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Will Metro Stop Chicago?/ His Lips Are Sealed

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By Michael Miner

If you believe the Swedes, Metro is a win-win proposition. Wherever it shows up, it's a jaunty perk from the transit company for its riders, and a source of brand-new readers for the established newspapers. But the newspapers don't believe the Swedes. They think they're looking at lose-lose--losing readers when the Swedes' tabloid comes to town, and losing face if they cut their own deal with local transit bosses to keep it out.

Whatever the city and whatever the language, Metro is a bright package of news briefs collected off the wires from around the world, plus sports, features, and even a crossword. And it's free. The advertising pays the freight. The theory is that in your 20 minutes or so trapped in a sardine can on wheels, you'll gratefully thumb through a copy to give your brain something to do. Metro's available each morning in boxes placed in buses and on train platforms, areas the obliging transit companies rule off-limits to other newspapers. That's what drives their publishers nuts.

Metro made its first appearance in Stockholm in 1995. It soon expanded to the Swedish cities of Goteborg and Malmo, and today it's said to be Sweden's second-largest daily. But no ambitious Swedish capitalist settles for the domestic market. Metro International, which is controlled by the Modern Times Group media conglomerate, has launched local editions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and England. This year the company started up a Metro in Philadelphia (with a press run of 150,000) and another in Santiago, Chile. Both transit authorities were promptly taken to court.

"We've had legal problems in most of the cities," says a Modern Times spokesman in Stockholm. Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. (PNI), which publishes the city's Inquirer and Daily News, was joined in its challenge by the New York Times Company and Gannett, which publishes USA Today and a couple of suburban Philadelphia papers. They argued that it was unconstitutional for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), a public agency, to allow one paper distribution privileges denied all others. But a federal judge ruled that the publishers hadn't proved they were suffering "immediate and irreparable harm" and refused to grant an injunction. The publishers say they'll appeal.

Two months ago in Chile, that country's supreme court annulled the contract between Metro and the Santiago subway authority. The newspaper there has continued to publish while a new contract is negotiated.

"I know there have been some suits in other countries," says Jack Roberts, publisher of the Philadelphia Metro. "We're expanding so rapidly that's a common tactic. Newspaper publishers generally use every tactic available to them."

But what Metro's track record demonstrates, says Roberts (a former Daily News city editor), is that Metro is actually the friend of the old-fashioned newspaper, not its adversary. He says Metro increased the size of Stockholm's newspaper-reading public by about 20 percent. "What has happened in other markets is the size of the total market for newspaper readers increases dramatically. We tend to attract a very substantial portion of people who never read a newspaper before. Our readership tends to be very young, and to be more female than the stuffy old, male-dominated newspapers."

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney elaborates. "We're working under the guidance of a formal five-year business plan at SEPTA, the first in our history," he says, telling the story from the beginning. "That business plan encouraged SEPTA to generate additional revenues outside the traditional fare box." Believing there'd be a market for a SEPTA newspaper, the agency wrote an RFP--request for proposal--and "cast it out upon the waters, rather expecting that either the Inquirer or Daily News would put together a deal with us. We had some discussions, but it never worked out. Metro came in out of the blue, and we negotiated a deal.

"The beauty of it is that for us there's no investment. Secondly, it provides our valued customers with a nice saucy little newspaper. It's a lively read. It's a quick read. Jack Roberts will tell you that in Europe, reading dozens and dozens of bite-size stories stimulates people--especially young people--to then go out and buy general-circulation papers. Of course, PNI doesn't buy that at all."

Not for a minute. "We haven't seen their research," says PNI spokesperson Pamela Browner.

"The issue in the court," Maloney continues, "has been the philosophical argument over the First Amendment, which we personally feel is sheer nonsense or balderdash. They are contending in court that SEPTA will contractually have editorial control over this publication. That's just nonsense. Part of the deal gives us one page each day of essentially paid advertising. If we really wanted to say something, if we wanted to lobby, we could use that page."

But it isn't just nonsense. In return for its unique access to SEPTA's riders, Metro's contract guarantees the authority a minimum of $30,000 a month, plus a paper that "will conform to SEPTA's editorial standards of content. News will be presented in an easy-to-read and purely non-editorialized format....The entire editorial package, including special features, will be crafted to reflect the special interests and focused on the needs of the riders and the communities served by SEPTA. This top quality editorial package will provide an excellent showcase for SEPTA's daily transit reports and information."

Says Pamela Browner, "There's no way a paper like the Inquirer or the Daily News would enter into an agreement with a government agency. So yes, there was an RFP out, and we were aware of it--but there's no way we would respond to something like that. It's almost as ridiculous as us entering into a contract with city hall."

If you're wondering when Modern Times will discover Chicago, it already has. Floyd Weintraub, Metro International's vice president for North America, came here a year or so ago to feel out the CTA. "We had some questions and concerns regarding the competition with regular newspapers," says CTA spokesperson Noelle Gaffney. "Also with litter. We asked for additional information, and they really didn't provide us with what we needed. We were willing to talk further when the concept was further developed."

Weintraub went away, but he's expected back. "We've identified 60 cities around the world which we're watching," he tells me, and Chicago's one of them. "We're invited. We don't just show up." One notion afloat in Chicago is that Metro will never be "invited" here because Mayor Daley can't stand litter. Maybe. "The interesting thing is, we haven't had a litter problem," says Jack Roberts. "First of all, the newspaper's stapled, so it doesn't fall apart. If it is left on a seat it isn't blown all over the train. And the other thing is, we have very few left on the trains. Most people tend to take them with them."

