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Free papers carve out a niche in Sweden

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15:43 CET+01:00
It's morning rush hour in Stockholm's subway and the commuters are strangely silent: conversation is out of the question as all noses are buried in one of the many free daily papers that have become a roaring success in Sweden.

The Scandinavian country is home to Metro, the first free daily newspaper, launched in 1995 and which revolutionised the European press, putting pressure on weak traditional markets.

Twelve years on, the Swedish market for free morning newspapers has reached maturity, with five morning freebies published in 12 editions and a total of a million copies a day thumbed by at least as many readers.

All five papers have found a place for themselves alongside the traditional paying newspapers, but pioneer Metro is by far the most successful of the bunch.

It posted its first ever profit last year, earning almost $13 million dollars compared to a net loss of $7 million in 2005.

Two other freebies are hot on Metro's heels, and while they are both lossmakers they attract hundreds of thousands of readers a day.

Stockholm City, launched in 2002, has a daily circulation of 383,000, while Punkt SE, the newcomer to the scene launched just four months ago, counts 293,000.

Freebies are probably more successful in Sweden than anywhere else "because the penetration of subscribed morning papers is high among all groups in Sweden and has been for decades. Newspapers have high status and a great amount of the advertising," says Ingela Wadbring, a Gothenburg University media researcher.

With its nine million inhabitants, Sweden comes fourth behind Norway, Japan and Finland in terms of newspaper readers per capita, according to the Swedish Newspaper Publishers' Association.

Nine of 10 adults in Sweden read a daily paper, statistics show.

"We have a tradition of reading morning newspapers," says Urban Hilding, a media analyst for the Initiative Universal consulting agency, noting that most Swedes have a morning paper delivered to their home every day before 6:00 am.

Hilding says the free papers had carved out a niche for themselves alongside the traditional press, with most freebie readers also subscribing to morning papers.

The free papers have proved to be resistant, with only two shutting down, both of them evening versions: Stockholm News, which was shortlived from September to December 2000, and Everyday, which was published from September 2000 until March 2001.

"Of Metro's about 70 launched editions in the world, five have been closed down ... Most of them have survived," Wadbring says.

Tim Burt, spokesman for Metro International, attributes the paper's success to two key elements. It conceived of the idea of a free morning paper and the notion to distribute it in the subway, on buses and trains.

Metro's concept is that the entire paper, filled primarily with brief news items on current events, finance, sports and culture, can be read during a half-hour commute to work.

"The competition is good for the market," says Burt, noting that the freebie readership continues to grow.

He says Metro "is in a pretty good position to extend its launch of new titles because of its long history and market share."

Meanwhile, Hilding notes that the free press tends to attract a slightly different readership than do traditional papers: more women and young people.

He predicts nonetheless that Sweden's five freebies will eventually be whittled down to two.

Wadbring agrees, noting that following the launch of Punkt SE in October, Stockholm City's days may be numbered since Punkt SE has attracted a large younger readership drawn to its emphasis on celebrity and people news.

She also points out that Punkt SE enjoys strong backing to ensure its longevity – it is published by Aftonbladet, Sweden's most widely read newspaper with a daily circulation of 429,000.

The Swedish press landscape could ultimately consist of two paying morning papers (Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet), two paying tabloids (Aftonbladet, Expressen), and two free dailies, most likely Metro and Punkt SE.

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