Urban closes, Metro International last man standing

Berlingske Media – publisher of the oldest Danish newspaper and currently owned by London-based investment company Mecom Group – just announced that they will close their free daily newspaper Urban tomorrow, leaving metroXpress and 24timer [24hours] (both owned by Metro International) as the only national free daily newspapers in Denmark. In a press release, CEO of Berlingske Media Lisbeth Knudsen says that

“We [Berlingske] expect a year where economical growth won’t increase, where consumption won’t increase, and where the pressure on the transition from print to digital and mobile will continue. We have to make sure that the group continues to be strong in the competetive situation we face. […] We are sad to choose to say goodbye to thousands of faithful readers of our free daily newspaper Urban but there are no indications that advertising conditions will turn advantageous for the national market for free daily newspapers in 2012; with three [free daily] newspapers there are too many players for that part of the advertising.” (my translation)

When I taught a course on free daily newspapers and news media in Denmark in the Fall of 2009, one of the things I discussed with the students was of course the future of the free daily newspapers. Would they all survive (the financial crisis was also peaking at that time)? If not, which would close? Or perhaps new ones would open? We agreed that if one of the free daily newspapers were to close, it would probably be Urban. Why?

First, the target audiences of metroXpress and 24timer were much more clearcut; metroXpress spoke to an audience interested in international matters and politics while 24timer prioritized lifestyle and service journalism. Urban’s target audience was, however, less clearly defined and it could be hard to define exactly who it was written for. We expected that when having three different free newspapers to choose from, people would probably go for the one that matched their interests best – and judging from Piet Bakker’s recent calculation of readership, I’d say they apparently did.

Second, Berlingske Media was under immense pressure (to say the least) from their owners in Mecom to make a profit; in that situation, giving away news for free on one more platform than the existing economic problem-child of the web seemed an unlikely long-term strategy. Substituting shop steward Thomas Conradsen more or less touches upon the same perspective in a comment to the professional journal of Danish journalists:

“I don’t know if you can say we’re surprised. You know that when you don’t generate profit, it’ll have consequences some day. But we have run the newspaper as [economically] tight as we could so we hoped we would make it.” (my translation)

I’m actually a little surprised to see such an honest admission that Urban wasn’t profitable. But for the two reasons given above, I wouldn’t say that I’m very surprised the free daily newspaper closed.

In 2001, Metro International introduced the first free daily newspaper to the Danish citizens. Now, 10 years later, the transnational publishing company remains the last man standing on the Danish market for free daily newspapers. And with two outlets now instead of just one in the beginning, the organization might actually come out stronger from the battle against now closed free alternatives Nyhedsavisen, dato, and Urban.