Dear John: What's In A Word? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Dear John: What's In A Word?" width="200" align="right">by Todd Stauffer

September 6, 2006

Pictured: After Polk's Discount Drugs on Spillway canceled their TDN contract, inviting local publications back to their store, The Clarion-Ledger removed its green multi-box and re-"cluttered" the storefront with the first four boxes pictured from the left. MIPA's large red box, containing nine independent publications, is visible on the far right.

As students return, the arts go into high gear, and the temperatures finally drop for autumn, the Jackson Free Press has great news on a different front—distribution. Thanks to our partners in the newly formed Mississippi Independent Publishers' Alliance (MIPA), the JFP has gained about 40 new high-profile distribution spots in the past two weeks, many of which expand our reach into Jackson's suburbs and surrounding communities. Now, you can get the JFP at nearly all Mac's Gas locations, as well as at participating Super Stop convenience stores (most of the Conoco stations around town), participating Polk's Drugstores and other locally operated convenience stores and gas stations.

Look for the bright red MIPA multi-box.

Interestingly, in the process of putting out these MIPA boxes, we've gotten a little more evidence to support my theory regarding the motivations behind "TDN." I'll elaborate on that after a little background.

Lately, The Clarion-Ledger has gone on a tear of creating—and acquiring, as with VIP Jackson Magazine—free publications in direct competition with existing local offerings. Building out their free publication business to shore up their waning subscriptions might be a good business move, as the future of newspapers is likely moving from paid to free distribution.

But Publisher John Newhouse's other step in the free distribution market was decidedly more nefarious—he formed The Distribution Network ("TDN"). C-L circulation managers head out to local businesses—mostly gas stations and grocery stores—and convince them to sign a contract that gives The Clarion-Ledger exclusive control over the display and distribution of free publications at that store's location. The C-L then brings a plastic box filled mostly with the Ledger's free publications and plops it down in front of the store and hauls racks and boxes of other papers away.

Newhouse's employees told independent publishers that we could distribute in those boxes, but only if we pay for the privilege of distributing in places where we'd previously distributed for free. The cost to distribute in just the "TDN" boxes that the C-L is currently advertising would be over $10,000 per year, and that's at introductory pricing … the contract I was presented with offered no price caps. With their stated goal of more than 400 locations in the Metro, a publication could pay $25,000 in a year.

And what would we get for our money? A slot in the Ledger's box, dominated by its own offerings. That's too much control for us to give to the monopoly daily—our competitor.

Instead, our group of publishers met and formed an alliance. Then we visited with the owners and operators of the businesses that had signed "TDN" contracts. We learned that many of the businesses were confused to find that some of the local publications their customers asked for would not be in the "TDN" box—they'd been left with the impression that we would be. Some even signed up thinking they would be adding the JFP or Metro Christian Living, or another local publication.

A number of high-profile local businesses opted right away to keep things at status quo and allow the JFP and others to maintain our current distribution presence. Other local businesses decided to cancel their "TDN" contract under the terms of that contract (60 days' notice), and once expired, invited MIPA to place our own multi-box at their locations under a non-exclusive arrangement to give their customers choices. That's where we stand now, and we're thrilled at the progress.

I should mention at this point that Newhouse doesn't say that the purpose of TDN is to gain control of free distribution. Newhouse has been quoted as saying that the goal behind "TDN" is to "clean up the clutter." The "TDN" multi-box was supposed to be Newhouse's salvo against that "clutter."

However, at some of the locations that recently opted out of TDN exclusivity, The Clarion-Ledger decided to replace the "TDN" box with ... wait for it ... a row of their old free publication boxes. Remember, the MIPA agreement with stores is non-exclusive, meaning, as far as we're concerned, The Clarion-Ledger can continue to address clutter in any way they want. Newhouse's solution? He cluttered the stores right back up.

This behavior certainly puts Newhouse's altruistic anti-clutter claim in a new light. He'll "clean up the clutter" as long as stores sign away control of their own square footage with an exclusive contract that allows the C-L to charge their competitors for the privilege of distributing our free publications.

My suggestion to Newhouse: Put up or shut up. Drop one word from your "TDN" contract—"exclusive"—and then offer your service to free and upstart publications that don't have a distribution team. Offer it to local stores that want to bundle all the "clutter" of the Ledger's free publications into one box.

Or don't drop the word exclusive, but acknowledge that what you're trying to do is gain control over the distribution of free publications in the Metro. Just be honest about it with your readers and vendors.

Of course, Newhouse doesn't want to do that, because he knows that trying to control free distribution of ideas is the antithesis of the newspaper business. Editor and Publisher magazine, the national trade journal of the newspaper world, editorialized against the Gannett Corp. for exactly this, pointing to Jackson, specifically, saying TDN schemes threaten the First Amendment and free enterprise. "ring it to a halt," E&P advised.

Jackson is already saddled with a monopoly daily newspaper, owned by the largest newspaper company in the world. In my opinion, that monopoly is already a hindrance to democracy. (Some might note our current crisis with the mayor they endorsed as an example.) We certainly don't need monopoly newsstands as well, owned by that same company, regardless of how much that might please the corporate home office in Virginia.

And readers, when you notice a JFP rack or a red (or gray) MIPA box filled with local publications, please thank the management at that location. For locations that don't yet have the JFP or MIPA, please let them know, politely, that you'd like to see them offer local voices to their customers.
Thanks for your support.


View a list of businesses that have canceled exclusive TDN contracts and invited local publications back into their stores.

Get the whole story on JFP's GoliathBlog and learn how you can help fight The Clarion-Ledger's effort to control distribution channels in this citizens' action guide to fighting TDN. Remember, YOU are making a difference by standing up for the little guy and free enterprise. Please keep it up.

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BTW, here is Mr. Newhouse's response to the outcry against TDN, as well as our responses to his response.



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