An e-newspaper digital version of Associated Newspapers' Metro launched today in a move that neatly summarises some key themes of the UK's newspaper revolution.
Metro, as most UK commuters will know, is the free sheet that has become as omnipresent at British city stations in cities as vagrants, prostitutes, drug dealers, pigeons and fast food wrapping. The e-newspaper means that now you can see the product you pick up at 8am and discard at 8.20 in replica format online.
You only need eyes in your head to be able to say with confidence that the print Metro has a huge readership despite being a notch below other tabloids in terms of timeliness of information, exclusivity of content and presentation. Metro does its job as a 'good enough' product, however, delivering chunks of news, opinion, weather, horoscopes, celebrity nonsense and so forth. It proves the American chestnut about free being a compelling price.
That's a big problem for newspaper publishers (including Associated itself, of course) that must cede a portion of the revenue they earn from paying readers and hope that ad revenue compensates for the shortfall. Also, they're at the crossroads of making key decisions about how much they spend online and how far they continue to commit to print. It's easy to say that online is up-and-coming and must be backed strongly; it's much harder to wave goodbye to the source of most of your revenue.
The sanest and safest option is to spread digital bets on online, mobile, community and e-replicas of print editions, while looking to be as creative with print as online. The unwritten story about the changing face of newspaper publishing involves the opportunities afforded by low-cost distribution centres, more flexible printing and the successes of various giveaway cover-mounts and other offers.
At the same time, newspaper publishers must surely be looking closely at opportunities to marry technology and telecoms companies as we all wake up to the fact that, just as we stopped writing about it, convergence in media finally happened. As JP Rangaswami of BT told me this morning, "Technology, media and telecoms has become more like one sector rather than three."
You don't have to be a genius to work out what happens next.