fact this is the model that these newspapers follow, except that they apply the methods and characteristics of the Net to the real world. They are formula newspapers, franchises. They are drawn up like web pages via computer programmes which create the columns that the information, headline and photo, if there is one, have to fit in to. They sum up the days’ news, all neatly cleaned up, polished, de-boned and easily digestible. There is no opinion, in other words this is implicit, and they claim to be politically and economically independent although the size of the company sometimes forces them to enter into agreements with the powers that be. Newsroom staff figures go from between 10 to 15 people, including editors and journalists, even though they might be distributing 500.000 copies. The Swedish company itself, for example, is managed from London by 11 people world-wide. A lot less than a “dot com” endowed with venture capital. And, as in most places on the Net, the information these newspapers provide is free. Their money comes from advertising.

The traditional media is disturbed by these operations. They are not just concerned about the fact that copies are free and that circulation figures are high, higher than pay newspapers. The other worry is the speed at which they develop and put projects into action, their low infrastructure costs –they don’t have their own printing works and their administrative staff is very small– and their degree of market penetration. First thing in the morning before people have even had the time to pass by a newsagent’s, they already have a free paper in their hands which puts them up to date –given the limitations– with the most important events on the international, national and local scene as well as providing information about what’s on on the leisure and entertainment scene, etc. These companies maintain that no-one has the monopoly on news distribution –just as no-one has it on the Internet– and that, instead of putting information into a computer available to all internauts, they put it into a dispenser for anyone who wants to click on their front cover and pick up a free printed copy.

Not everyone agrees with this argument. In Chile, for instance, the newspaper El Mercurio vigorously disagreed and took the Swedes to the Supreme Court in an attempt to try and stop them distributing on the underground. They won the case and the paper is now distributed only at metro entrances. There have been similar reactions on the part of local media in other cities where attempts have been made to recruit City Councils in the battle against this “unfair competition”. When the two big Toronto dailies found out that Metro International was going to launch its paper in their territory, they immediately put free editions of their own into production. The Swedish company took half a dozen journalists to the city, shut them up in a hotel room and five days later their newspaper was on the streets. As we said before, it’s just like designing a web page.

The irony of the case is that, according to some figures, free newspapers only increase the number of pay newspaper readers. To start off with, many people who have never read a newspaper before will do so for the first time. And, more often than not, what they read in the free papers will arouse their curiosity for more information turning them to the buying of traditional newspapers. On the other hand, the battle for advertising is not necessarily concentrated in the same portion of the “pie”. Many of these free newspapers aim at advertisers whose natural habitat is TV.

Just like Internet companies, despite the fact that they operate in the real world, Metro International and Schibsted feature on New York’s Nasdaq index where the former is valued at a thousand million dollars. In the meantime, its methodology is gaining more and more followers. These newspapers, pasteurised and sterilised and churned out like hamburgers or paper portals, will undoubtedly open new channels of distribution not just of the information they pick up from news agencies and the couple of reporters they might have on the beat. In fact, given their orientation and organisation, everything points to their becoming, in the very near future, one of the models for transferring digital content on the Internet into printed versions for a public that will still take a long time to take full advantage of the opportunities the Net has to offer.

Translation: Bridget King