September 18, 2019 News » Cover Story

Kroger grocery stores give alt-weeklies the cold shoulder 

No More Free Press?

click to enlarge The Indy has 14 distribution locations at King Soopers. - MAREKULIASZ / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com
  • The Indy has 14 distribution locations at King Soopers.

If you normally pick up one of the nearly 17,000 copies of the Independent dropped off every month at local King Soopers stores, you may have to plan on getting your paper elsewhere after Sept. 30.

Kroger Co. — America’s largest grocery chain — owns King Soopers and City Market grocery stores, along with brands in other states including Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer and Fry’s Foods. The chain has terminated its contract with DistribuTech to provide free publications at its stores throughout the country.

click to enlarge featureindy.jpg

The decision by Kroger corporate headquarters in Cincinnati means the Independent will lose 14 distribution locations in El Paso and Teller counties, which is around 12 percent of our total circulation. 

The Indy has dealt with the loss of distribution locations in the past. We had a bit of a controversy with Starbucks back in 2008 (See sidebar, p. 21), and before that, with King Soopers in 2000. But this time, the move affects all alt-weeklies and other free publications across the country that rely on Kroger stores as key distribution locations.

After all, free newspapers make their money in large part from advertising. The number of papers that get picked up directly affects how much they can charge — and how much money they can invest in providing a resource to the public. The Independent plans to make up the King Soopers loss by finding new locations.

Kroger representatives from regional and corporate offices did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment. However, a Kroger Delta Division spokesperson told the Memphis Business Journal in August that the decision was made “because more publications continue to shift to digital formats, resulting in less customers using the products.”

In Colorado Springs, this is not the case. 

“More than 4,000 shoppers a week, that’s 17,000 a month, pick up their Indys while shopping at local King Soopers and City Market Stores,” Independent Publisher Amy Sweet says. “Our pick-up rates remain strong. As the daily paper increases its price and reduces its content, more and more people rely on the Indy for their news, as well as to plan their weekend.”

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Florida-based Poynter Institute, sees Kroger’s decision as motivated by financial factors.

“This applies especially to convenience stores, but I think to some extent to grocery stores as well. ... In the course of managing their business, they’re very, very detailed about sort of seeing what works, what people take — what people buy, especially,” Edmonds says. “The convenience stores, for example, decided some time ago that having a great big magazine rack there just wasn’t the best use of that space. Better to sell more Cheetos and that kind of thing.”

click to enlarge A letter to customers after Kroger pulled publications from its Boise, Idaho stores.
  • A letter to customers after Kroger pulled publications from its Boise, Idaho stores.

Kroger isn’t exactly hurting financially: In a Sept. 12 report to investors, the company said total sales for the second quarter had amounted to $28.2 billion, a $200 million increase over the same period last year.

The business was also able to reduce its operating, general and administrative costs “due to execution of Restock Kroger initiatives that drive administrative efficiencies, store productivity and sourcing cost reductions,” the report notes, referring to Kroger’s three-year transformation plan.

The Independent delivers to 855 other locations in El Paso, Teller and Pueblo counties, but only a handful of locations match the volume of King Soopers.

Sweet writes that the Independent is “dedicated to maintaining our current distribution levels” and will add other locations, thus avoiding an impact on advertisers and readers. 

“Readers who miss the Indy at King Soopers should let their store managers know how much they value local, independent journalism and the convenience of picking the newspaper up while they are shopping,” Sweet adds. “We understand this is a corporate decision — not a local one.”

On Sept. 12, the free racks at the Uintah Street King Soopers contained copies of (besides the Indy) Life After 50, a monthly publication catering to older adults; Colorado Springs KIDS Magazine, a monthly calendar of local, family-friendly events; Thrifty Nickel, a collection of classified listings; Christian Guide, a directory of local Christian businesses; and two real estate guides. A space for La Voz Bilingue, a Spanish-English news publication, was empty.

Bruce Schlabaugh, the publisher and advertising director for Life After 50, says his company distributes several thousand papers a month — or about 15 percent of its copies — at King Soopers stores in El Paso and Teller counties.

“One of the lucky things for Life After 50 is that seniors still love to read newspapers, so they’re going through this paper right and left,” he says.

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Like the Indy, Life After 50 plans to make up the difference by finding new locations.

“It’s just irritating to have [Kroger] say, ‘Well, print’s dead; however, we’ll keep the Gazette there, we’ll keep The Wall Street Journal,” Schlabaugh says. “They’re kind of beating up on the free papers, kind of unfairly, I would think.”

