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How that disposable pamphlet of infotainment that’s an inescapable part of our daily commute—a.k.a. Metro—is now the most-read paper in the country

(Image: Andrew B. Myers)

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.

  • Bill McDonald

    Metro’s Response

    I am the president of Metro English Canada, and I was disappointed by Jesse Brown’s column, “Newsprint’s Last Hurrah,” in the August issue. It presented a distorted picture of Metro, our editorial staff and our readers.

    The editor in chief, Charlotte Empey, and I spent considerable time with Brown, explaining the nature of our paper. Despite our efforts, Toronto Life failed to grasp how our organization operates. Metro is a national newspaper with local editions across the country. While it’s true that Metro Toronto does not currently employ full-time reporters, other Metro editions in Canada do.

    While Brown quoted us correctly, the quotes were presented in a misleading manner. Readers did tell Charlotte Empey that “they wanted the news, but sometimes the news is not good. Sometimes it’s hard to face early in the morning.” And she relayed that information to Brown. However, she also explained what readers went on to tell her—that they enjoy Metro’s editorial mix of hard news, entertainment and life stories, because at the end of their read, they like to be reminded “it’s good to be alive.” At no point did our readers say they only want good news. At no point did Charlotte Empey imply that this is all the paper publishes. We report all the news, good and bad, and package it with entertainment and lifestyle features that add up to a positive reading experience, just as so many other news outlets do.

    —Bill McDonald, President, Metro English Canada

  • JM

    “This is an extraordinary innovation—a newspaper that asks readers what kind of news they’d prefer, and then chooses it for them.”

    so their readers can carry on in their day thinking that they are well read about current events.

    “Happy News” is political by default, sticking your head in the sand is just as political as “sad news”.

  • Ben Leszcz

    Nice column, Jesse, as always. But I don’t think print – in this form – is dying all that quickly. Metro readers (new immigrants, etc.) aren’t just waiting for the iPad3 to come out; it’ll be a long, long time before the bus is really full of iPads and Kindles. The only hope is that a better print product – ie, a newspaper, not catnip – will enter this lucrative space. (It works in England – twice daily.)

  • Frank

    New immigrants? Sorry, but this is who metro thinks its demo is…

  • Horatio

    Metro is simply an advertising delivery system, plain and simple. This is not unlike all mainstream media outlets, the only difference is at the others — where there can sometimes be a disconnect between editorial and advertising — there is no disconnect at Metro because editorial is an afterthought and their editorial staff are looked upon as lepers by the rest of the company (trust me I know). This is why the turnover rate in that department is laughably high, even for a print product. What this article missed was Metro’s greatest achievement: Ads that graphically interfere with copy.

  • Boo

    Who cares what you all think!!!!
    It’s free. It’s Free. It’s FREE.
    It’s a great read on the way to work.
    So SHUT IT!

  • Mike

    Metro is a great example of Ford Toronto–not very good, but it’s free (or cheap). Not a good omen…

  • Frank

    The only reason Metro is dominant is because they have a monopoly on TTC property thanks to an exclusive arrangement with Gateway Newsstands. Only one “free daily” can be distributed in the TTC due to garbage cleanup, etc. Something tells me if competition were allowed here, there might be a different story, because their content really blows.

  • Posco G.

    Metro is laughing all the way to the bank. It’s a business first, just like all the other dailies except that the others try to pretend their sh@#$! smells sweeter. And where does that get them? Postmedia has a “factory” in Hamilton, Sunmedia/Quebecer has the same in Barrie, Torstar threatened to send it’s production abroad and laid off nearly 100 of it editorial staff — then hired almost 90-per cent of Metro staff at cheapo rates. So who’s laughing now? Traditional media is dinosaur media and will go the way of the dino.

  • Rex

    First, a digression: this piece makes me think of what passes for “news talk radio” in this city, and how so many of the topics under discussion on any given day simply AGGREGATED from the NEWSPAPERS (real ones, generally, and not Metro), where the hard work has already been done. You know, REAL journalism, REAL studies, REAL testing, REAL interviews, REAL legwork — “other people’s reporting”, as Brown calls it, tellingly — and not the lazy aggregation-for-short-attention-spans done by Metro and its kin, or the equally effortless commentary-after-the-fact by the likes of bloggers desperate to have some measure of success. It also reminds me of the leg work done by people like Michael Geist in the Toronto Star (in print and online), which regularly gets “aggregated” into Jesse Brown’s own musings.

    Toronto’s Newstalk 1010 has a classic misleading ad campaign (basically PSAs that fill in for their dwindling advertising) that trumpets something along the lines of “watch it tonight, read it tomorrow, or hear it NOW”, and yet 90% of the topics discussed comes from ALREADY-PRINTED newspapers available across the county. Fancy that, eh?

    I too think the death knells for print are being rung just a little prematurely, especially by the likes of Jesse Brown, who clearly understand their own career trajectories would only be hastened by its demise in favour of a fully-digital world (where news is apparently produced solely by snarky, witty bloggers LOL). Sadly, at the present, and for the short-term, online media revenues — largely generated through Google AdSense, et. al) will NOT pay enough for the kind of quality investigative journalism we still see in print publications on all sides, or no sides, of the political spectrum (as opposed to bloggish opinion-spewing AFTER honest journlists have done all the hard work).

