By James Morrison
Associated Newspapers has signed a secretive deal with one of the UK’s biggest train companies to prevent any free newspaper other than Metro being distributed at stations across South East England.
The contract guarantees Associated exclusive free circulation rights on some 160 concourses in Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Kent, should it choose to roll out the Metro brand in the Home Counties.
News of the deal, signed in 2002, has emerged in the week that Newsquest (Sussex), owner of Brighton’s evening paper The Argus, began distributing 35,000 copies of a free sister title to local commuters in a bid to boost its readership. The company is being forced to hand out copies of The Argus Lite on what it describes as "routes leading to" the county’s stations because the Metro deal effectively bans it from rail premises.
Metro, which has not so far taken up its option to distribute in Brighton, declined to comment, citing reasons of commercial sensitivity. But a spokesman for rail company Southern confirmed: "Metro has a contract with us to be the exclusive free newspaper distributor at all our stations."
He added that the contract contained "a confidentiality clause" stopping him revealing any further details, such as whether there was a time limit attached to the deal or how much it was worth.
The existence of the Metro agreement emerged when Newsquest (Sussex)
approached Southern managers asking for permission to distribute The Argus Lite at its stations.
One Argus insider said: "There’s a general feeling of embarrassment that The Argus can’t even get inside Brighton station and is having to be handed out over the road from the concourse."
Launched on Monday, The Argus Lite relies heavily on Press Association copy, combined with what Newsquest (Sussex)
managing director Martyn Willis describes as "lite bites" of news and entertainment culled from the day’s paidfor title. It comes two years after then Argus editor Simon Bradshaw tried a different tactic to lure commuters, replacing the paper’s more parochial community stories with a metropolitan news agenda and aspirational lifestyle features.
With the paper’s circulation still declining, Bradshaw left within the year.
Sales were down by 11.1 per cent in the January to June ABC figures last year.