Goodbye, Metro?

That would be Metro Boston, Metro New York, and Metro Philadelphia, the three free US dailies operated by Metro International.

Earlier today, Don't Quote Me got a tip that representatives of the Examiner group--which publishes free papers in San Francisco, Washington, and Baltimore, and has already staked out web sites for Boston and a bunch of other cities--are bidding on Metro's three American properties at a meeting today in New York. (There may be other suitors as well.)

A few minutes ago, I reached Robert Patterson, Metro's London-based CEO for North America, at Metro's New York offices. He declined comment on the rumored Examiner bid.

If Metro does sell to Philip Anschutz, the conservative magnate who owns the Examiner papers and a whole bunch of other stuff, it'll be a big development in Boston's media landscape. For one thing, the sale would mean that the New York Times Company, the Globe's corporate parent, would give up its 49 percent stake in Metro Boston and get out of the free-daily business [see update below]. Boston Metro, meanwhile, would be replaced with the Boston Examiner--which, if past Examiner strategy holds, would be produced by a bare-bones staff and delivered for free in certain affluent neighborhoods.

In a 2005 profile of Anschutz, Slate's Jack Shafer downplayed the threat the Examiner papers represent to established urban dailies: "[A] genuine newspaper war won't break out in San Francisco or Washington--or wherever Anschutz takes his Examiners--until he elevates editorial quality to something approximating that of the local dailies," Shafer argued.

If Shafer's right, a Boston Examiner wouldn't be much of a threat to the Globe. It would, however, ratchet up the pressure on the Boston Herald, which is short-staffed itself, and on BostonNow, Metro Boston's free-commuter-daily rival.

To reiterate: Anschutz might not be the only prospective buyer. Stay tuned.

Update: A reader notes that the Times Co. might want to keep its 49 percent stake and do business with the Examiner. So it might. But would Anschutz want to buy 2.5 new papers instead of three? Also, take my description of the Examiner newsrooms as "bare-bones" with a grain of salt. Compared to the Globe, for example, the San Francisco Examiner doesn't have a lot of writers. But the SF Examiner's staffing looks much more robust if you're comparing it to the Herald or BostonNow.

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