Outside of Colorado Springs, other alternative weekly newspapers are speaking up about the decision. Many have pointed out that in contrast to the Kroger rep’s claim that fewer customers use print products, pickup rates — a key metric in setting advertising costs — have held strong or even increased.

“More than 3,000 people a week pick up this newspaper at the six Kroger stores in the Greater Lansing market,” writes Berl Schwartz, the founder of Michigan’s Lansing City Pulse, in a Sept. 11 editorial.

“Paid newspapers are certainly declining. But free publications such as City Pulse are not,” Schwartz continues. “In fact, to the contrary: At Kroger stores alone, our pickup rate has gone from fewer than 1,100 copies a week to over 3,000 since 2012. And that makes sense. The price of daily and Sunday papers has steeply increased in that period while content has declined just as sharply. Many readers have stopped buying their print versions for both those reasons. City Pulse and other weeklies have filled a big hole in local news in market after market.”

For free publications, print advertising revenue is essential, because papers without subscription models or paywalls can’t bring in as much money online as their paid competitors.

“Our advertisers know that we have tens of thousands of loyal, engaged readers who never miss an issue,” writes Bruce VanWyngarden, editor of the Memphis Flyer, on Aug. 22. “With any luck, that model will continue to work for another 30 years, Kroger or no Kroger.”

And Sweet says the Indy’s concern isn’t about a loss of revenue. 

“This is less about the Indy’s business model — we are on firm ground with advertisers and readers — and more about concern over a loss of community connections. The Indy believes in connecting people in print, in person and online — and we have a concern that this decision makes it harder for King Soopers customers to be part of that connection.”

The Colorado Springs alt-weekly has survived some heated conflicts with Kroger in the past. Copies were pulled from King Soopers store shelves in October of 2000 “after an unknown number of people complained to King Soopers managers, claiming the newspaper is ‘pornographic,’” the Independent reported at the time.

Donna Giordano, King Soopers’ vice president of sales and marketing at the time, told the Indy that “the chain yanked the papers after someone complained about an advertisement that appeared depicting a pillow shaped like a penis.” 

Another person complained of a cartoon depicting “a fornicating couple.”

The Independent reported at the time that “[t]he cartoon in question used an 18th-century woodblock print of jumbled nude figures to illustrate the point that it was impossible to get people to talk about dry issues such as campaign finance reform without using sex as a draw.” 

The Indy’s chairman and founder John Weiss recalls: “Ed Bircham and two other self-proclaimed Christians complained that the Independent promoted pornography, including personal ads from gays and lesbians.”

But that was a different era. After all, Kroger spokespeople returned our reporters’ calls back then. 

And Kroger’s decision was quickly reversed — as of January 2001, the papers were back in King Soopers grocery stores following complaints from loyal readers.

In the same way that scrunchies and bell-bottoms are back in style (or is that over already?), the Independent is getting a blast of circa-2000 deja vu with Kroger’s cold shoulder.

The Indy doesn’t plan on losing readers this time around, either. 

“We were founded to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and to provide an alternative source of news,” Sweet says. “We are absolutely dedicated to that mission and [Kroger’s latest] decision won’t hamper our efforts.”

Tea with your coffee?

“The next time you walk into any of the few dozen Starbucks around our village, your tongue begging for that exquisite cup of Dulce de Leche Latte (“steamed water with extra soap”), glance at the newspaper rack,” Indy columnist Rich Tosches wrote in the Jan. 10, 2008, issue.

“In the rack you’ll find two papers: The New York Times (‘All the news that’s fit to print’) and the Gazette (‘Like deja vu especially if you read the Denver papers yesterday’).

“There used to be a third newspaper in the local Starbucks’ racks. It was this paper, the Independent (No official motto, but 345 people did pass out at this year’s Christmas party).”

Tosches goes on to explain that “one guy” had complained to the manager at Starbucks’ Southgate store that “the Indy was trashy” and specifically, that the paper had run 11 ads that week for massage parlors. (Ironically, the column points out, the Gazette ran 17 massage parlor ads on the same day that week, and wasn’t included in the man’s complaint.)

“He told a Starbucks manager he was a Christian and was offended by the Independent,” the column goes on. “The manager pulled the Indy the next day. And then the Starbucks district manager hopped on the book-burning bandwagon and ordered the paper removed from all Colorado Springs-area shops.”

In this case, the Indy never reappeared in Starbucks stores.

“And,” Tosches laments, “our village sank just a little deeper into the 18th century.”

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