Transit tabs vying for position

And the battle rages on....

And the battle rages on.

Toronto’s vicious newspaper war took a dramatic turn this past June, when a whole new group of combatants suddenly entered the fray.

Within a few days of each other, three daily commuter tabloids commenced publication, all bidding for the attention of groggy bus and subway riders on their way to work in the morning.

Torstar, publisher of The Toronto Star, introduced GTA Today, while rival Sun Media unveiled FYI Toronto. The other new arrival was Metro, a paper published by Modern Times Group of Sweden.

All three are free publications, targeting Toronto-area commuters aged 18 to 45 with a mix of news briefs and entertainment event listings. The readers are predominantly female and, for the most part, are people who don’t normally pick up a newspaper in the morning.

When the new tabloids launched, some media buyers wondered whether the Toronto market has room for all three. And while it is still too early to name a winner or loser, it’s apparent that not all are thriving.

FYI Toronto has experienced the roughest ride so far. The paper is putting out 50,000 copies a day, well short of GTA Today’s 150,000, or Metro’s 165,000. And publisher Lou Clancy concedes that advertising has been ‘a bit slow,’ mainly because FYI doesn’t have a dedicated salesforce of its own.

Distribution has also been a problem. While GTA Today blanketed the city with its purple boxes within a few days of the launch, and Metro succeeded in securing exclusive distribution within Toronto subway stations, FYI had no boxes at the outset and was forced to rely heavily on hawkers to get into the hands of commuters.

Clancy, however, believes that there’s a solution to the paper’s problems – namely, expanding distribution beyond the transit system, and into other suitable venues.

‘We’ve moved significantly into sports bars,’ he says. ‘We’re becoming less of a free transit paper and more of a free paper [in general].’

While FYI is trying to survive by shifting some of its focus away from commuters, GTA Today and Metro are duking it out for supremacy on public transit.

Metro’s station distribution deal may give it the upper hand in the subway system. But GTA Today rules the roost on GO Transit trains, and holds the lead on Toronto’s streetcars as well, says publisher Andrew Go.

On the whole, GTA Today’s readership and distribution are better than expected, he says. ‘It’s been well received by the reading public, so we’re very pleased with that. And advertising is coming along quite well – we have the lion’s share among the three papers.’

Metro, for its part, has faced some difficulties on the advertising front. For a start, there was no sales team in place until early October. And, because the paper is foreign-owned, federal tax regulations prohibit clients from writing off the cost of placing an ad. That makes Metro a costly option for advertisers.

To compensate, the paper has been discounting its ads. ‘We’ve worked around the tax issues by putting together special rate packages, and most of the advertisers we’ve talked to are fine with that,’ says publisher Greg Lutes.

A more viable long-term solution, however, is a partnership arrangement with a Canadian company. Metro is expected to announce such a deal within the next few weeks.

The concept of the commuter newspaper originated in Europe several years ago. Modern Times has been a leader in this field, launching editions of Metro in a dozen cities around the world, including London, Stockholm and Philadelphia.

The company had originally intended to launch in the Toronto market in partnership with Torstar. But negotiations between the two broke down last spring, after which Torstar moved forward secretly with plans to launch its own commuter daily, GTA Today. By the time Sun Media and Modern Times finally caught wind of this, they had precious little time to catch up.

Sun Media assembled a team from its newspapers in Toronto, Ottawa and London, as well as from its Canoe Web site, and managed to get FYI on the street in about five days. The Toronto edition of Metro, meanwhile, was pulled together by a team flown in by Modern Times’ Swedish owners and headquartered in a downtown hotel room.

So far, anyway, media buyers remain underwhelmed by the battle of the commuter tabloids.

Debbie King, executive vice-president and managing director of Toronto-based Optimedia Canada, says the papers have been surprisingly low-key in their pursuit of advertising revenues. ‘To tell the truth, it doesn’t really seem that they’re beating a path to our door,’ she says.

Once readership numbers become available, it will be easy to determine who’s winning. At this point, King’s impression is that GTA Today is faring the best.

Some have speculated that if there’s a real loser in all this, it’s The Toronto Sun, which is thought to be seeing some defection of readers to the new commuter papers. ‘If anybody’s cannibalizing their current readership, it’s got to be the Sun,’ King says.

As a tabloid with a strong commuter readership, the Sun is clearly vulnerable to these new contenders in the marketplace. But Clancy says the paper, with its extensive news coverage and outstanding sports section, offers a much richer product than a commuter daily.

‘I’ve heard [the rumours about cannibalization],’ he says. ‘But when the numbers come out, people will see it isn’t true. The [Sun's] circulation has not declined since the advent of the free papers.’

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- Content king in converged media universe: Bodes well for daily newspapers, publishers say p.B7

- Fallout from mergers unknown, say buyers: No one seems to have figured out how to sell cross-platform packages p.B9