On March 23, 2020, Metro Jornal stopped circulating on the streets of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. With the social distancing measures determined by the government, there were no readers on the streets to receive the 100,000 printed copies of our free tabloid. And not only that, but there was also no way to finance these copies because the advertisers disappeared along with the readers.
Despite a good audience on the Web site and social networks, until then Metro’s business model was totally dependent on the printed newspaper and distribution in the streets. Truthfully, even before the pandemic, we were not having easy days: By the end of 2019, we had already made two major staff cuts to adjust expenses to income. Print revenue had been falling year by year, while digital revenue remained negligible.
Thus, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to be the final chapter in a 13-year story — one full of achievements and awards — since the newspaper had launched in Brazil as a joint venture between Metro Internacional and the Brazilian Grupo Bandeirantes de Comunicação. With the print edition suspended, the journalists went home awaiting notice of the end.
But while management was trying, blindly, to make a decision about the future of the business, with closing seeming to be the most likely alternative, we decided to survive. Overnight, we invented a new product, initially called Metro em Casa that was nothing more than a PDF version of the newspaper sent to readers by e-e-mail and WhatsApp.
In just a few weeks, we managed to register more than 20,000 readers who wanted to continue receiving the newspaper in the digital version. Without knowing it, we were starting to invent not just a new product, but a new company.
Getting outside support
With this case, for the first time in its history, Metro applied for — and was selected — to participate in programmes providing support for media vehicles. One was by Facebook; the other by Google.
With the help of mentors from the Facebook Accelerator programme, our Metro at Home PDF became the Metro na Tela — delivered no longer as a simple PDF file but on a platform developed by the UK company Page Suite, responsible for digital replicas for newspapers worldwide.
Our new product didn’t bring advertisers back — they didn’t start coming back until six months later. Yes, that means we spent an entire semester without billing. Our Facebook mentor brought a new business model to the company, which we like to call a hybrid newspaper. Our Metro na Tela circulates daily to more than 50,000 readers who receive it by e-mail or WhatsApp. And our printed Metro, as we knew it in the past, is now an on-demand product: It only circulates when we have interested advertisers, which has been happening two or three times a week.
Last year, we printed editions every Thursday and Friday, distributing 70,000 copies on the streets of São Paulo. Some weeks, we had editions printed on other days of the week as well. The rule is clear: If there is no advertisement, we only have the digital edition — and we avoid printing and distribution expenses.
That approach changed everything. At a time when most newspapers are facing a serious financial crisis, Metro is once again a profitable business. More than that, we are having better results than we had in recent years, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moving toward the future
The fact that we don't have printed editions every day hasn’t weakened us as a business. On the contrary: We are healthier than before. As always, we Metro journalists strive to make the best newspaper we can every day. It doesn’t matter if it will circulate in digital and print versions, or digital-only. We are producing reports in videos and podcasts, which we didn’t do when we were focused only on print. And we’re designing our membership programme, which didn’t even cross our minds in March 2020.
In May of next year, just over two years after we left the streets because of the pandemic, we will celebrate 15 years of Metro Brazil. And we are full of plans to increase our relevance as a communication vehicle. No, we are no longer the newspaper we were before; we are very different. But in many ways, we are better.