When I was asked by Paul Dacre to become editor of Metro back in 2000, he told me with a mischievous glint in his eye: 'Make it good...but don't make it too good'.
Metro had been launched a year earlier by Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, triggering a lively debate within the newspaper industry. Would the new free newspaper hit the sales of paid-for newspapers, including the Evening Standard, then a paid-for paper also owned by Associated? Would it even cannibalise the mighty Daily Mail?
This week, Metro overtook the Mail to become the second highest circulation UK national newspaper, according to ABC figures for February. Metro had an average daily circulation of 1,476,115, putting it ahead of the Mail's average sale of 1,454,129. The Mail's circulation figure is boosted by its strong Saturday performance; during the week, Metro (which is only published Monday-Friday) is more than 200,000 copies ahead of the Daily Mail. And it is less than 30,000 copies behind The Sun, the UK's biggest-selling daily newspaper.
It's hard to remember what a trailblazer Metro was at the time of its launch 18 years ago. In those days, free newspapers were local rags shoved through your letterbox, containing plenty of advertising but precious little to read. Commercially, its success was far from guaranteed; in fact, many commentators cheerfully predicted its imminent demise.
But Metro offered something different. It was a neutral, apolitical 20-minute read, which presented the day's essential news in bite-size chunks. Cleverly, its circulation was deliberately restricted so that demand outstripped supply; get to the tube station too late and it was gone. It targeted affluent urbanites aged under 35, a hard-to-reach audience for advertisers. Managing director Mike Anderson coined the phrase 'the Metro Moment' - the 20-minute window of opportunity during the morning Tube or train journey when advertisers could reach them.
Its secret was the slickness of the editing; under launch editor Ian MacGregor and a handful of experienced Daily Mail executives seconded to the paper, it quickly established itself as a credible, quality newspaper, albeit aimed at a very different audience from the Mail. From London, it spread into a handful of big regional cities and its circulation began to grow.
Now, it is the paper of choice for morning commuters. On my journey from Richmond into central London, I rarely see anyone else reading a paid-for newspaper. So, were the critics right all those years ago to warn that giving away a well-produced, well-edited newspaper for nothing was an irresponsible act by Associated?
The continuing decline of our national newspapers has been well documented; every title has seen its circulation plunge as readers have migrated online. The only surprise is that The Independent has so far been the only casualty.
It's hard to argue that Metro has not taken readers from paid-for papers - and my suspicion is it hit the weaker mid-market and red-top titles particularly hard in those early years - but they would have lost readers anyway. Metro is actually a throwback to the print age - for complicated internal political reasons, it has never had control of its own website - so the focus of its senior staff has always been on the print edition. That may be counter-intuitive for a paper that targets a Generation Z audience, but editor Ted Young argues the 'Metro Moment' is still alive and well - reading the paper is the one fixed point in the day when they can be lured away from a screen.
Interestingly, advertising mogul Martin Sorrell this week argued that print is far from dead. He said his media investment business, GroupM, which buys advertising space on behalf of clients, was platform-agnostic, but part of its remit was to ensure clients understood the benefits of newspaper advertising. He cited research by Newsworks, suggesting that newspapers could increase the effectiveness of an advertising campaign by 300 per cent.
"Studies worldwide show that people are more engaged when reading a newspaper than they are when using social media, an important consideration for advertisers seeking consumers' attention - and access to their wallets," he said.
So the continuing success of Metro is to be admired rather than bemoaned. Did we make it too good? As the paper celebrated its 18th birthday by overtaking its noisier neighbour in Northcliffe House, a penny for Paul Dacre's thoughts.