The news has left a number of alternative weeklies scrambling to find new locations for their papers while trying to get Kroger and its brands to negotiate a resolution allowing for continued distribution at the high-traffic sites. The Cincinnati-based grocery giant has been relatively silent on the issue, stymying publishers who rely on the grocer for as much as 25 percent of their circulation.
“Our frustration is they will not return our calls,” said John Weiss, founder and chairman of the Colorado Springs Independent in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “They won’t dialog with us.”
Kroger ended its contract with Tulsa, Oklahoma-based DistribuTech Media Solutions which handles the grocer’s free publication racks. Word then quickly spread among members of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. At least 21 of the 99 member publications distribute through Kroger or its stores which include brands such as King Soopers and Fred Meyer.
According to an Aug. 26 email from DistribuTech, Kroger decided “the racks are no longer driving customer engagement in stores.”
After repeated attempts to reach Kroger’s head of media relations Kristal Howard, Teresa Dickerson, a corporate affairs manager for Kroger’s Delta division, issued the following statement: “We are removing the DistribuTech racks because more publications continue to shift to digital formats, resulting in less [sic] customers using the products.”
Yet alt weekly readers—on paper—appear to be a potentially lucrative market according to figures provided by the Media Audit, a Houston-based audience and consumer research company. Media Audit provided consumer information for Washington, D.C., the Washington City Paper and Kroger’s Harris Teeter Neighborhood Food & Pharmacy.
According to Media Audit, only 26 percent of adults in Washington live in households with at least five people, while 48 percent of City Paper readers live in similar-sized households. Also, 39 percent of City Paper adult readers live in dual income families, compared with 29 percent of Harris Teeter shoppers who live in dual income families. City Paper readers also spend 75 percent more time a day with newspapers than Harris Teeter shoppers—157 minutes versus 90 minutes respectively. Additionally, the average City Paper reader is 39 years old, 10 years younger than the average adult shopper at Harris Teeter.
“At 39 years of age, the lucrative alternative reader has a lot more shopping years in them than the current Harris Teeter reader,” wrote Media Audit CEO Phil Beswick. “You would think that Harris Teeter would want to attract more of those affluent family people who are picking up the City Paper than to force them to go elsewhere.”
Berl Schwartz, publisher of City Pulse in Lansing, Michigan, said, “All the attention to declining readership of local paid newspapers has made the public think that all print is dying and that’s not true. Our numbers at Kroger alone have gone from about 1,100 papers in 2012 to 3,100 papers a week.”
That represents more than 16 percent of City Pulse’s weekly circulation of 19,000.
In Memphis, Kroger represents about 20 percent of The Flyer’s circulation according to Contemporary Media CEO Anna Traverse. Traverse expects they can find other outlets to make up any lost distribution if Kroger follows through on its scheme, but that’s not her greatest concern.
“The more important question is what does this mean for Flyer readers and for Memphis?” she said. “We are not in a great position in terms of Memphians’ access to free news and information. Memphis is a city with a lot of poverty, a lot of transportation challenges for some folks and having something that is free and available in the place where people shop for their families makes it so much easier for people who maybe don’t have Internet access. I can’t stress enough how much it worries me in terms of the news desert phenomenon we’re seeing throughout the country.”
Weiss and the Independent are spearheading a “Don’t Lose Local News” campaign that includes a “un-boycott” of Kroger’s King Soopers, which distributes the Independent. The paper published a cover story and editorial in the latest edition, urging readers to contact their local stores through social media, via email, and through Kroger’s customer service number to ask the chain to keep distributing the Independent. The paper even printed a form for readers to fill out and turn in at their local King Soopers.
“King Soopers is going to learn how many of their customers really want to be able to pick up the Independent,” Weiss said. “And it’s more than just picking up the Independent, it’s the concept we need to protect media. Independent media needs support and this is one thing tangible that people can do. If they don’t see the light, they’ll feel the heat.”
Editor’s Note: Please visit our podcasts page for an exclusive interview with John Weiss as he discusses how the Kroger decision will affect his paper and other alt-weeklies around the U.S.