Three years ago, Sammy Cox, the distribution manager for Mountain XPress in Asheville, N.C., started getting calls from fellow distribution managers around town who were beginning to notice a problem: newspaper boxes. There were too many of them in certain areas, and some locals were complaining about the graffiti and litter they seemed to attract. Public officials, too, soon turned their attention to the proliferation of distribution boxes for the dozens of publications circulating within the city.
It seemed clear that some sort of regulation was on the horizon, but the potential for controversy was also apparent. From a First Amendment perspective, a potential city ordinance prohibiting or limiting the placement of distribution boxes would conflict with the freedom of the press. From a business perspective, it wouldn’t benefit Mountain XPress to maintain a distribution system with both aesthetic and environmental flaws. Meanwhile, Cox and Mountain XPress publisher Jeff Fobes had gotten word that the local Gannett-owned daily paper was looking into a new distribution scheme that might end up locking free publications out of their current locations, as the media giant had done in Greenville, S.C. and Jackson, Miss.
In response to these concerns, Cox, Fobes and various local publishers formed a Community Publishers Group (CPG), a partnership in which about 10 local papers have shared the cost of purchasing and installing new multi-publication distribution units. The concept is simple: Local papers, both members and non-members of the CPG, can opt to pay a nominal fee in exchange for tidier distribution. The boxes, which are now installed in 36 locations throughout Asheville, not only conserve space and reduce trash — they also provide consistency. Cox and Fobes see them both as a solution to the problem and a way of pre-empting potentially harmful measures like news rack legislation. They spoke with AAN News recently by phone and email about the benefits these boxes and the CPG have had for Mountain XPress and the local publishing community.
How did the idea for these multi-paper distribution boxes and the Community Publishers Group come about?
Cox: We thought it would be good to meet with other publishers in our area, and we had a meeting as early as March of 2005 to discuss the situation. From there we had additional meetings and decided it would be nice to form a local community publishers group. It would provide strength in numbers in case we had to compete against a managed distribution service. At the same time, it would give us all a voice where we could talk amongst ourselves and purchase equipment together, and reduce the footprint that we all collaboratively created.
How did you determine the placement of the new boxes?
Cox: We looked at problematic areas that provided an opportunity to demonstrate how we could reduce our footprint. As we grew, we added a CPG logo with our contact information. We’ve noticed in the last six to eight months that merchants are looking at this and seeing that it might work for their particular business, and they’re contacting us to see if we can improve their situations.
Fobes: An important feature to note is that we’ve set this up to be a non-exclusive distribution system. The managed distribution systems — like Trader, or the Gannett efforts in some other cities — they get merchants to sign exclusive contracts that basically lock out anyone who doesn’t rent space from that particular management company. We didn’t do that. We get retailers to sign a contract, but it specifically is a non-exclusive agreement and the rates for publications to rent shelf space are very low, $4 to $8 per month depending on the kind of equipment and whether a paper is a member or not. The intent was to improve distribution and access for publications, but we’re not trying to make money. We’re just trying to break even and help local publications to coordinate and do a better job distributing.
Is competition from Gannett still a factor, or might some of its publications get involved?
Cox: The CPG has proposed a news rack enhancement pilot project that would include the installation of two modular news racks, which would accommodate 24 free pubs. And this most likely will include Gannett’s Take 5 weekly. One of the stepping stones of the project would involve hosting another stakeholder meeting designed to get input from publishers, merchants, city staff, property managers and downtown residents. I anticipate that Gannett will attend and they will participate.
What was the cost of implementing this?
Fobes: We capitalized at about $20,000. When people leave the group, the agreement is that the CPG has several years in which to return their investment. So far, we’ve had three members leave and all three were repaid within six months. And the rental shelves have helped pay for more equipment. Different papers incur different costs to join the CPG. When we started out, the lowest capitalization was $500 and highest was $4,000. It’s now grown to a $1,000 minimum.
And the logistics of implementation?
Fobes: During the initial phase of organizing the CPG, we considered different legal structures, in particular a trade association and a LLC. Either would work, but the LLC was easier. Also, although we recognized the long-term value of a trade organization, we were unclear about some of its legal ramifications and restrictions. The LLC seemed more flexible. But there are merits to the idea of establishing a real trade association, to promote larger discussions of local publishers, and hence in the long run improve the local media in the area, and thus organize from the grassroots up, rather than succumb to the tendency of organization coming from the state or nation downward.
