East Bay Express Publisher Talks Distribution Strategy

Jody Colley left her position as advertising director at the San Francisco Bay Guardian to become publisher of the East Bay Express when the paper was sold by Village Voice Media to local investors in May 2007. Since then she’s been making a lot of changes. “It’s like the Titanic,” says Colley. “You have to stop and reroute it. But it’s fun.” One of her first major efforts was the creation of “art racks,” distribution racks spray-painted by artists. Colley hoped the artwork on the racks would inoculate them from graffiti, that taggers would not deface someone else’s work. So far, it has worked: while the old yellow boxes go to rack and ruin, the art racks are staying clean. With the art racks successfully launched, Colley is looking for innovative solutions to other distribution problems, including recycling theft, which she believes is severely undermining circulation. (The Express was advocating for the passage of AB 1778, which passed the State Senate last month.) In the process, she’s hoping the Express can reclaim its mantle as the local paper.

When did the art rack program begin and how has it been going?

Last September. We thought we’ll try this with a small batch and see what happens. Our guess was that graffiti taggers and stickerers and people who put their event flyers on our newsracks — basically people who advertise on our racks — that they would respect the art racks and leave those untouched. Well the end result was, in fact, that was true. We had a couple of racks that were just stolen, but that was shame on us for not chaining it down. I went back probably a month ago — we check on them periodically — and they were all perfectly intact, no graffiti.

So we thought, now we’re going to take the plunge and start adopting this as our distribution rack program. [For a recent event] we got 50 local artists and we did 50 new racks. We put the word out again to the same artist community that did it before, and we’ve also gotten more connected to the graffiti art community, so we put the word out that way. [The ongoing goal is] to make it an art event … so we had the painting actually happen at the Oakland Museum of California in their outdoor courtyard. It was part of their exhibit. They advertised it as “Come watch live graffiti art on East Bay Express newsracks.” So the artists had [museum visitors] walking by and talking to the artists.

I understand you’re a graffiti artist yourself. Did you paint a rack?

I haven’t painted a rack, yet. I will though. I was prepared with templates and everything the last painting party we had, but I was so busy herding fifty artists that I didn’t have time to do my own.

So you did fifty this time and about a dozen before. What percentage is that of the total racks?

I think it’s about one-sixth. We’ll have to do this about five more times … My goal is by the end of the year to have all of our racks on the street painted.

And you don’t mind leaving the Express logo off the racks?

That’s hard, but I think if you see a rack done by a local artist then you will know that it’s our rack because it’s unique. We’re doing so much in the community right now that [we’re hoping the art racks will become] the face of the East Bay Express. How does a reader identify with the newspaper? It’s our little piece of metal sitting out on the street. That’s their connection to our publication. So we’re using our art racks in all of our marketing. If you see an art rack, that’s us.

Is this all part of rebranding the paper since its sale?

Definitely. And what better way to visually show that to the reader. Newsracks almost become this visual junk. I think if you do something different, people will stop and notice it for the first time.

Speaking of the racks, tell me about the problems you’ve been having with recycling theft.

It’s been going on for years. It’s a controlled, organized, almost like a mafia-style operation. It’s small-time but it adds up. There’s a whole Brazilian mafia [that runs distribution for various newspapers and steals papers]: “One for the rack, two for me,” to take to the recycling center. We’re trying to find out who these people are and get rid of them.

It’s hard to imagine recycling being so lucrative.

I guess you can eek out a life like that. And now recycling for newsprint is going way up, so it’s even more profitable than ever before. This is the mess we inherited. We felt like maybe 30 percent, on any given week, of our papers were going straight to the recyclers, and we had to end that immediately. It’s a disservice to our clients; it’s a disservice to our readers.

Distribution managers at other publications were aware of [theft problems] and may have taken some actions, but no one’s jumped into this the way we have. And it’s kind of a scary place to be. My distribution guy is getting death threats and being followed.

What are you doing to combat the problem?

