It's handed out to commuters every day—but how did Metro become so successful? Photo: Prospect composite

How Metro became the most read paper in Britain

It rarely enters awards, and most people haven't even heard of its editor. But it has beaten the red tops to become Britain's most-read print title
August 20, 2018

Soon after moving into Downing Street, Theresa May hosted a private dinner for the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. Not long after, the then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson was snapped, in shorts, running alongside the editor of the Sun, Tony Gallagher. If asked to think of a successful tabloid editor, most people would think of a man (yes, probably still a man) like one of these two—at one and the same time thoroughly plugged in with the powerful, yet also obsessed with retaining a populist touch.

Yet the editor of the most-read newspaper in Britain is a man called Ted, a man you probably haven’t heard of, and certainly not a man in the habit of popping into Downing Street for a téte-a-téte with the prime minister. Ted Young was appointed Editor of Metro, the freesheet distributed around all UK cities, in 2014 when it still lagged behind the far better known paid-for rivals, the Mail and the Sun.

You can sneer at its seemingly apolitical, even bland, mix of news and celebrity, and yet in March 2018, Metro was confirmed as the UK’s most-read newspaper—bigger than its more famous stablemate, the Daily Mail, bigger even than the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun, which has topped the list of most-read daily titles since 1978. Just reflect on the myriad of ways that newspaper has enlivened, coarsened and pushed to the right Britain’s political discourse during its long decades at the top, and you’re likely to judge that the new occupant of the No. 1 spot is worth getting to know.

As for those of us on the inside of the media industry, swotting up on Metro should be a higher priority—not only because of its reach, with 1.5m copies of Metro distributed every day via transport networks in cities, but also because of its bottom line. Despite an existential crisis in the print advertising market, it turned up an £11m profit last year.


“I’m very hands on and I don’t get out much”

Short, balding and with the slightly bulldog expression of someone most often to be found reading proofs at an hour when most of us are getting ready for bed, Young has worked for every tabloid newspaper in the UK and one, the Daily News, in New York. A former editor of MailOnline and survivor of the freesheet battle which raged in London during the noughties as editor of London Lite, he has also been night editor of the Sun and executive editor of the Daily Express, where he ended up in a legal dispute with the controversial owner Richard Desmond.

Young is already waiting on the top floor of Northcliffe House, the Kensington headquarters of DMG Media, which owns Metro, in a room done out in what could be called executive chintz when I arrive for our interview. With a set of papers spread out before him on the mahogany table, Young says that the Metro office several floors lower is currently being renovated. “We don’t usually get this treatment,” he says, picking up his china teacup.

Despite his long and storied career, I’d never so much as clapped eyes on him during my years as a media journalist. Young rarely gives interviews or attends industry gatherings. “I’m very hands on and I don’t get out much,” he says. “I would much prefer to go for a pint with my team than gallivant around posh media parties.”

Young typically travels in from his home in Richmond for a 12-hour day, five days a week and lists his professional interests “outside of his passion for news” as rugby and being a “long suffering supporter of Newcastle United.” He is good company, coming alive as he talks about how England’s World Cup campaign (at its height when we meet) has affected headlines and deadlines. So far, so Fleet Street central casting.

Yet one of the first things Young did after his appointment was to assemble an editorial team dominated by strong older women. He insists that the first of these, his deputy Ruth Baillie, attend our interview. The two make a brilliant double act, sparking off each other and occasionally finishing each other’s sentences.

After Young mentions that the senior members of his 50-strong team include not just Baillie (a former production editor of the Evening Standard) but a female news editor, night editor and chief sub, Baillie says, “We’ve got a core of older women, which is interesting.” “I tell you where it’s interesting, it’s interesting in conference,” says Young.

When I ask how, Baillie adds: “We’re all terribly sensible… You know it’s a lot of fun but we don’t want anything tacky.”

Not sexist? “God, no, not sexist,” she demurs. The Metro team are not averse to pictures of scantily clad Love Island contestants (“There are certain images of women without many clothes on which are fine…”) but women are taken seriously, she says.

So, no “Legs-it”? I ask, referring to the controversial Mail front page in which a discussion between the prime minister and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon,  over Brexit was reduced to a blown-up picture of their lower halves.

“Oh no, that was unbelievable!” begins Baillie, “I could not believe it.” Young starts to sound uncomfortable and mutters some dissent. “No, no, no Ted it was not acceptable,” says Baillie, until her boss says sternly, “We are not here to slag off the Daily Mail!” I start to get an idea of what their conference is like.

Whereas George Osborne, the editor of Metro’s rival freesheet, the Evening Standard, gives great attention to his paper’s editorials, relishing in needling May, Metro runs no leaders at all—its closest equivalent is called “Metro Talks,” which is more like a letters page. It is all about a quick and easy read on the way to work, and has taken a bet that readers don’t want to be told what to think. That could be shrewd: while Metro turns a profit the Standard was recently reported to be in the red.

