The Free Ride’s Over

For decades, ad-supported free daily newspapers defined commuting. But the Washington Post Express’ demise shows the model is headed towards the history books.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Working in journalism in the age of the internet, you naturally see shifts in the field—the “pivot to video,” as annoying as it was, could only be considered a blip in the grand scheme. But sometimes, the best option to get your footing is to ride a wave. And the wave I rode during the first half of my career was the concept of the free daily newspaper, a popular journalistic trend starting about two decades ago. I, personally, worked at three—one a hyperlocal daily, one in a spread-out urban area, and the last at Express, the long-running commuter D.C. newspaper that said goodbye to its readers this week. This market fascinated me as a designer, as a reader, and as someone who had an open mind on what the news could look like. Now as a guy who ponders the history of things that don’t often have histories written about them, I’d like to talk about why this market mattered as long as it did, and why it eventually lost its place. Today’s Tedium is giving away the news. — Ernie @ Tedium

Thanks to today’s sponsor Numlock News; more from them in a sec. Also, as a side note: If you’re looking for some smart folks to hire, nearly two dozen editorial employees (and dozens of distributors) lost their jobs at Express this week, and found out about the shutdown with just a day’s notice. They were not unionized. Give them your support.

“It’s tough for a printed product to survive against those odds, and while we held out much longer than might have been expected, the forces that aligned against our survival were, at the risk of straining my metaphor, as irreversible as those within a dying sun. And so, here we are.”

— Dan Caccavaro, the editor of the Washington Post Express (and my former boss), in an article discussing the paper’s demise this week. The paper, despite its shutdown, put in a number of good years and was old enough to drive.

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The Palo Alto Daily News. (ngader/Flickr)

Before the free daily picked up in big cities, it was a centerpiece of smaller towns

The thing that’s interesting about the free daily newspaper was that even the paper that cost money was already pretty close to free in many markets.

Selling for a quarter or 50 cents, much of the profit of the local paper was already generated from the advertising.

But free makes a huge psychological difference. If you want to put a kiosk on the sidewalk and let anyone who wants a copy of your paper grab one, you can. If you want to put your paper inside of every coffee shop in a metro area, you can. If you want to deliver the papers to everyone in the community, as my former employer Bluffton Today did, you can. And if you want to let hawkers hand them out to anyone who wants one that’s getting on the Metro, you can.

Essentially, not charging for the paper changes the goal of the publication from maximizing sales to maximizing reach. Basically you want as many eyeballs on the content as possible, because the goal from a business standpoint is to ensure a lot of people see the ads.

This free daily newspaper model is closely associated with big city rags, but it actually has its roots in mid-century California. In 1947, publisher Dean Lesher bought the Walnut Creek Courier-Journal, and a few years later renamed it the Contra Costa Times. With the paper, he did something interesting: While he had his delivery people ask for subscription fees, they were voluntary in nature. This allowed the “green sheets,” as they were called, to grow in popularity, using a controlled circulation model that gave the paper away to local residents.

This model, more widely used with trade journals, relies on distributing to a certain type of customer—in this case, residents of Walnut Creek, near San Francisco—so as to fit a reader profile for advertisers. The model, also tested with weeklies in Southern California, proved hugely successful for distribution growth, and by the 1960s, the paper grew into a more traditional pay model. Nonetheless, the Contra Costa Times, now known as the East Bay Times, was generally considered the first free daily newspaper.

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The best slogan in newspaper history. (Mor/Flickr)

In the 1970s, the model further evolved in a number of ski resort towns around the Rocky Mountains. Key to the modern evolution was Colorado’s Aspen Daily News, which was founded in 1978 by Dave Danforth, a reporter who mostly picked up stringer gigs from larger newspapers before launching a typewritten, mimeographed “missive” in the city. (The paper’s longtime slogan reflects this initial spirit: “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.”) The paper, which eventually took a newsprint form, soon proved so successful that the primary competition, the weekly Aspen Times, eventually moved to a daily format and also relied on free distribution.

Other major tourist spots gained free papers during this time, including the Vail Daily and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Daily, and this model helped to bolster the ad-supported part of the free daily model.

Also during this time, the alt-weekly, which also emphasizes a free, ad-supported model, was starting to gain strength in many major cities.

It was inevitable that these two approaches would combine—and in the mid-1990s, they did, thanks to some of the same folks responsible for the ski town boomlet of free papers.

In 1995, the Palo Alto Daily News, created by Danforth and other key figures behind Colorado’s free-paper boomlet, launched in the town at the center of much of the tech world, not far from the home base of the Contra Costa Times. By this time, Palo Alto was already a highly affluent area, directly near Stanford University and the home of many major companies. While many of these companies would later prove dangerous to the news industry, Palo Alto was a prime market in part because a major newspaper in the area, the ‌Peninsula Times Tribune, had shut down.

“We’re starting small,” co-owner Jim Pavelich stated. “It’d be nice to get up to a staff of eight or 10 people and get circulation above 3,000.”

(It would grow much larger than that, as distribution would reach a number of neighboring cities.)

