A week ago something interesting happened in the world of free dailies: Metro USA newspapers announced that they would cease to use American wire copy from the Associated Press, moving instead to use more original local content produced in house.

While Metro USA say they will continue to use other wire services like Bloomberg and Reuters, as well as maintaining international copy from the AP, editor in chief Tony Metcalf said in a statement, “we believe that the future of our titles lies in producing as much of our own material as possible”.

“Encouraging existing staff to write more and employing new writers gives us a higher degree of flexibility and results in a product which is more relevant to the young, professional audience we, and our advertisers, seek.”

“Another factor in our decision was cost, something that cannot be ignored in these difficult economic times. By relying more on our own reporting staff, we make a substantial saving while protecting the newspapers’ quality and improving relevance to our local markets.”

In Australia News Ltd. has a monopoly on free dailies with the metropolitan tabloid MX, the content of which is, by and large, recycled international celebrity gossip from the wires that can be used in both the Sydney and Melbourne editions.

As part of the News Corp. empire, MX editors need not fret about the cost of using wire copy. Original copy would cost much more for MX to generate — why would they bother to produce more local content when News already has metro dailies and weekly community papers?

Likewise Metro International, the owner of Metro USA, publishes free dailies in over 100 cities worldwide, is the largest international newspaper group in the world and boasts a readership of 21 million. One of the major shareholders in Metro USA is the New York Times Company.

The question is, how much does the use of wire copy cost Metro USA and how could it be cheaper for them to produce local content? How many stories a day are their journalists expected to produce and how much does it pay them? And are other Metro papers outside America likely to dump wire copy too?

If we leave costs aside, the Metro’s new tactic seems logical. The continuing debate over the future of the media has led many commentators to suggest a focus on local news and niche publication could drive a news renaissance.

Long before the global financial crisis started to kill media advertising en mass, web guru Patrick Beeson was suggesting that large quantities of local content were paramount to the survival of local papers because this was what differentiated them from major news outlets. The argument for localising the content of community papers stems from the wider issues facing newspapers in the age of the internet.

Beeson wrote in his blog, “With more than 50 million Americans getting their news online on a typical day, it doesn’t make sense for local media outlets to publish information rooted outside of their locality. And I’m talking about print and online platforms.”

New York University’s Professor Jay Rosen recently started an online tally of local content in American papers, in an effort to develop a plausible alternative to the current media business model and Harvard University has set up the Neiman Journalism Lab specifically dedicated to study on the future of journalism, looking in part at how local papers are better off than their larger metro counterparts.

On Wednesday last week The Australian reported that newspapers here aren’t struggling with quite the same downward spiral that they are overseas, although others would disagree.

But would a free daily newspaper with a focus on local stories and original content be viable in metropolitan Australia? Would it be considered more relevant and attractive to advertisers? Could locally focused content save the print media Down Under?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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