Evening Post Publishing, parent of the Post and Courier, is looking to get into the anti-clutter business, a venture other large daily newspapers have started under questionable intentions. The company has offered cash to local retailers and restaurants to replace the various newspaper racks that currently line the wall or collect in a corner with single multi-publication boxes provided by Evening Post, which will turn around and charge Charleston's free publications to distribute their products in places where they've been doing it for free.
This new program in Charleston follows multi-box programs set up elsewhere that have doomed at least one local weekly and led industry watchers to rebuke the practice.
Evening Post has offered the boxes to at least 50 restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and shopping centers in the area.
The program would be a win-win for businesses, says Post and Courier advertising director Bill Cranford.
"It cleans up their front and gives them a small revenue stream," he says.
The owner of a mom-and-pop shop may light up at the offer of easy money, but other publications aren't happy with the idea of paying another publisher to distribute their free publication.
Last summer, the corporate boxes had reached so many markets that industry magazine Editor and Publisher wrote an editorial calling on paper conglomerate Gannett to pull its box program.
"They present competing free papers with a Hobson's choice: Hand over distribution of your paper to us, or get out," the editorial stated. "And the real point is that dailies that claim — rightly — a First Amendment right to distribute papers without unreasonable interference should not create impediments for other papers, especially by stirring up these faux crises about the 'clutter' of free papers ... Corporate should bring it to a halt."
City Paper publisher Noel Mermer sent a letter to all the paper's distribution spots informing them that the City Paper will not be involved.
"The City Paper cannot and will not pay the Post and Courier for the relationship that we have built with local businesses over the years," Mermer says.
Free publications rely on free distribution to get their papers in readers' hands. Paying for the P&C's distribution program would pull money from profit margins and put it in the pocket of a competitor.
"This is a way for them to control the marketplace," says AutoMart distributor Lee Hoffman.
Janet Culver, distributor of Skirt! magazine, was also approached with the offer to pay for space they now receive for free, but flatly refused before even getting to the price. A similar business was started in Charlotte, she says, but caved when independent publishers balked at the idea. Skepticism of Evening Post's intentions are compounded by the list Evening Post handed Mermer of 50 "Lowcountry Distribution Service Locations." The City Paper contacted several locations and found some owners had refused to be included in the program and at least one restaurant owner, Mellow Mushroom's Michael Shemtov, doesn't even know if his restaurant was actually approached.
"On that kind of thing, (my employees) would defer to me," he says.
Another problem for Evening Post is the past experiences of other alternative weeklies where daily newspapers have tried to establish these programs.
In late 2004, Gannett approached businesses in Greenville with a similar multi-publication box program under its new company, The Distribution Network. The company offered to stock the local alternative weekly MetroBeat in the boxes, but at a price, while Gannett's daily in the market, The Greenville News, would be able to stock its own competing faux alt-weekly at no cost.
"We'd be handing control of our circulation to our enemy," says James Shannon, a former editor at MetroBeat.
With the alternative weekly already up for sale, the boxes were MetroBeat's death knell. The paper closed shop four months later. Shannon purchased the paper's website and the rights to the name. In 2005, he relaunched as The Beat at about half the circulation MetroBeat had before shuttering. As for the boxes, Shannon says Gannett leaves most half-stocked, suggesting that, while distribution may be in its name, it wasn't in the business model.
"I think its purpose was to drive alternative weeklies out of business," he says.
By the time Gannett's box program had made it to Jackson, Miss., the local alternative weekly, the Jackson Free Press, had gotten wind of the trouble ahead. Like Greenville, Gannett's Clarion-Ledger had spawned its own faux alt-weekly, and the JFP bristled at the idea of paying a competitor for space, says publisher Todd Stauffer. The estimated cost for the space was $10,000 a year, but had the potential to reach more than $20,000 as more of the Gannett boxes proliferated.
"We were convinced it was more an attempt to control the space than to profit from it," he says.
What concerned Stauffer was that, when approaching long-faithful distributors about the boxes, they had been told by Gannett that JFP was on board. The weekly contacted distributors to correct Gannett's assertion, but the feisty alt didn't stop there. It developed a blog chronicling its fight against the boxes and established a petition for JFP readers to sign in support of the paper. Some distributors came back over time while others told Gannett to take the large boxes back as soon as they arrived, Stauffer says.
Recognizing that clutter may be a legitimate concern for some distributors, Stauffer and the publishers of other publications developed the Mississippi Independent Publisher's Alliance and distributed their own consolidated boxes. While the boxes have slowed distribution in some spots, with space for only a small percentage of what would fit in a traditional rack, their proliferation in gas stations and shopping centers in suburban areas has actually expanded JFP's reach.
"It's a net positive for us," Stauffer says. "It's kind of centralized our distribution for those spots."
When a tourist book tried to establish a multi-box program in Myrtle Beach, other publications similarly banded together to develop their own boxes, paying only their portion of the cost for the boxes.
"It works well, because none of us are in it to make money," says magazine publisher Delores Blunt. "We're just trying to get our magazines out."
In Charleston, the City Paper and other publications are banding together to oppose Evening Post's multi-box plans, hoping businesses see the value of an alternative voice over a little extra change.