It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday, and Metro’s Church Street newsroom is quiet and empty. By now, reporters at every other paper are shuffling into work, slowly gearing up for the daily sprint toward afternoon deadlines. But here, the production team won’t arrive at their desks until 1 p.m., at which point they’ll begin assembling a product that will be read by 1.4 million Canadians—more than any other daily paper in the country. The team includes editors and a production manager, but not a single reporter or writer. Nevertheless, Metro becomes more popular each year, gaining new readers and revenues as the newspaper industry itself implodes.
Is Metro really a newspaper? Even Metro is unsure. “We don’t view ourselves as a newspaper per se,” says Metro Toronto’s gregarious publisher, Bill McDonald. Instead, Metro describes itself to advertisers as a “news summary” and a “multi-faceted marketer of information, entertainment and education products.” Metro has no opinions, no political sympathies and no pious reluctance to give over its entire front page to an ad.
“News is a commodity,” explains McDonald. As such, news is something Metro pays as little as possible for. The news items in Metro’s Toronto edition are credited to wire services such as the Canadian Press, the Associated Press and TorStar News Service. All newspapers print wire content, of course, and as budgets tighten and foreign bureaus close, they’re relying on it more and more, but Metro Toronto avoids newsgathering entirely. TorStar owns a stake in Metro Canada’s English papers (of which there are nine), and the brunt of Metro’s Toronto coverage comes from the Toronto Star, which is still the most-read newspaper in the city (Metro is second). So readers can either pay for a copy of the Star or read much of the exact same content for free in Metro. I ask McDonald why the Star would cannibalize itself this way. “Eighty-five to 90 per cent of our readers don’t read the Star,” he explains. And the Star is gambling that they never will. Which, if you think about it, is an extraordinary surrender.
Metro is a daily simulation of a newspaper, a collection of snackable news tidbits, charticles, celebrity pics and Sudoku puzzles, assembled using a faceless formula (they call it “the Metro concept”) into an unavoidable and undeniable offering that promises to tickle, if not scratch, your itch to know what’s happening in the world. In other words, Metro is an aggregator—a curator of other people’s content. It’s a blog that happens to be printed on paper.
Yet blogs have snark. The witty editorial spin, the personal point of view that bloggers bring to stories is the value they add to other people’s reporting. Metro has no voice, no discernible perspective on the news it prints. It adheres to an unfailingly generic house style that discourages the notion that humans had any hand in assembling it. When Metro missteps, as it did in December 2009 by printing a photo of a teenager at the Peterborough Santa Claus parade whose penis had snuck out of his boxers, such errors seem more like a computer glitch than a case of human error (proving once again Asimov’s lesser-known Fourth Law of Robotics: if you program a machine to edit a newspaper by algorithm, it will eventually run a photo of a 17-year-old Peterborough kid’s wang). When asked about the penis incident, McDonald shifts the blame to the Canadian Press, which provided the image. “We rely on our wire service providers to do their due diligence. We rely on that safety net.” No one lost their job for briefly turning Metro into a source of porn, but one imagines that to prevent a recurrence, Metro’s newsroom computers were turned off, and then on again.