Martin Ashplant is returning to Metro, the U.K.’s free urban paper, as digital director during a tense time for news publishing. Projects like Google’s AMP are adding more platforms for publishers to partner with, and many readers are finding their news through social side-doors. Not to mention the frustrations around disruptive ads and notifications from breaking-news apps.

But the ability to experiment with how news is being served on mobile is what tempted him back after a 22-month stint at City A.M.

“We need to look at everything,” he told Digiday. “I am a big believer in testing and learning. With all this increase in competition, it’s important for publishers to bear in mind how to filter out the noise and tailor it at an individual level.”

While he is still unclear about specific goals, Ashplant’s aim is to “produce something digital which works for Metro’s type of readership,” through developing its apps and taking a distributed approach to publishing. “How exactly we’ll be measuring it in a way that drives revenue, that’s still TBD.”

“The right mobile perspective”
Metro’s print readership is a broad one of city commuters, not skewed toward a particular demographic. Every day, 1.3 million people pick up the paper for quick and easy access to news, according to the ABC.

Online it has nearly 9 million monthly uniques to its site, according to comScore figures, a large portion (7 million) are from mobile. By way of comparison, the Mail Online, part of the Daily Mail and General Trust group like the Metro, has around 27 million monthly uniques.

“This will be a very different approach to the Mail Online,” Ashplant clarified. “We’ll be building on the success of Metro as a newspaper. The tablet edition has been really successful (gaining 2 million downloads, according to Ashplant). It has won awards and had great engagement, but really that’s a tablet version of the newspaper. There is heritage in creating that habitual behavior, but now it’s more what is the right thing to do from a mobile perspective. We need to be there when they want us, not just in the morning.”

The home screen and messaging services
Ashplant points to Breaking News app, which tailors alerts based on learned preferences and proximity, as an example of what it’s aiming for. “This develops the relationship between the reader and the provider of news. We’re are at the point where you have to now earn your space on the home screen.”

Mobile messaging is another area of interest, but it’s still in a place that doesn’t make it easy for publishers. “The main thing stopping publishers really going for it on messaging apps like WhatsApp is currently it’s still so labor intensive. When the BBC used Whatsapp to cover the Indian elections, they had to manually enter every new phone number that wanted access.”

Why City A.M’s harsh ad blocking stance won’t work for the Metro
At City A.M., Ashplant succeeded in growing online audiences threefold, according to Metro. He was the driving force behind the paper’s decision to ban Web readers who use ad blockers after learning that 20 percent of the site’s desktop traffic was being affected. Now several weeks into the trial, Ashplant said that a significant number of people are turning off ad blockers in order to read its content.

“This is something I believe strongly in. City A.M. is purely ad-funded. It offers premium content and has premium advertisers around that, so the decision was a straightforward one,” he said. If people think they can get the content elsewhere, which is likely in Metro’s case, then expecting people to turn off ad blockers is an unlikely solution.

“We won’t necessarily take the same approach with the Metro. We will explore the alternatives. My experience is that most of this still happens on desktop.”

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