The growth of ‘metrocentricity’

As you’ll already know, Time Out went free last week, with hundreds of thousands of copies of a slimmed-down, listings-free magazine being handed out to commuters at tube and train stations.

I wrote a short piece here on the place that Time Out held in the lives of people who went out in London in the ’80s and ’90s, but there’s a more general publishing point.

Here in London we’ve a raft of successful new print products, all of them free – Stylist, Shortlist, Sport, Metro, City AM, the Evening Standard – and all predicated on the same model: getting them picked up at or near travel points by commuters desperate for 20 minutes of diversion.

These have been hailed by brighter minds than mine as (one of) the futures of publishing, but I’m not so sure, and for two reasons.

The first is saturation. What happens when every day of the week has its own free magazine? It can be argued that Metro and City AM manage to coexist successfully, each catering for a different demographic, but the broader the reach one wants one’s title to have, the more it’s a zero sum game. Remember the circulation war when two free and one paid newspaper each tried to win commuters in the evenings? So what happens if another title aimed at young women wants to have a crack at Stylist’s market?

The other point is that this is mainly a London phenomenon. Yes, Shortlist/Stylist is available in around a dozen cities, but the concentration of readers in the capital – more, the concentration around the travel hubs – means that it becomes difficult to get sufficient copies into sufficient hands in any but a handful of UK cities (that’s what I mean by ‘metrocentricity’), and that gets you back to the saturation problem.

There has been a definite first-mover advantage to the new free products; whether there is anything but a dead-end to being second or later remains to be seen.

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