Roberts says Metro agreed to pay SEPTA $15,000 a month to cover additional cleanup costs. And Metro's paying it, he says, but so far there have been no additional cleanup costs.

He tells me the Philadelphia papers reacted aggressively to Metro, not only by litigating but by courting advertisers who'd been taken for granted. Chicago's dailies wouldn't roll over either. The Sun-Times, with a significant transit-based readership, has most to fear from Metro, and it's already taken measures.

"When we first heard reports of this product," says Mark Hornung, vice president for circulation, "we were very concerned, and we made a decision that if this comes to Chicago we wanted to compete for their business rather than try to block it. So we developed our own prototype, and we went to the mayor's office."

This was just in the last couple of months. Hornung says, "We told members of the mayor's staff our position, which is 'We prefer this never happen. But if it does we expect the contract to be bid out, and we are prepared to compete for the business.'" He says the mayor's office responded that "knowing the mayor's position on clutter we doubt this is going to happen," but that if the picture changed and a contract were put out for bid, "we'll do it in an open and fair manner and notify all parties."

How could the Sun-Times bring itself to sign a contract the Philadelphia papers have rejected as unthinkable? "Why don't they sign a contract that's not unthinkable?" Hornung wonders. Instead of selling their soul to a public agency, he thinks newspapers should simply scratch out the language that offends them "and sweeten the pie" to compensate. "They didn't even try that. The mistake they made was to think it was all or nothing."

What about the argument that Metro ultimately increases the number of newspaper readers? Up to a point, Hornung agrees. "The more choices you give people, the more it's going to help readership. But it's mixing apples and oranges. It's a little misleading to say it increases circulation. What it does is create readership at the expense of paid circulation. Whether that's good or bad depends on where you sit. If you're the paid circulation, it's not too good."

His Lips Are Sealed

For years a small but steady stream of journalists has crossed the street from the Sun-Times to the Tribune. The reasons for these defections are several--job security, more money, more opportunity, more adult working conditions--but not one of them has ever justified breaking the code of silence. A new hire might arrive brimming with Sun-Times trade secrets, but it would be a disgrace to reveal them.

No one knew more secrets than Mike Cordts. The Sun-Times's projects editor before he joined the Tribune December 20, he knew how the Sun-Times intended to cover the millennium. He knew about his old paper's plans to reveal how the license-bureau scandal had spread to other states. He not only knew the Sun-Times had teamed up with the New York Daily News to track down New York truckers who owed their licenses to the corruption in Illinois, he'd personally set up that alliance. He knew about projects at the Sun-Times that are still in the pipeline and under wraps.

The Sun-Times produced its long-planned national license-bureau story on Sunday, March 12. Under the bylines of Cam Simpson of the Sun-Times and Corky Siemaszko of the Daily News, it published a five-page package that began with the front-page banner headline "N.Y. victims of Illinois rogue truckers." The thing is, the Tribune had printed a little sketchier version of the same story two days earlier. Its front-page headline announced, "9 states alerted on truckers," and Simpson spent all day Friday rewriting, so his own meticulously prepared report wouldn't read like a blatant imitation.

The Tribune had produced a classic "spoiler," the kind of piece that hits the other side's reporter like a chain saw. I asked Sun-Times editor Nigel Wade how he thought the Tribune had done it. "I have no idea," he said, refusing to take the bait. "You don't step into the ring without expecting to get hit, and I think [Simpson] knocked them out in the next round."

Some of your people think Cordts took the story across the street, I said.

"I don't know what he's up to," Wade replied nonchalantly. "Anyway, he works for them. He doesn't work for us."

Because Simpson's story was months in the making, and was in the end burdened rather than expedited by that ungainly alliance with the Daily News (a paper the Tribune Company used to own)--with drafts flying back and forth between Chicago and New York--there were plenty of opportunities for security leaks. And there might not have been a leak, simply a convergence of investigative strategies. At any rate, the Tribune's George de Lama, assistant managing editor for metro news, praises Cordts as a "true professional" and insists persuasively that he did nothing to help the Tribune get the story--even keeping the secret that the Sun-Times was also after it.

Despite the suspicions that understandably rippled through the Sun-Times newsroom when the Tribune story appeared, Simpson says the same thing. He and Cordts go back a long way, to the time when Cordts mentored him at Eastern Illinois University, and he won't accuse him now. "I can't imagine he would have anything to do with that."

If he said anything less it would end the friendship. Reporters are not only willing to keep from the people who pay their salaries secrets about the people who don't but regard telling as a sin as foul as plagiarism.

"There is no way on earth I would ever tip a new employer to something my old employer is doing," Cordts insists. "Not only would it be unethical, but frankly, as a Tribune executive, I wouldn't think much of a new hire who would commit that sort of treason."

Now the Tribune's night editor, Cordts says he has no idea how the paper came up with its version of Simpson's story. But he spotted it coming out "in dribs and drabbles" a few days before the big Friday story. "I knew as soon as I saw the dribbles coming out that I'd be accused of being a leak. That's part of life. My conscience is clear."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eddy Palumbo.

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