BROOKE GLADSTONE: Small town newspapers are always looking for revenue, but big town papers are, too. One increasingly popular strategy is to give them away. Currently, there are two new free dailies competing for readers in the Big Apple, and last month, the New York Times announced that it planned to buy 49 percent of a free paper up north called the Boston Metro. The Washington Post has been offering a free paper to subway riders in the nation's capital, and just last week, another freebie emerged called The Examiner. Reporter Lizzie O'Leary has the scoop on free newspapers, though we did have to pay her for it.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: Five days a week, Christopher Ma publishes the Washington Post's free daily paper, Express. Like several other major newspaper companies, the Post dipped its toes into the free media pool and found a ready audience of upscale young readers who weren't paid subscribers.
CHRISTOPHER MA: If you get on the train each morning and look at who's reading it, it's a pretty good profile of the sort of reader that the newspaper industry generally has had a hard time attracting in recent years.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: And, so, I did. [SUBWAY TRAIN AMBIENCE] This Washington subway car is filled with about 50 commuters. They're overwhelmingly young professionals, and they're clutching briefcases, backpacks, the occasional Krispy Kreme donut, and a lot of newsprint. The Washington Post and the New York Times peep out from a few people's bags; some are leafing through the new Examiner. But most of the car is a sea of little blue, hip Express mastheads.
MAN: My name is Genevieve. I'm reading the Washington Post Express, and it's just a quick, easy distraction on my short distance commute.
MAN: My name is Chris, and I just picked up a free copy of The Examiner Washington.
MAN: My name's Alex, and I'm reading the Express magazine, which is published by the Washington Post.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: What are those readers' ages? 25, 35 and 31. For the advertisers whose dollars support free commuter dailies, they're demographic gold. Metro International, the Swedish company that pioneered the commuter daily, began targeting young readers in the subways of Stockholm in 1995. Today, Metro publishes 42 free papers in 17 countries, including the U.S., and their advertising sales have grown 47 percent in the past decade. Recently, the company came under fire after an executive allegedly made racist remarks, and a board member resigned. Still, Metro's business model has made traditional publishers around the world pay attention.
EARL WILKINSON: Free represents a laser by which publishers can carve up a market for advertisers seeking the right kind of audience.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: Earl Wilkinson is the executive director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association and has analyzed the explosion of free dailies.
EARL WILKINSON: Metro, for example, in Stockholm today, their profit margins are approaching 35 percent, which would be dream economics of most paid daily newspapers in the United States.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: And traditional publishers are also trying the Metro model. Besides the Times and the Post, the Tribune Company and Belo have also gotten into the free daily business, and their papers now reach readers in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Dallas and Washington. But even if the Metro model is good business, is it really good journalism? In an essay in January's Columbia Journalism Review, its publisher Evan Cornog described free commuter papers as "geared to the attention span of a mayfly."
EVAN CORNOG: I did say that, and you know, it's clearly one of the great problems that the newspaper business faces today, that they want to reach out to the youth market, but everything that they believe shows that younger readers are not willing to invest time in the newspapers that older readers are.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: Hence, the 20 minute commuter read, and the splashy designs, tight copy and fun graphics. And also a certain melding of hard news with celebrity sightings. I asked Cornog what he thought about readers leafing past a photo of actress Naomi Watts to get to a story about the Iraqi elections.
EVAN CORNOG: The question here is whether enough good information about serious topics is being gotten to the people who are reading those newspapers. The ones I've seen, I find very unsatisfying. It's a little bit like having a diet that's all donuts.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: But can a newspaper both deliver the demographic that advertisers crave and make readers eat their journalistic vegetables? Or maybe, as Express publisher Christopher Ma hopes, can free commuter dailies represent just a starting point for new readers?
CHRISTOPHER MA: We see Express as helping to develop a whole new generation of newspaper readers. In print as well as on line, we are using the paper to make the readers of Express more aware of what is in the Washington Post each day.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: Earl Wilkinson isn't sold on that concept. He says there's some evidence from Europe that free daily readers have graduated to broadsheets a couple of times a week.
EARL WILKINSON: But we've got to get out of the mentality that we're simply going to use this as a teaser, they're going to drop the teaser at some point, and they're going to embrace the big, bulky broadsheet. I think that's probably a fantasy.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: The reality, though, is that the public appetite for free dailies still seems to be growing. Geneva Overholser sits on the faculty of the Missouri School of Journalism and applauds investment and innovation in newspapers. Still, she worries about the precedent that free dailies might set.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: We need to do good, hard reporting, and if we more and more are giving away the news on the internet or in these free dailies, what is the commercial model that we're going to find that will enable us to pay for good, old-fashioned journalism? It's a very costly thing.
LIZZIE O'LEARY: Overholser hopes that free dailies can keep broadening the media spectrum and attracting new readers, without compromising the fundamental editorial mission of flagship papers. Of course, the knowledge of how to strike that balance is probably priceless. For On the Media, I'm Lizzie O'Leary. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the mystery man hiding in plain sight in the White House press room, and why an episode called Sugartime went sour on PBS.