The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Express, commuter newspaper published by The Washington Post, shuts down after 16 years

Washington Post Express shuts down after 16 years. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Express, the free newspaper published weekdays by The Washington Post for Metro riders and other commuters, will shut down on Thursday, ending 16 years of publication, the company said Wednesday.

Managers of The Post cited its deteriorating financial condition for the decision to cease publishing. Although they declined to cite specific figures, they said the printed paper had recently begun to lose money.

Colorful and lively, Express was designed to be a fast read for public-transit commuters each morning, especially people who didn’t subscribe to The Post. It featured eye-catching and sometimes cheeky cover illustrations that highlighted a single news story or trend, often one underplayed by The Post or ignored by TV newscasts.

It also contained a mix of news stories and features drawn from The Post and original stories and opinion columns produced by its own staff, now numbering 20 journalists. They will be laid off as a result of the paper’s closure.

The publication was distributed free of charge each morning via old-fashioned newspaper hawkers (who numbered about 75) at Metro stations and via newspaper boxes. At its peak in 2007, it was distributed to about 190,000 people per day, said Dan Caccavaro, its executive editor. At that point, it was handsomely profitable, he said, and so popular that there was discussion of publishing an afternoon edition for the ride home.

But its circulation has declined in recent years, falling to about 130,000 copies a day this year. The drop reflected, in part, falling Metro ridership, which has been driven by a switch to home telework, ride-sharing services and other means of transportation, Caccavaro said.

In the end, however, Express may have been done in by a technological change within the Metro system itself: WiFi. The wiring of the transportation system has enabled riders to stay on their smartphones throughout their trips, dooming printed papers like Express and others as many travelers’ companion.

In a farewell column that will be published in Express on Thursday, Caccavaro, the paper’s founding editor, noted this change. “This Monday morning, as I rode the train to work . . . three people on my crowded Blue Line train were reading Express (thank you!),” he wrote. “One man had his nose in an old-fashioned book. Almost everyone else was staring at a phone.”

Express was part of a wave of daily “commuter” papers started by publishers in the period just after the Internet began to emerge as a source of news and advertising for millions of people and just before smartphones made it easy to access the Internet wirelessly. Similar papers sprang up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago — all cities with huge numbers of daily commuters and extensive public-transportation networks.

With print newspaper circulation declining and print advertising drying up, the idea behind these publications was to provide a quick read for people traveling relatively short distances on their daily trips to work.

Some of the papers emphasized entertainment listings and lighter news in a bid to attract younger readers, the group most reluctant to subscribe to a newspaper. The commuter papers were tabloid size, smaller than the established broadsheet dailies, in recognition of the tighter spaces on public transportation.

Express, among the last survivors of the commuter-paper trendlet, offered summaries of the day’s most important national and international stories, as well as sports and local news. Its Thursday edition, featuring a section on weekend events and entertainment, typically was the fattest of the week, running to more than 80 pages. Its Thursday edition this week will feature an extensive fall arts preview section.

While many of the other commuter papers folded years earlier, Post Executive Editor Martin Baron paid tribute to Express’s relative durability. “Express has been a distinctly lively product, a reflection of the staff’s creativity, resourcefulness and dedication,” he said in a statement. “That accounts for how many years it has been around, a welcome part of so many commuters’ daily routines. They’ve defied the radically changed media environment for a long time.”