There was a bit of drama among the owners—Danforth, who maintained an interest in the Aspen Daily News for decades after he left, was quickly pushed out and ended up creating a similar newspaper in Berkeley—but the model proved resilient overall. In fact, after Pavelich and his business partner Dave Price sold the Daily News, they launched a similar publication, the Palo Alto Daily Post, which continues to this day.

At the time Silicon Valley was becoming a free-newspaper haven, an experiment in Sweden was showing that lots of big cities would want free papers, too.


The date that the Swedish newspaper Metro was first founded. The newspaper, which had a brand that could easily translate between markets, proved a key driver of the free newspaper trend, with its design—intended to be read cover to cover in just a few minutes and covering topics focused on a younger audience—proving extremely popular in train and bus stations. Within a few years, the model had begun to expand into other parts of the world, including the U.S., where a number of East Coast papers were produced.

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The headline on this 2012 edition of Express? “World Doesn’t End.” (Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

How the free daily newspaper gave American newspapers an opportunity to experiment in the 2000s

Metro’s inroads into the U.S. got the attention of the big-city newspaper publishers, who saw the potential threat of the model to their own bottom line. But these newspaper chains more than rose up to the occasion.

The creation of Express in 2003, for example, turned out to be a smart defensive move for The Washington Post, as it likely discouraged Metro from publishing a DC edition. (The fact that the paper’s longtime editor, Dan Caccavaro, was the founding editor of Metro’s Boston edition likely helped it move full speed ahead.)

It did get a direct competitor, however, in the form of the Washington Examiner, which started as a tabloid publication, but eventually evolved into a weekly conservative news outlet with a strong digital presence.

What was great about these newspapers, beyond the willingness to experiment with story form and the focus on younger readers and their across-the-board tabloid form factor, was the fact that they reflected a genuine sense of competition in the newspaper industry that had not been felt in quite that way in decades.

In Chicago, for example, the Tribune’s decision to create Red Eye, a tabloid newspaper specifically targeting a younger audience, led the Sun-Times to rush-produce a direct competitor called Red Streak. The scrappier competitor lasted for three years before the Sun-Times pulled the plug.

Globally, many local newspapers pulled an Express, launching their own versions of the concept just to discourage Metro from coming in, but in some cases, such as in Philadelphia, they weren’t successful.

And in Florida, a lawsuit over branding with the Tampa Tribune led the free daily tbt*, a publication of the St. Petersburg Times, to its extremely convoluted branding. (To the paper’s credit, it leaned into the awkwardness, only for the St. Petersburg Times to later rename itself the Tampa Bay Times.)

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A box for the Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye. (Lauren/Flickr)

Red Eye in particular was widely regarded from a design standpoint, with splashy covers uncharacteristic of newspaper front pages and a high-energy visual style inside. It reflected a level of experimentation that was unheard of at major newspaper chains until that point.

Eventually, the experimentation that led to these big-city dailies cropped up in smaller markets, either in the form of arts-friendly weeklies or newsy dailies. I worked at two of the most interesting experiments with free daily newspapers: Bluffton Today, a South Carolina newspaper associated with Georgia’s Savannah Morning News, that combined the free paper concept with the also-growing hyperlocal concept; and Link, The Virginian-Pilot’s design-heavy take on the model, which covered the spread-out Hampton Roads market.

These papers were Petri dishes, with Bluffton Today, which I wrote about back in May, leaning heavily on user-generated content.

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One of Link’s wonderful front pages.

Link, like both the Pilot and Red Eye, was a designer’s paper at heart. It had four designers and a small army of copy editors, but just one full-time reporter. Most of the copy was from the wires or the Pilot. But we made up for a lack of reporters with an abundance of culture—I edited the paper’s weekly music coverage, for example, and our photographer (who was really good by the way) got so into craft beer while he was there that he left Link to work for Sierra Nevada—and a willingness to break any story down to its most atomic form, turning a 30-column-inch story into a handful of quotes and numbers. This approach has inspired basically everything I’ve done since, and as much as I love doing this, it to this day remains my favorite job I ever had.

Link—which we had been told was near profitability throughout 2008—shut down three months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, in the midst of the financial crisis, and weeks after the Pilot’s owner announced his intentions to sell the paper. (It took him a decade to do so.) I secretly held out hope they’d change their minds and bring it back, in part out of my love of the community, but I soon got a job at the closest thing to it within shouting distance of Hampton Roads: Express.

Despite Express being fairly bold for the Post at the time, it wasn’t as experimental as the other papers I worked at, in part because the model was working—it handily won over the DC Metro, which had no wireless access to speak of in 2009—though over time its design style really kicked it up a notch, particularly on the covers. I was proud of the work I did in all of these places.

Of course, these papers brought out curmudgeonly traditionalists in droves, admittedly because they had a lot more flash than the papers they supplemented, but also because they came at a time when traditional papers were getting trimmed.

I see it both ways here. I think these free dailies were necessary experiments in print at a time when print newspapers were struggling to find a next step, but I also think some of the resourcing wounds were self-inflicted.

