Arguably the most powerful newspaper editor in London isn’t based in Canary Wharf, Farringdon or Wapping, but in an unassuming Mayfair terrace. Per Mikael Jensen this week took over as editor-in-chief of Metro – a newspaper with 38 editions in 16 countries and a readership of 13 million.
Not bad for a title which launched as a local morning free sheet in Stockholm nine years ago.
Metro International currently has no newspapers in the UK – former parent company Modern Times Group was behind the failed launch of a free daily in Newcastle in 1999 – but it has had a huge impact on the British newspaper market.
The copy-cat free Metro title launched by Associated Newspapers in 1999 has a circulation approaching a million distributed in cities across the country. And Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond is threatening to launch another free daily in London at any time.
According to PMJ (as he is known) the growth of the free morning press is unlikely to stop at that – the cost advantages are too great.
“In my view, I would be surprised if the differences between the free press and the traditional morning press were not a lot smaller in the coming years.
“I think the free press will improve dramatically and, unfortunately, I think it will be hard for some of the paid-for press to keep up because of the economical development.
“I don’t see an economical reason why there should be a quality difference between The Guardian and Metro. The distribution advantages of having a free press are so big that over the next three to five years the differences will be a lot smaller.”
The argument is a simple one. A single Metro dispenser can accommodate 4,000 copies – when compared with the fleet of delivery vans required to deliver conventional newspapers to supermarkets, newsagents and homes, it is easy to see where the cost saving comes.
PMJ says he worked for a Danish newspaper in which the cost of distribution was so great one year that it cancelled cover-price income completely.
New Metro editions continue to pop up around the world month by month and PMJ says he can’t see any limit to the title’s growth.
He says: “I couldn’t put a figure to how many cities we could be in in one or two years time.
“The concept is very efficient, the impact is immediate. We build a brand in local markets within three weeks, in a city where we are publishing we reach 40 per cent of all readers below 40 years of age within two weeks. Nobody else can do that, not even a radio station or TV unless it’s very big scale.”
The prospect of more free newspapers, which rely heavily on agency and other shared copy, is a scary one for journalists.
When Metro launched in Paris, vendors were beaten up and it encountered strong opposition from journalism unions.
PMJ is unsurprisingly dismissive of such fears and points out that the effect Metro has had on paid-for newspaper circulations in its native markets has been slight.
He explains: “People should be concerned if their product or their newspaper is not good enough.
Maybe this business has been sleeping just a little bit too long.
“Competition is not forbidden and it is only competition – there is nothing illegal, we don’t kill kids. If a free distributed paper with the staff of Metro can compete with high-quality morning papers then they really have a problem and it’s not my problem.”
Metro International has a journalistic staff of 600 worldwide and has ambitions to become a respected global player. Few news providers can boast bureaux in 38 cities and one of PMJ’s main tasks is making the most of this resource by promoting networking between titles.
Quite a task considering the plethora of time zones and languages which come with an empire encompassing North and South America, Europe and the Far East.
PMJ is also keen to use Metro’s huge readership to entice more big-name interviews. Recent scalps for the paper include Hans Blix, Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama.
These interviews are evidence of the fact that the international Metro is a more upmarket read than its UK cousin – PMJ describes it as a cross between a British broadsheet and Metro UK in content.
It contains no comment and PMJ says he sees the highest standards of editorial quality and fairness as being central to the business.
He said: “We have very demanding readers. People on the tube or the train are well educated. They are concerned about the world.
“We cannot deliver a low-quality product for our readers because then they will start spending their time on something else, a book or a magazine or even one of our competitors.”
Logistical and financial reasons make London the ideal head office for Metro, but PMJ is the only journalist based there so far (he plans to take on a deputy editor and senior journalist).
Metro International likes to strike fast when it launches a new paper so a reporter from Press Gazette is likely to be the last person PMJ would share future plans with.
But speaking in general terms he said: “I think there is room for another free newspaper in London. In most of the markets where we exist we have competition, in some of the markets it goes well for us and the competitor.
“I don’t see why in some years that you can’t have three, four or five different free sheets in the big cities.”