Tuesday, May 01, 2001

No, the Swedes didn't invent the free daily

The paper by University of Amsterdam Prof. Piet Bakker that we cited below has one glaring error in it. As a few readers of this blog have told us, the Swedish chain called Metro did not invent the free daily newspaper in 1995, contrary to Bakker's assertion. Metro makes the same claim as well. Truth is that free dailies have been going strong in the United States since the 1970s. And there's evidence that they existed here before that.

The first free daily in the U.S. started in the early 1960s in Walnut Creek, southeast of San Francisco. A local businessman, Dean Lesher, began what is now known as the Contra Costa Times. His paper was a broadsheet, while most free dailies are tabloid sized. But he began it as a free paper to attract readers. By the late 1960s, the Contra Costa Times was converted to paid circulation.

A few years later, regents at the University of Colorado pulled the plug on the student-run Colorado Daily because of its editorials against the Vietnam War. The staff of the paper regrouped, found an office about a block away from campus and continued to publish as independent paper owned by a non-profit the staff established. In order to attract advertisers, they focused on both campus and non-campus news. The format was a success for several years.

Other University of Colorado students, once they graduated, started free dailies in various Colorado mountain towns including Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge in the 1970s and 80s.

In 1995 — the same year Metro claimed to have invented the free daily — veteran newsmen behind the Vail Daily (Jim Pavelich), Aspen Times (Dave Price) and Aspen Daily News (Dave Danforth) teamed up to start the Palo Alto Daily News in a suburb south of San Francisco. The Palo Alto paper has become a wild success, spawning sister papers and copycats.

It may be that the Amsterdam professor hasn't spent much time researching the U.S. newspaper market. What he finds here might open his eyes about how free dailies got started.