Nobody got everything 100 percent right during this era—a lot of people lost their jobs, including me—but I think it was an important step between old-school broadsheets and the digital climate newspapers eventually had to embrace.

But man, that embrace has been tough.

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(Terence Faircloth/Flickr)

The free daily newspaper, even in markets where it once did well, is losing steam

As someone who is deeply familiar with the free daily newspaper model, here’s what really worries me about Express faltering: While it’s not the first paper to fall victim to shifting trends, it should have been more insulated from the difficult trends of the industry than most of the others.

The fact that Jeff Bezos was keeping the lights on and it was literally in the same building as a newspaper with the slogan “democracy dies in darkness” (which, reminder, is only the second-best newspaper slogan mentioned in this edition of Tedium) is not a positive sign for the model it championed.

The concept isn’t totally dead, to be fair. Metro International still has papers that serve a number of markets internationally, though the company has gone through much turmoil over the years, having sold most of its European newspapers.

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Canadians have been reading StarMetro in the past year or so. (Wikimedia Commons)

This has created a significant shift in a model that was once very popular. In Canada, for example, the Toronto Star’s parent company, Torstar, took the Metro model over in the English-speaking markets in which it served last year and turned the papers into miniaturized free versions of the Star that help promote the “Atkinson Principles,” the progressive perspective of initial publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, nationally. (A Montreal edition of Metro, in French, is still produced, however.)

Papers that once led the way as ambitious free dailies, such as the Chicago Tribune-published Red Eye, have retreated. While that paper still publishes content regularly, it now only puts out one edition a week, effectively turning it into a not-so-alt weekly. The Tampa Bay Times-owned tbt* made a similar move last year, but cited a tariffs battle over the cost of newsprint, rather than a long-gestating digital shift.

Another Tribune-owned free daily, however, AM New York, remains active, but a key signifier of a paper’s strength is page count, and that’s a place where the cracks start to show: In 2011, the paper regularly hit 40 pages; now it’s down to 16, a third of its size. Before Red Eye stopped publishing daily, it was down to just 12 pages on an average day.

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A Belgian edition of Metro, dating to 2006. (diluvienne/Flickr)

Looking at Metro alone, which had more than 100 editions at its peak, is telling. Some countries, such as Russia, have seen a sharp decline in the number of cities with Metro editions, while other markets have dropped the papers entirely.

Moves over the past two decades to shift the ownership of many of the more mature editions to other parties have led the concept to essentially become a scattered picture of success. In the U.S., three Metro newspapers are still produced—in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, respectively—though Metro International hasn’t owned those free dailies in more than a decade.

Perhaps the largest harbinger of the failure of the free daily newspapers is in Sweden, the country where the commuter paper really kicked off a quarter-century ago thanks to Metro. In a March issue of the Gothenburg edition on the Metro website, the front page featured this message from its editor-in-chief, according to Google Translate: “Today, we do not print Metro on paper. It is not voluntary. The cost of printing and distributing the magazine five days a week has now become too high.”

In August, the other shoe dropped: Media reports revealed that the parent company of Sweden’s Metro had dropped all journalistic activities in Sweden and would now only publish debate-style content on its website, as well as externally sourced content.

This is a clear sign of what’s coming, and the truth is, it will hit free commuter dailies, which were essentially designed for a world where people just wanted something quick and useful to read, harder and faster than more traditional newspapers.

The decay is already happening. With a paper like Express, which literally had the backing of the world’s richest man, losing its footing, the model clearly does not have a vote of confidence behind it.

Some global editions may stick around longer than others. But the truth is, this is a model that’s losing, no matter who’s paying for the ink.

I obviously have emotional ties to this. The model of the free daily newspaper, when I first got into journalism, was exciting to me. As a concept, it still is, in a way.

But I’m smart enough to realize that part of what attracted me to working at all these journalistic experiments was the risk. These were not publications that felt like traditional newspapers; the two commuter papers I was at played in aggregation and much of their original reporting leaned on arts coverage. Express was the most traditional and stable of the three—and it only truly embraced the snark of its final cover while I was there.

When I took the jump into purely digital pursuits in 2012, a big reason for that was because I knew this day would come, not because free dailies aren’t great—they are, and plenty of people enjoyed them over the years—but because the tide was slowly turning.

But I do not regret my time in tabloid-land, because it taught me a lot about the way that readers think about news. It was focused on an equation: If you had 10 minutes to read the news of the day, given access to both a wire and a larger newspaper that your target audience isn’t reading anyway, how could you present it that maximized the amount you could learn?

Sure, this required flash, and more than a little Photoshop. But it also required editing, and more than a little cleverness.

If you ever wondered why I put big quotes and big numbers in everything I do, including this newsletter, it’s because of my time at these free papers. Even with all the column space in the world, we could still use a good data point or two.

Goodbye, free daily newspaper. I, and my many coworkers over the years—both actual and spiritual—will carry your lessons into a strange digital world that needs your lessons more than ever.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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