Unlike the Standard, which has consistently given its support to Conservative politicians, Metro has never backed a political candidate. But even disavowing a position can be a position in polarised times like this. During the last general election, Metro ran interviews with every party leader with the exception of Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He declined an invitation after accusing the paper of being biased against his party.

“We are a very broad church… People pick us up as they’re running for the tube and they know what they’re going to get, which is a fair report of the world,” says Young. “We just don’t want to have political bias,” says Baillie, while Young says, “We give everybody a hard time.”

On the Monday after the EU referendum in 2016, Metro’s front page showed a night-time picture of parliament with the headline: “The lights are on but nobody’s home.” The chancellor was the subject of “Hammond Egg on his face,” the day after his U-turn on a taxes for the self-employed. The paper has criticised Diane Abbott, but it hasn’t campaigned systematically against the newly left-wing Labour Party in the way that much of Fleet Street has. The day after the last election, Metro put a beaming Labour leader giving a thumbs up on the front page with a headline which read “Stormin’ Corbyn.”

Young and Baille suggest a commercial logic to the lack of bias: advertisers respond warmly to it. So do readers. Young, with a French wife and two adult children, says, “I won’t go into the political views that bang around in my family because they’re every political shade.” But the editor and his deputy admit to voting differently at elections. Although they don’t tell me how, talking to friends and former colleagues suggests that Young is more “right of centre” and more likely to back Brexit than his deputy. Yet reticent about his views as he is, it is apparent that he is more interested in running a successful newspaper than using it to shape the public debate. Metro has been critical, but rarely vitriolic, about all sides over the past two years, mostly sticking to “facts not opinion” coverage.

If it is money, rather than the editor’s prejudices, that talk with Metro, he sees to it that it does so in an even-handed way. The paper received 300 complaints in the run-up to the 2016 referendum for publishing a front-page cover-wrap advert on behalf of the “Leave” campaign. Then, the following day, it published the same cover-wrap on behalf of Remain. Young refused to run one without the other, making a combined £500,000 for the company in the process. They were so determined to balance out the coverage that Baillie says they literally did a lineage count with “Boris and the bus” on one side and “Project Fear” on the other.

As for political hobnobbing Young says he has been invited to Downing Street but has only agreed once. Typically, he sends a political reporter. After the cabinet’s weekend at Chequers, he is scathing about politicians “briefing their pals.”

For all its proclaimed neutrality, some discern in Young’s paper a certain social liberalism, for example the way it covered the abortion vote in Ireland. There were lots of pictures of those supporting a change—Young insists that it was simply reporting the story. “We reported the celebrations—and when people came back, we reported that.” Although Metro runs stories about immigration fears, the team will typically try to balance that with quotes from an NHS worker talking about the medical staff needed. It doesn’t, as some tabloids do, feel like the newspaper of a country under siege.

Young and his deputy suggest that this desire for straight news, or as close to possible, comes from a desire to serve their readers, who do not want anything else. Referring to her own children, Baillie says, “Our kids don’t want stuff shoved down their throats.” Essentially Metro’s editors want the paper to reflect their readers’ views, or lack of them, rather than influence them.

With only five London-based news reporters, the 50-strong staff are largely production based, essentially taking wire copy and giving it the Metro treatment. But Young, the son of two journalists who worked for the Guardian and Manchester Evening News, talks about wanting to “return to old-fashioned values.” He may be an admirer of the legendary campaigning journalism of the Hugh Cudlipp-era Daily Mirror, but admits his paper is unlikely to ever enter, let alone win, a Cudlipp Award for campaigning tabloid journalism. “We never enter awards. We just think it’s a waste of time. My award is £11m profit and revenues up 6 per cent.”

Metro’s core readership—with an average age of 39—is 20 years younger than those reading the Mail, Telegraph and Express, and also more likely to be educated and in work. One Mail executive called this “a demographic to die for.” The most popular papers produced—evidenced by the lack of any returns at all, the empty bins which suggest that all 1.5m copies have been picked up from all locations—were those marking the death of music legends Prince and David Bowie.

The rejection of overt spin has found an echo in a digital age in which digital fakery has escalated doubt about the veracity of all journalism. “I think there’s been a huge problem with fake news and people know they can trust us…” says Young. “People are saying newspapers are dead but we seem to be bucking the trend.”


A tired brand?

The apolitical nature of the paper goes back to Metro’s launch in March 1999, and the idea had one surprise backer: Paul Dacre. The Daily Mail Group’s editor-in-chief told SJ Taylor, the Mail’s authorised biographer: “I knew the young hated heavy politics and so Metro could have no ideology. It would be a politically free zone, a class-free read... This paper had to be totally different from our different products, but have the indisputable signature of Associated Newspapers.”

