June 14, 2006
As you may know by now, The Clarion-Ledger has recently revealed The Distribution Network (TDN), a scheme to control the distribution of free publications in the Jackson Metro. The Clarion-Ledger met with area retailers, telling them that the newspaper would be happy to clean up the "mess" of free distribution racks in front of their stores by offering a single, 9-panel distribution box owned by the C-L. All the retailer has to do is sign away to The C-L the exclusive right to manage free publication distribution in exchange for 25 percent of the big box's revenue to the retailer. (That tops out at $12 under the current pricing.)
Then, The C-L met with the free publications in town to tell us that we'll need to pay them upward of $100 a year for each slot—in spots that we have previously been in by simply getting permission from a manager or owner. For the real estate guides, classified shoppers and publications such as the Jackson Free Press, this will add tens of thousands of dollars to our distribution costs each year. And that's assuming the C-L doesn't raise the prices once they've got the Metro covered in their boxes.
Of course, The Clarion-Ledger couldn't be forthright about this plan, because it's really a scheme to control its competitors, as opposed to a grand new service for the Metro. Here's how I know that:
• The Clarion-Ledger shopped their plan to many local retailers with a special list of "accepted" publications that they displayed alongside their sales materials and contracts. (They tried to make it look very official, calling it "Exhibit A.") The list included most of the independently owned publications in town, including the Jackson Free Press. The idea was that retailers would jump at the chance for a cleaner storefront and the ability to display the publications their customers want. Problem is—it wasn't true. The "approved" independent publishers hadn't even heard of the scheme at the time that our names were used to pitch it.
• When The Clarion-Ledger finally got around to talking to independent publishers, they showed us a list of nearly 200 locations that had, supposedly, signed on. When I saw that list, I thought—briefly—that I'd have no choice but to play ball. After calling some of the locations on that list, however, I learned something surprising. The Clarion-Ledger hadn't yet signed up everyone they were suggesting that they had. As far as I could tell, they were trying to fool both sides—the locations and the publishers—with these questionable lists.
• The Clarion-Ledger is promising to clean up the "clutter" of free publications. Did you know that in many high-traffic locations, four to six of the free publication boxes or racks are owned or managed by The Clarion-Ledger? They've been rolling out free publications for the last 18 months, while the independent publications have mostly consolidated or stayed the same. So … their solution to their own clutter is to have all free publications placed in a large plastic box that will have Gannett's branding and that will feature the C-L's freebies prominently—to the detriment of local publications.
Why does The Clarion-Ledger want to control access to free publications? Because the paid circulation, daily newspaper model is in trouble. The Clarion-Ledger itself reported to the city earlier this year that its circulation in Jackson proper is only 22,000. They're weak with readers, and that affects those high-dollar advertising contracts. That's why they're doing everything from tossing free papers in our yards, to putting out new suburban weeklies, to putting out a bunch of free distribution boxes around town.
On the other hand, the free publications offer a niche market and better pricing than The Clarion-Ledger can hope to offer. Want to reach creative Jacksonians who love to dine and dance? The Jackson Free Press is the way to go—our readers literally pick us up to find out what's going on around town. Apartment dwellers? They literally pick up the Apartment Guide to find out where to live. Home buyers? They literally pick up Homes and Land, Showcase of Homes, The Real Estate Guide … you see where I'm going.
The C-L knows this, too. Their passive circulation model—whether its old-style subscriptions or the more dubious "forced circulation" of littering your lawn and claiming you as a reader—doesn't get the same bang-for-the-buck results that free publications get. That's because our readers decide when they want to pick us up, and they have a reason for checking out the ads.
The C-L's answer to this conundrum? Try to limit your ability to pick us up.
TDN, if it goes forward, creates a barrier to the marketplace that raises the costs for independent publishers, when most of us already operate on thin profit margins. Some may not make it.
Fortunately, you can help us. If you're a reader of any of our local publications, please make a point of talking to the management of the locations where you pick us up and tell them that you appreciate the opportunity they provide. And visit jacksonfreepress.com/goliath.php to view other steps you can take.
If you're an advertiser with The Clarion-Ledger, please call your local sales representative or a sales manager at the C-L and tell them you don't appreciate this scheme to limit your advertising choices in the Metro.
The Clarion-Ledger has done independent publishers one huge service—they've encouraged us to sit down in the same room and get to know one another better.
As a result, we've launched the Mississippi Independent Publishers' Alliance (MIPA), a group aimed at truly solving any distribution problems that local retailers may have, while maintaining an open marketplace for free publications and low-cost advertising in the Jackson Metro.
Call me, Todd Stauffer, at 601-362-6121 ext. 3, or write [e-mail missing] if you have questions about MIPA, or if you'd like to allow clean, customer-friendly and free distribution in your retail location.
Good job on the radio, too bad you didn't get much time.