Our president Hal Brody … formed a coalition called CRAP, Coalition of Regionally Associated Publishers. He started calling meetings of all the publishers and distribution directors of all the publications to see how we as a team can share information on who these couriers are.

For a while we said, OK, we’re going to do some stakeouts and we’ll call the police every time we see something. And we would call the police department and they would say, ‘These are free papers. It’s not a crime.’ And we still get that answer…We’ve been meeting extensively with the Oakland Police Department … and the first response we got was, ‘We’re too short-staffed. We’re dealing with murders; we can’t worry about free papers.’ Which, OK, we get their point. So we hired, just for the Express, a private detective and had him go out. He made some citizen’s arrests.

We also are now requiring all of our drivers to bring their recycling straight to us. (We have a recycle bin at our warehouse.) So the starting point for the night is also their ending point … They count on the [extra income from] legitimate recycling, like, last week’s issue, so we’re not trying to cut into their profits. We’ll take that recycling, we’ll get money for it, we’ll turn around and give that back to our drivers. But that way if we see any of our drivers at a recycling center [with our product] then they’re fired.

And then what about retrofitting the racks, moving them indoors?

This outdoor distribution thing’s a nightmare. It’s valuable, but it just shouldn’t be the core way to distribute product.

How many of your racks are currently indoor?

It’s about half and half. I’d be happy if it was ninety percent indoor, ten percent outdoor. I like the visibility of the outdoor rack, especially when we’re doing art racks and more fun things. But there’s something you get with an indoor rack that you don’t get with an outdoor rack. Like at [cafes, if there are racks] more people will probably be reading it than with the rack around the corner. And the business owners see … people picking up your paper, they see people reading your paper. It just does the marketing for us. It’s got more legs from a business perspective.

And then from a distribution perspective: you don’t have people stealing. It usually stays a little more orderly whereas the outdoor racks become like trash bins.

We don’t just do one thing. We think, “What’s the most complicated way we can take this further?” So we’re thinking okay, well if we get multi-wired indoor racks [with] a top shelf for the Express papers, but then maybe one or two bottom shelves, then we can…start distributing other people’s products and controlling the indoor circulation a little bit better. That’s a nice way for us to actually start making some money on distribution … Distribution’s kind of a loss department; it’s an expense department for a newspaper. But if you get in the distribution business and start selling that as a service you can actually make money in that department, instead of losing money.

What about art racks indoors?

I think businesses would actually be open to that. They take up some space and that’s the hardest thing. But it would be very cool.

And you are also trying to retrofit the racks?

Hal Brody, our president — he’s kind of a mad scientist — walked out of the office one day and he’s like, “I designed this system that makes it really hard to take out multiple copies of a free publication at once out of a rack.” And he said, “And then I put a patent on it.”

So he created a way … that you can only pull out maybe four East Bay Expresses at a time, instead of just putting your hand in and taking the whole stack. It also makes it harder to put trash in the rack. So we’re testing it right now. He’s got a prototype that’s out in the field and we’re testing it. If that prototype seems to work and isn’t too annoying, then we’ll figure out some way to vend that.

So you’re creating art racks to prevent graffiti, you’ve stepped in to battle recycling theft, you’re shifting toward indoor racks. Does it all come under a new distribution philosophy?

It’s the old philosophy of ‘Get it to the reader, stupid.’ But we’re actually doing it. Distribution is the single most important part of the business. It doesn’t matter how great your writing is. It doesn’t matter how much you sell. It doesn’t matter how cool you are. If you’re not getting it into people’s hands, then you’ve failed. You’ve failed everyone along the way.

It’s kind of the linchpin of the whole operation. And it’s an expense department; it’s not sexy. You’re dealing with a lot of contract workers and labor workers and it’s the middle of the night thing. You just wake up in the morning your paper’s there…So it gets ignored. But if you take a calculator [and actually add up the cost of theft] and show that to a publisher you might get their attention. And on top of that, you’re not getting good return numbers if your papers are being stolen. If you’re not really controlling your circulation, you can’t fine-tune your circulation.

Emma Pollin is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.

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