    Yet one can hardly blame Brown for wishing that a widespread relevance would come to him and his kind if only those pesky newspapers would shuffle off and die. He’s not getting any younger, after all. ;)

    Brown would be well-served to investigate the media companies he seems to think would cease to exist without their musty old print components. Most of them, but especially TorStar, are well-positioned for the digital era and beyond. Losing the print component SOME DAY may be inevitable, but the blow will by then have been long softened by expansion into digital media, event planning and other forms of revenue generation. For example; how many know that WagJag, the popular ALL-CANADIAN group buying site, is a TorStar subsidiary? That thing’s a license to print money, and it’s only getting bigger, despite a wealth of competition. And no, I don’t work directly for WagJag, but I AM a TorStar insider. And the company’s not exactly struggling these days, despite the hopes of bloggers/outsiders like Jesse Brown.

    Back to Metro for a moment. Trust me, Jesse, “much of the exact same content” from The Star is NOT in Metro, and what is there is highly distilled and simplified for the easy digestion of commuters. If you read both papers, you’d KNOW that, unless you’re deliberately trying to mislead, which is likely.

    Another thing: MANY, MANY, MANY blogs do NOT have snark, or witty editorial spin, or well-researched points of view. They’re amateur, badly-written navel-gazing, nothing more. Surely, Jesse, you of all people know the internet is absolutely littered with useless, no-traffic blogs by everybody and their grandmother, most of which don’t survive beyond a few entries before the “author” (I use that term loosely) loses interest or is slapped in the face by the painful reality that they’re NOT going to make a living at it, that they have no relevance to the world at large, that their “snark” doesn’t separate them from the millions of others who do the exact . . . same . . . thing! LOL

    Internet commentary is easy. Traditional journalism is not. ANYONE can to the former. A select few choose to do the latter, and I’m thankful for them, whether their work appears in print OR online, or both.

    Metro’s “house style” — which gets Brown’s panties in a bunch far too easily for being the piffle sheet that it is by its own admission — serves a simple purpose he clearly can’t accept, even as he capably describes it: it’s an AGGREGATOR read in small doses by people on public transit or in donut shops on their way to work. It doesn’t NEED snark, editorial spin, or even opinion. Readers can form their OWN OPINIONS about what they read, and investigate further those things that spark their interest, either by picking up a REAL newspaper (as I often do), or by visiting the newspaper’s website, where the COMPLETE story inevitably awaits.

    And finally, when the best “snark” a print-hater can muster is a reference to a two-year-old NON-scandal involving some kid’s free-roaming wiener, you have to take ALL his arguments under advisement. (Christ, this barely made a blip BACK WHEN IT HAPPENED!)

    Print media isn’t leaving us for a while yet, and even when it does, the companies that make it are well-prepared for the changeover in more ways than the average reader — let along the snark-wit blogger-podcaster — can possibly know. The reach of these companies is far more complex than you realize, Jesse.


  • Harald

    Laughing all the way to the bank for now, Posco. The writer said it. Metro is a content aggregator – like a blog – but minus any personality, flavour or anything else a blog gives you. MSM may be dying, but this is not the future. It is something for bored people to pass the time with for 10 minutes a day. Many a cab driver has told me most of their immigrant friends/families simply use it to brush up on English. Their entire business is a red herring, and like MSM in general, their time is running out.

  • Rex

    NewPRINT — the actual paper that stuff is printed on — will go away. NewsGATHERING will not. Traditional media IS part of the evolution, despite the dummies who believe otherwise. Look at the little subhead above the title of this article, fer chrissakes! “From the print edition” Oh, the irony!

    Cetainly without newsgathering and reporting done by other hardworking people, MILLIONS of bloggers would have NOTHING TO SAY, and once their “followers” realize this fact, their little Google AdSense accounts will slow to a crawl. Then they’ll die out, just like musty old dinosaurs, as this era of faddish electronic narcissism comes to an end, leaving behind a veritable “hinternet” of snark and wit that will only lose context the more it ages, and which future generations won’t care about because the content won’t even have the veneer of history that legitimate, traditional newsgathering achieves by nature of its very existence.

    Yup, keep crankin’ out those blogs people. The world needs you now and forever. Just cont your blessings that REAL reporters will never become extinct . . . x_x

    I love longform NEWS in its written format. It involves me. It makes me happy. It makes me mad. It compels me. Be it in print or online (i.e. newspaper and magazine websites) it expands knowledge of the world in ways radio and TV and first-person blogs simply cannot, or don’t care to. It makes me a more well-rounded person, and keeps me up to date on events from here to Timbuktu. Blogs make me titter from time to time. Well, some of them do, anyways. So they have that going for them. I guess . . . LOLOLOL

  • Former Metro employee

    I would agree that Metro doesn’t really have much chance of outlasting its print product, in the way that the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail likely will. It does getting a surprising number of hits to its website (hundreds of thousands of unique users a month), considering that the website is basically just an automated stream of wire service copy that you can easily find elsewhere. Bafflingly, there are also tens of thousands of people who have downloaded the iPad app, even though it’s pretty terrible.

    Metro actually does have some reporters, roughly a dozen of them, though they are all based outside Toronto. In Toronto it has a number of freelance writers, producing entertainment stories etc. As well, it’s a major client of the Canadian Press, at a time when the two big national newspaper chains have pulled out, so it’s indirectly paying for a number of CP jobs that might otherwise have been cut to make up the loss of Sun and PostMedia money.

  • Gerard Cohen

    Metro !
    I was there until, Bill McDonald became publisher!
    He is a good guy, but just because He is coming from Sales system background to an intellectual environment such as Metro, He couldn’t make balance between editorials, sales, web and creatives teams.
    His managers and directors are second hand people from lowest level of social urban communities. That’s why they only trust their friends and families.Bill is a smart publisher, but He can not tolerate any new ideas out of his box.
    Metro is a powerful media in advertising but for sure can be way better if its management think wisely.