Tube tabloid slugfest

Swedish subway rag has all-powerful T.O. dailies in a tizzy

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Enough about the overwhelming assault on our culture from south of the border — it’s the encroaching Swedes we should be worried about. NFirst we’re lulled into a false sense of security by that lovable chef on The Muppet Show. Then hockey star Mats Sundin gets the captain’s job for the Leafs. And now it’s a free daily newspaper straight out of Stockholm for transit riders that’s got the local dailies in a tizzy.

Metro, a tabloid for commuters who until recently were happy staring vacantly at a subway map, ratcheted up the local newspaper war last week. Both the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun were quick to deflate the invading Scandinavians with their own free rags.

Soft entertainment

Like Metro, the Star’s GTA Today and the Sun’s FYI Toronto are full of short wire copy and soft entertainment pieces — perfect fare for folks who don’t like to read newspapers.

The two dailies have good reason to be going berserk. Over the past decade Metro has successfully carved out a niche in several transit systems in Europe and the United States at the expense of paid dailies. In Philadelphia, the major dailies unsuccessfully tried to sue to keep Metro out of the subway on the grounds that its exclusive deal with the local transit authority violated freedom of the press and free speech.

A free tabloid could be bad news for the Sun in particular, which has no weekday home delivery and relies entirely on newsstand and box sales.

Although Metro has been hunting around for staff and has to build a local infrastructure from scratch, it scored when it landed a distribution deal with Gateway Newsstands, which has the exclusive right to sell all newspapers and magazines on the TTC, effectively shutting the competition out of the underground. The transit commission also gets a direct cut of revenues from Metro.

“The TTC had no power to agree or disagree with that deal,” says TTC chair Howard Moscoe.

Metro will be distributed in 210 Gateway stores around the megacity, including 60 in the subway system.

Gateway vice-president Noah Aychental says they have already put the word out to TTC general manager Rick Ducharme that they expect their exclusivity contract to be strictly enforced.

“(The Sun and the Star) are constantly encroaching on our territory, which is the TTC,” says Aychental.

The tattle tales the city’s vendor permit office has been fielding reflect just how vicious (or petty) the street war has become.

Before a newspaper box can go on the street, it must be approved by the city. By midweek, GTA Today had about 1,500 boxes around town. But there was some question about whether they had yet received permits from the city.

“I’m getting calls from everyone, believe it or not,” says city permit officer Teresa Mammoliti, who adds that she’s been flooded with calls from the Sun and the Star. “Everyone’s telling on each other. It’s terrible, and I’m stuck in the middle.”

Mammoliti says the Star had “just applied for all those boxes,” but will not comment further except to say that generally “you don’t put anything out there unless you get a permit first.”

GTA Today publisher Andrew Go says the paper applied to the city for permits at the same time it put boxes on the street.

“We’ve given in our application and the money to pay our licensing fees for all our boxes,” says Go.

For now, the Sun is relying entirely on newsies to hand out FYI outside subway stations.

“We will push to the absolute maximum what we can legally do,” says Sun publisher and CEO Mark Stevens.

The Sun is currently distributing 50,000 copies of FYI a day. But if Stevens is worried about the effects the free competition will have on core Sun readers, he’s not letting on.

“If you’re a current Sun reader, there’s a far greater depth of coverage,” he says seriously.

With only one of the three expected to survive, Stevens says the secret to success will be keeping overhead low and taking advantage of the existing infrastructure at the Sun.

The Star, meanwhile, is going full throttle, muscling its way in with a major advertising campaign as well as an aggressive distribution push. As of Tuesday, July 4, there were 150,000 GTA Todays on the street.

Make choice

Go says people will eventually have to make a choice and start picking up the paper. And when they do, GTA Today will be entrenched in boxes across the city.

Metro is also building up to 150,000 copies. But the Swedes’ Achilles heel, as Go sees it, could end up being the same Canadian law that has effectively curbed foreign ownership of newspapers until now. If Metro isn’t 75-per-cent domestically owned, businesses can’t write off 40 per cent of their advertising cost as a business expense.

At the moment, Metro isn’t charging for ads, according to the company’s North American vice-president, Floyd Weintraub, who doesn’t want to address the issue of ownership and advertising.

“When we put out our advertising package, we’ll address that,” he says.

Frankly, Weintraub doesn’t see why the dailies have got themselves worked up. Metro sees itself as expanding the readership of newspapers in the markets they enter.

“In Stockholm we do 285,000 copies a day, and newspaper readership has increased,” he says. “The advertising pie has increased. Newspapers are not the enemies of other newspapers.”

Number of countries with Metro papers: 10

Latest Metro launch: Rome, on Monday, July 3

Total Metro circulation worldwide: nearly 4 million

Toronto circulation — Metro: under 150,000 GTA Today: 150,000 FYI Toronto: 50,000 (building to 100,000)

Toronto distribution — Metro: 210 Gateway Newsstand stores on the TTC GTA Today: Handouts and 1,500 boxes FYI Toronto: Handouts, with boxes to come


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