Saturday, November 01, 2008

Signs of improvement at Metro U.S.

The Web site posted a story Thursday headlined "For Metro, the future looks doubtful."

I can't argue with the headline. Metro's three U.S. papers, in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, are apparently losing money and have been on the block since January with no takers. Of course merger and acquisition activity is at a standstill due to the credit crisis. That's not Metro's fault. And the U.S. is in the midst of a recession.

We also can't quibble with the statement that the three papers need capital to remain open. It's expensive to print papers with daily press runs of (and these figures are about a year old, but the most reliable I have at hand) 300,000 in New York, 187,000 in Boston and 140,000 in Philly. Printing costs for the three combined are likely over $1 million a month. The last I heard, the three papers have a combined head count of 120. I have no guess on payroll.

But we looked at a few recent issues of Metro and were impressed by several things:
    • The content is more lively and upbeat than we've ever seen it. Gone are the boring wire stories. They've been replaced by staff-written, edgy, youth-oriented stories like you'd see in RedEye.

    • Better layout. In Friday's Philadelphia Metro — which celebrated the Phillies World Series victory — the headlines were big, colorful and conversational: "Metro gives Palin a little career advice," "At least we're better than Boston," "We agree with J-Roll: Skip work" and "Slacker Prodigy."

    • Friday's edition was 28 pages not including a four-page wrap. While that page count might seem small to some, it keeps paper costs down and lets editorial pour its talents into fewer pages, resulting in better work.

    • A quick statement from the city editor about the news, with his picture. This adds a personal dimension to the paper (so that a reader thinks that real people are putting out the paper, not a faceless corporation).

    • The ads in Friday's edition were impressive — Macy's, Citizens Bank, local car dealers, movie theaters, a double-truck from Carnival cruiselines and a wrap (four pages) from the state Department of Transportation. The paper looks healthy from an advertising perspective. It's easier to sell ads when you have ads.

    • Metro is now placing a front page ad to the right of its flag, called an "ear," something the free dailies in the San Francisco Bay Area began doing a couple of years ago. Again, this is a smart move that attracts advertisers and adds to the bottom line.
While Metro is having money problems, it is putting out a better product than we've seen before. It is producing a newspaper that should be attracting readers and advertisers — which may help Metro ride out this economic downturn.