About free dailies
Free daily newspapers in 56 countries
44 million copies daily
Anyone riding the London underground, a Dutch commuter train or the Seoul metro in rush hour, will see people reading newspapers. Not the regular traditional broadsheet paid-for newspapers but mostly free tabloids. In 10 years these papers have been introduced in almost every European country and in several markets in the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, Asia and Africa. There are now (April 2008) free newspapers in 56 countries. Market leader Metro distributes more than eight million copies daily, while other companies publish more than 35 million copies. These copies are read by at least 80 million people daily.
In four European countries (Iceland, Denmark, Spain and Portugal) more free than paid papers are distributed (Monday to Friday) while in more than a dozen European countries the newspaper with the highest circulation is a free paper. Outside Europe free dailies have high market shares in Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, Botswana, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Chile.
The free daily newspaper distributed through public transport was introduced in 1995 in Sweden. There were however earlier attempts to launch free local daily newspapers. In most European countries these local papers lasted only for a short period, a Spanish paper is published since 1992. In the USA free local papers have been around since 1972 and almost a dozen of these local papers still exist today, mainly in Colorado. An Australian local daily goes back as far as 1906.
In 1992 the concept of the free commuter paper was developed in Sweden, it took three years to convince investors and the Stockholm public transport system to support the new paper. After the introduction, Metro launched free papers in the Czech Republic (1996); Hungary (1998); Holland and Finland (1999); Chile, USA, Italy, Canada, Poland, Greece, Argentina, Switzerland and the UK (2000); Spain and Denmark (2001); France, Hong Kong and Korea (2002), Portugal (2004), Russia (2005), Croatia and Mexico (2007); and Brazil (2007). However, not every Metro launch was a success, operations in Switzerland, Argentina, the UK and Poland were ended after some time while an afternoon free paper (almost every free newspaper is a morning paper) in Stockholm was closed within a few months. Finland was sold in 2006 and is now operated as a franchise like some other editions. The majority of the Czech operation was sold in 2007. Metro International is now based in Luxembourg while its headquarters are in London.
Metro’s success did not go unnoticed. Some entrepreneurs also launched free newspapers while in many markets local publishers introduced their own free papers to prevent Metro or others to enter the market. The most successful entrepreneur (apart from Metro International itself) is probably Norwegian publisher Schibsted. In Spain and France (50% ownership) it publishes their ‘20 minutes’ free paper, the name indicating the amount of time people need to read it. The Swiss edition was sold to a local publisher in 2005. Schibsted also had some disappointments. A German version had to be taken from the market after a bitter newspaper war with local publishers in Cologne while an Italian edition never saw the streets because of legal matters (non-EU companies could not control Italian media firms, this however did not prevent the Italian market to become flooded with free newspapers). The 20 editions of 20 Minutes have a total circulation of 1.8 million. In the Baltic states and in Sweden Schibsted operates also other free titles.
Schibsted was not the only firm taken to court. In almost every market where free newspapers were introduced there have been lawsuits on every possible ground, from unfair competition to littering, from the right on the name Metro to quarrels over the right to be distributed through public transport. This kind of distribution is by no means the only way free papers are distributed, racks in busy places like shopping centers, universities, restaurants (McDonalds), and hospitals, and delivery by hand on the street, outside railway stations or door-to-door, are also used.
The Cologne newspaper war and legal battles were not the only problems free papers did encounter. In Paris hawkers who distributed free papers were attacked while papers were destroyed and burned. The most common newspaper war however is the clash between publishers, or to be more precise: between local publishers and entrepreneurs like in Cologne. In many cities publishers turned the market that has been quiet for decades into a battlefield, London and Copenhagen may serve as an example. Local publishers are now responsible for half of the total circulation of free daily newspapers. They have a monopoly in Belgium, Finland, Poland, Slovenia, Australia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina. But also in other markets (France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Korea, Denmark, Finland, Italy, USA, Iceland) local publishers have a substantial market share. In Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Spain, France and Italy three or more titles are competing, in Seoul (Korea) there are eight titles.
The free newspaper is not only remarkable as a new business model but also in terms of readership. While the traditional newspaper has problems to attract the younger audience, free daily newspapers usually have a readership that is much younger than that of the traditional newspaper. Metro International claims that 70% of the Metro-readers are under 45; other papers have reported similar figures.
Free newspapers usually contain less news than paid newspapers. The vast majority is only published from Monday to Friday so they don’t have the thick weekend editions. Also the page count is less while they are printed in smaller formats like tabloids or micro’s (half Berliner). The also tend to have a smaller staff than paid papers. For the 70 Metro International editions worked 500 journalists in 2006; other titles might have a somewhat bigger staff but still this staff is not comparable to the staff of a paid newspaper. Free dailies usually use a lot of news agency material.
Content & Format
Most free newspapers are published as tabloids, is some countries however they are smaller, for instance in Argentina and Austria. 20 Minutes is also published in a smaller magazine format. Although 24 pages was the average, some papers are thinner (12 to 16 pages) while others have up to 64 pages (the Metro UK Friday edition) or even more than a 100 pages (Frettabladid, Iceland). Content reflects the audience: a clear focus on quick news (local, national and international), life style, technology, media, sports, celebrities, movies and service (weather, comics, horoscope, TV-guide, movie or theater tips, crosswords).
Free newspapers may hurt the sales of traditional newspapers and thereby weakening their position. This could have harmful societal effects because of the important role newspapers play in a democracy. Figures however indicate that many readers of free newspapers are indeed ‘new’ readers or read both paid and free papers. Research by Belgian, UK and US free dailies indicate that half of their readers only read free dailies. There seems to be a negative effect on single copy sales, but the overall effect does not indicate a great deal of cannibalism.
The success of the new free daily newspaper has no doubt inspired other publishers into me-to products. Not always these products are free daily newspapers. In many countries free weeklies or semi weeklies have been launched (Norway, France, Russia, Portugal, Poland, Brazil, Spain). Also it is very likely that the rapid tabloidization in Europe (UK, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands) has something to do with the success of the free tabloids.