The Metro’s free circulation has topped the 1m mark for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in March last year – in a positive sign for both the paper and the wider UK economy.
The milestone makes it once again the most widely distributed weekday newspaper in the UK, although the figure has not yet been audited by ABC.
The Daily Mail – also owned by DMGT – had an average paid-for print circulation of 984,043 in April, according to the latest available ABC figures, with its Saturday edition on 1.6m. However, it should be noted that with the audited digital edition sale of 76,000 the Mail is still above 1m.
Monday saw many lockdown restrictions eased in England. Metro’s circulation, which is largely reliant on readers picking it up from bins at major transport hubs, has mirrored the state of UK lockdown through the pandemic.
According to TfL Tube journeys before 10am on Monday were 37% of pre-Covid demand and up 5% on last week.
Metro editor Ted Young told Press Gazette the paper is “building back” after the “long haul” of the past 14 months, and that it will keep doing so as long as pick-up by commuters and other readers continues to increase.
He added the vaccine rollout has made him “genuinely optimistic” for both the paper and the UK overall, despite the potential threat of the Indian variant. More than 20m UK adults have now received both doses of a vaccine.
“We are genuinely proud of what we’ve done and we’ve really tried to do our best,” he said.
“We try and provide basic news and showbiz and features – we aren’t looking to win any awards, we just want to be a good commuter newspaper and provide information and we feel we have done that during the pandemic.”
The free paper trumpeted its return to wide circulation on its front page on Monday, telling readers: “Thanks a million.” Features like Rush Hour Crush are also beginning to return (despite the continued use of face masks).
Young said: “We thought we might as well ring the bells and tell people that actually things are looking up and they are looking up for the paper. We’ve been through the mill like a lot of people and a lot of businesses.”
Metro kept printing throughout the pandemic even though most of its commuter readership stayed off public transport, with many working from home. It cut its distribution from 1.3m in the first three weeks of March 2020 to 399,000 in April but kept its digital newspaper edition running online.
Young said: “The first lockdown was really brutal and until Dominic Cummings went up to Barnard Castle people were taking it really seriously. Our view was we are going to keep on printing.”
The decision to continue serving key workers was a “big deal” in the “really dark days” of last March and April, he added: “We’ve got to hand that to [parent company] DMG here, that they stood behind us and said we are going to keep on publishing throughout the pandemic.”
Metro publisher Daily Mail and General Trust also decided not to use the Government’s furlough scheme on any of its titles, which also include the i.
Young told Press Gazette the paper received numerous messages from readers asking for more copies to be put out last year. Many who were working from home said they liked to walk to their nearest station for exercise in the mornings and pick up a copy. The company adjusted some of its distribution points to make sure they were outside ticket barriers where possible.
Messages also started coming in from hospitals, including the temporary Covid-19 Nightingales, asking for copies for patients and staff. The Metro ended up going to about 70 hospitals and will now continue at about 33.
‘We’re feeling upbeat’
The paper gradually built back its print circulation throughout the year, although it fell from 781,000 in December to 598,000 in January when the third lockdown came in and the UK saw its worst death rate yet.
Now, after reaching the 1m mark for the first time in 14 months, Young said: “We’re feeling very upbeat. We feel we’ve fought back, along with the country really.”
Metro is now distributed at 3,000 points in 50 cities across the UK – about 96% of its pre-Covid distribution centres. Just over 60% of its circulation is in London and it works with TfL to view footfall data and decide how it can maximise pick-up.
Young added that advertisers had also begun to return after the first lockdown, with page numbers now back to about 40 following a low of 32 last spring.
Metro has benefited from being part of the DMGT “powerhouse”, he said: “It makes us part of a very strong proposition commercially so that’s certainly helped.”
Metro’s nearest rival in London, the Evening Standard, has reduced its distribution from 787,000 in February last year to half a million – but unlike Metro it has decided to stay around that “comfortable” figure. The Standard also experimented with delivering half of its circulation to homes for the first time.
London’s free business daily City AM suspended its print paper and digital editions, furloughed about 40 staff and in October cut about a third of the newsroom. It is now aiming to return in print by the autumn.
Missing newsroom ‘buzz and banter’
Young has been commuting to the office by Tube for several months and said about 16 staff members are now routinely in the newsroom with a rota and social distancing in place. Metro has about 50 employees, five of whom are based in Scotland.
Young said: “People are keen to come back and it’s great to see people when they do come in because they are so delighted to be in the office – if you told me 14 months ago people are going to be delighted to see you, Ted, I wouldn’t have believed you but they are – at least, I think they are.
“Personally I like to be in the office with my team because we throw headlines around. I nick everybody’s headlines and stick them on the front page. You can do it to some extent on Slack but I just love the buzz of the newsroom and I think quite frankly most journalists do.
“You can’t really beat the buzz of a newsroom and having people and, dare I say it, the banter – journalists have a particular sense of humour. I think if we can return to as close as that as possible, that would be great.”
Metro.co.uk, which is editorially separate from its print counterpart, had 38m monthly visits in March according to SimilarWeb data analysed by Press Gazette.
Acting editor Richard Hartley-Parkinson spoke last week about mental health in the newsroom and how Metro’s online team makes coverage of the issue feel “authentic”.