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Toronto commuters may experience a sense of déjà vu when they pick up their free commuter paper on the subway this morning.

Metro Today is changing its name back to Metro, the original moniker the daily transit paper had when it was launched two years ago. The name change and redesign are a symbolic victory for Metro, the paper that sparked a short-lived newspaper war in the city's streetcars, buses and trains.

"We're the only game in town and before there were three," said P.J. Harston, Metro's editor-in-chief.

About 182,000 copies of the paper are distributed every weekday around Toronto's transit system. The paper reports a pickup rate of about 99 per cent.

The layout of the paper will be updated and the editorial news hole enhanced by switching from five columns per page to six. The style changes will bring Metro in line with the standards of its 23 sister publications in cities around the world, including a return to the green logo it used originally.

Metro is the brainchild of Metro International SA, a media company founded by Swedish billionaire Jan Stenbeck. (Mr. Stenbeck, 59, died earlier this month of a heart attack.) The Swedish company arrived in Toronto in the winter of 2000, anxious to duplicate its free newspaper concept in Canada's largest commercial market. It needed to find a local partner because advertisers aren't able to write off costs in foreign-owned publications.

Instead, Metro found itself an unwanted new player in an already heated newspaper war. The fall 1998 launch of the National Post had dramatically increased competition for readers and advertising dollars between the city's three incumbent dailies: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun.

The Swedes' first attempt at partner hunting foundered. Neither Torstar Corp., publisher of the Star, and Sun Media Corp., Quebecor Inc.'s newspaper arm and publisher of the Sun, would agree to Metro's terms. Undeterred, Metro went ahead on its own and, in response, Torstar and Sun Media opted to launch their own rival commuter papers, GTA Today and FYI Toronto.

Suddenly, the city of Toronto was awash in newsprint with seven weekday papers fighting for attention. The discarded newspapers were more than a nuisance; they were a fire hazard. Three or four times a week, sparks from passing subway trains ignited newspapers, setting off fire alarms and even stopped the system once.

The commuter papers lost millions. Faced with an annual loss of about $6-million, Torstar made peace with the Swedes and in July last year, the two publishers launched Metro Today. The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency granted the co-owned paper's advertisers the right to deduct their expenses. Three months later, Sun Media closed FYI Toronto.

Newspaper analysts say Metro Today has dramatically reduced its losses and is expected be profitable in 2003. (Torstar management was not available for comment.)

The paper "is definitely a player, there's no question about that," said Hugh Dow, president of media buyer M2 Universal. Research conducted by the firm late last year indicates Metro Today is delivering an audience rich in 18- to 34-year-old readers. About 30 per cent of them do not read another daily paper, evidence that the paper is delivering a hard-to-reach audience to advertisers, Mr. Dow said.

Rival publishers are watching developments closely, especially the Sun. Many industry watchers believe the tabloid has the most to lose at the hands of Metro Today, because Sun circulation derives almost entirely from newsstand and box sales.

"Has it been an irritant? I guess so. You have a tab that's free, it's made us more on our toes and work harder," said Les Pyette, Sun publisher, adding that the Sun is having a "spectacular" 2002.

Len Kubas, a Toronto newspaper consultant, said Metro Today may be squeezing the margins of all the city's newspapers, but he expects it's helping the sector too by pulling in more total advertising revenue.

"Believe it or not, I think it has helped the newspaper industry," Mr. Kubas said, adding that readership data from next month's Newspaper Audience Databank Inc. study may encourage more advertisers to look seriously at the free paper.

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