Keeping politics out of Metro was also, of course, a way of ensuring that the paper did not cannibalise the paid-for papers Dacre had edited. Metro had been the brainchild of the current owner’s father, the Third Viscount Rothermere, who had been impressed by a freesheet called Metro on a visit to Stockholm. His son, Jonathan, was 30 when his father died, suddenly, in 1998, leaving him with a new title—and instructions to launch Metro quickly before the Swedes could bring it to the UK. “He loves Metro,” says someone close to the current Lord Rothermere. “It was a big, big bet he took early on in his tenure at the head of the company and it has delivered more than anyone expected.”

Rothermere allowed Metro to be run from a separate site to the Mail in the early days, allowing the editorial and commercial team to develop some independence from suspicious colleagues elsewhere in Northcliffe House.

One of the earliest executives, Mike Anderson, realised that the paper had somehow to be sold as a high value rather than valueless or “free” product. He promoted the idea of a “Metro Moment,” an undivided 20 minutes reading time on the way into work every day. This moment, as Anderson puts it, saw commuters thinking “I hate my job, I hate my boss, I want to set up a bar in Thailand.”

As a freesheet Metro didn’t qualify for industry circulation figures, such as the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), but that spurred it to develop in-house analytics. It could soon show, for example, that its promotions had high take-up rates: this was lapped up by advertisers, particularly in fields which might help commuters daydream: travel, technology and entertainment. Metro was “pretty much an instant hit,” according to Anderson. It is said to have broken even in just over a year, an impressive feat; the Group’s last newspaper launch, the Mail on Sunday, took 14 years to do that.

Within eight months of launching in London, which still accounts for 900,000 of its read copies, Metro had expanded to Manchester. By 2001, Metro was being published in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham too.

This expansion into the local newspaper market was also marked by bitter legal disputes, starting with Manchester where the Guardian-owned Manchester Evening News owned the right to the name Metro. When the Swedish group that launched the original Metro finally published its first UK-based newspaper in Newcastle, the Mail Group sued them over the use of the title.

This open warfare only ended when the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, still the largest regional newspaper publisher in the UK, came up with the idea of a franchise agreement. The idea was a simple one: by agreeing to print and distribute Metro, local papers effectively received a share of national advertising revenue in return for local distribution and printing.

That seemed like a win-win. But just one of these franchise agreements remains (in Manchester), which might be a first indication that Metro’s financial model is running out of steam, or else further evidence of the decline in local newspapers. The truth is probably a bit of both.

For Metro’s ability to withstand the slump in print advertising is showing signs of fatigue; profits have fallen from the £15m reported in 2017. Threatened by the expansion of Wi-Fi on the tube as well as rising newsprint costs, the future is not assured for a paper with no control over its own website, which is run by an entirely different part of the Mail Group. It might be Britain’s best-read paper, but—for one commentator who declined to be named—“Metro is a tired brand with zero traction and zero future.” Last year, there was talk of the Mail Group selling up.


“The Standard is talked about, the Metro is read”

The argument used two decades ago—and today—is that Metro’s audience does not read existing papers, so could not harm paid-for rivals. Its owners might have hoped that these younger readers would graduate to proper paid-for titles but since the advent of smartphones they have all graduated online.

And in an economy getting the jitters over Brexit, Metro is now having to work harder for commercial success. Newspapers have seen their share of display advertising plunge, and newsprint has soared in cost—up by 8 per cent, from £330 to £360 per tonne, since the pound fell after the EU referendum.

Pressures have mounted and the Standard, 24 per cent owned by the Mail Group since 2009, recently became embroiled in a cash-for-content scandal, with Osborne denying the charge of letting corporates buy favourable stories. Young looks shocked when asked if they would consider writing favourable stories for financial reward, saying, “Readers are not stupid!” he says. “It would be suicide.”

Newspapers have traditionally been at least as much about power as profit. After the referendum, when the editor of the Sun dismissed the theory about print being dead, he was referring to its political influence. The Standard may have lost £10m in the year to September 2017 but it’s still written about, not least because of its high-profile editor. Metro insiders like to say, “The Standard is talked about, the Metro is read.”

But for how much longer? Almost 20 years after its launch, Metro is at a turning point. It foretold the dominance of “free” ad-funded information targeted at readers, and continued to defy the gloomsters by proving that some newspaper readers, specifically those of busy commuters, value a basic print product.

It is the antithesis, not just of politically-motivated tabloid journalism, but also of the sort of campaigning investigative journalism published by the Guardian and Times here, and the New York Times and Washington Post currently thriving in Trump’s America. But in less than two decades, Metro has transformed from something described to one executive as a “shitty little freesheet” into a successful paper with a young audience who appreciates its basic news coverage. Whatever its future prospects, Metro has shown that there is a market, perhaps even still growing, for a newspaper based on facts in a world that increasingly seems to be anything but.