What about the administrative aspect? How much time does maintaining and overseeing the CPG consume?
Fobes: Mountain XPress winds up doing most of the administrative and legal work. But it’s not that much. It’s hard to put a number of hours on this, but I’d guess I spend an average of five hours a month. Sammy’s department puts in a dozen or so hours a month on maintaining boxes. He and I slip in discussions of CPG affairs at our regular weekly meetings. And Sammy puts in a few more hours a month on invoicing, evaluating modular equipment, and talking with the city and other publishers. The CPG members meet once or twice a year. We make a decision or two by email each year.
Have the issues that prompted the creation of the CPG been resolved, or are there still complaints?
Cox: It’s definitely an ongoing process. After having equipment on the streets of downtown Asheville for 18 months, the city has seen the value of what we’ve been doing.
Fobes: What we’re seeing is an alliance forming between the city and the Community Publishers Group, because we both have the same goal — reducing the clutter and getting the papers out there in a professional way.
What about a potential news rack ordinance?
Cox: The objective defined in our proposal stated: Develop a flexible solution to assist in the city’s news rack enhancement efforts, and to provide a fair and equitable modular news rack ordinance, which is developed with stakeholders’ participation. We have a noticeable clutter problem in our downtown district. In some ways it’s problematic. Like other cities, we have locations that have unattended boxes, areas with more than 25 boxes, and equipment that is in disrepair. In some cases, the cluster impedes foot traffic and merchants have complained about not being able to receive shipments due to the obstruction. So we feel the writing is on the wall. Why not provide a positive and practical solution by being proactive and cooperative with all the players and ultimately work out a protocol that is fair, equitable and affordable? The city staff seems sincere in its efforts to include these concerns and First Amendment protection in the development of a news rack ordinance.
There seem to be a few things at stake here. One is the First Amendment issue of restricting the freedom of the press. The other is the business aspect of being able to promote and distribute your product. And a third is upholding the city’s aesthetic and environmental standards. Do you see an interplay among these issues?
Cox: From a CPG standpoint, we aren’t restricting the First Amendment, and at the same time we’re professionalizing our display, and hopefully creating a long-term distribution system that we have a little more control of.
Have there been any significant challenges so far?
Cox: One thing is that we have a situation in some places where we don’t have enough boxes to accommodate everybody. So that generates just a little bit of friction and it’s a bit of a challenge to manage that.
What reasons have non-participating publications given for not wanting to rent box space?
Cox: I think there’s really only one paper that is resistant and just refuses to be a part of it. They’re very independent. All the rest see the CPG as either a solution or an interesting, but strange innovation. So it’s pretty much appreciated at the community publication level.
Has the new distribution system crated any ancillary benefits, like readership growth or an increase in circulation?
Cox: The long term circulation seems to have improved. Most of these locations are in high traffic areas, and I’ve seen a small bit of circulation increase at these locations.
Fobes: I’d say, overall cooperation with other publications.
Cox: That’s been one of the best side effects. Previously, the only time I would talk with other distribution managers was when it was complaint-driven. Now we’re on the phone once every week or two weeks. We’re dialoguing, and we’re communicating on a more regular basis.
Fobes: The CPG meets a couple times a year, so it’s an opportunity for the distribution managers and publishers to get together. Just meeting in the room together, face to face, builds a level of trust and a relationship that otherwise just wouldn’t have happened.
Cox: One other point is that we have what I feel like is a higher standard in maintaining our equipment. We go out once a month and clean the boxes at all of these 36 locations, and this has been a good benefit from a merchant’s standpoint. When we’re initially describing the service to them, they seem to be really interested that we are maintaining our equipment.
What is your advice to alt-weeklies or other papers that might find themselves in a similar situation to the one you were in prior to creating the CPG?
Fobes: Just being proactive and working with other community publications. Distributing publications in a collaborative fashion is going to save time and money and build a stronger product.
AAN News contributor Joe Pompeo will receive his M.S. from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in May.