Metro beats Herald. Really.

1194886465The bad news for the Herald: It is no longer the city’s second-largest paper. The worse news: It’s been overtaken by the Metro, everyone’s favorite subway-floor lining. The free paper today announced that its daily circulation has reached 186,956, which edges out the Herald’s 185,832. (The Globe is still top dog, with 360,695.)

That’s an embarrassing tumble for the Herald. In 2001, when the Metro launched in Boston with about 100,000 copies, the Herald was pumping out 262,972 daily copies and was secure in its second-place spot. Six years later, though, it’s no surprise we caught the tabloid’s delivery drivers stealing copies of the Metro in the wee hours of the morning. And as the Herald has had to lay off staff, the Metro has been hiring: In the past year, its staff has nearly doubled in size, to a current crop of 52.

Metro Publisher Stuart Layne, who began running the freebie 11 months ago, has been predicting this for months. “We made some dramatic, strategic changes here. We decided we were going to be a real newspaper, not just something that’s handed out on the street,” he told us today. “We doubled the sports pages, doubled the local pages. We marketed the brand. This was not ‘Cross your fingers and hand out more papers.'”

Of course, caveats abound. There’s no guaranteed way to know if readers spend more time with a paid product like the Herald than a freebie like the Metro. Certainly, it’s easier to unload a bunch of free papers on passing commuters than it is to sell them something. And while the Metro may be handing out more copies of its paper than the Herald, there’s no argument that the Herald dwarfs the Metro in number of reporters, pages of reporting, and overall impact on the city’s news cycle.

But all the same: To fall underneath a free, flimsy paper that makes hay with Associated Press stories and a weekly column by Tom Menino? That’s uglier than following Judge Murphy to the track.