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Another Icelandic Media Baron Bites the Dust

Metro International: fast becoming the McDonald's of newspaper companies?

Metro International divests Italian operation but enters into franchise agreement to maintain global advertisment reach.

I was going to call his post "Metro International shrinks further", but felt depressed about the prospect of writing yet another gloomy post on newspapers when it struck me that isn't  Metro International just taking one more step towards becoming the McDonald's of media companies? With new franchise agreements in place in the US, Portugal and Ecuador this year, other places last year, the world's largest publisher of free dailies seems to be moving steadily towards a franchise model akin to McDonald's: global brand, local franchises bearing the financial risks.

With the Italian deal, Metro has successfully divested another unprofitable market, as Piet Bakker's excellent blog rightly predicted would soon be announced earlier this week - which might help improve the company's somewhat gloomy financial results. I still think those numbers are far from fantastic, as indicated here, even though Metro's CEO, Per Mikael Jensen did his best to convince me they were during our talk after the company presented its 2nd quarter (Q2) and half year results 20 July.

"A 12 per cent decline in net revenues is a great result! It's a pretty good result compared to a lot of other media companies," he told me, adding that it was down from minus 16-17 per cent in Q1. Of course, Q2 is usually a better quarter than Q1 for media companies, but the main reason for his exuberance was how a substantial amount of the costs dragging down the result (read the key figures here) was restructuring costs:

"We lost 20 million Euros in 2008, but 11 of those were in the US and Spain. When you close down those operations you have to take the cost, but these are one-off costs: they will not come back. This is why we are reasonably optimistic about the future," he said, and pointed out that at least Metro paid people the money they were owed: "We closed down Spain in a mature way, paid all or dues." Yes, that thick sarcasme is all about Nyhedsavisen, and those "crazy Icelandic guys" as Jensen dubbed them, but that's perhaps a topic for another post (parts of the interview with the Metro boss is available in Norwegian here).

However, I was going to write about Metro International and McDonald's. Mind you, not about McJournalism or the McDonaldization of news, in this case I'm much more interested in the business model. Of course, McDonald's does operate some of its own restaurants, especially in the UK. I don't know if these are the most profitable restaurants or are in markets the company knows intimately, but Metro's strategy has certainly been to hold on to core markets where they've managed to turn over a profit and reduce financial losses and risk by entering into franchise agreements and/or joint ventures in so-called non-core markets.  

Now, McDonald's is so often used to describe everything that's wrong in this world that comparing Metro to it makes it sound like I'm slagging the freesheet publisher off, but one thing you can't take away from McDonald's is its global reach and popularity. The guarantee of getting the same diet, though often with local options on the menue, everywhere has proved to have worldwide appeal. Also, it's the kind of low-cost brand which should prosper in the current downturn as more healthy options becomes too expensive for some - which, if the comparison holds true, at least sounds like good news for Metro's shareholders...

Update 01.08: Michael Jennings pointed out on Twitter yesterday that this comparison is far from perfect, I obviously know the media business better than the fast food business. Apparently McDonald's owns the real estate on which most of its franchised restaurants sit, then the franchisee uses their business model to increase property value.


On Newspaperinnovation (aug. 5) a full list of Metro operations.

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