One of America’s largest grocers just booted free local newspapers from its stores

It’s a trend in retail chains across the country. And small, independent publishers say it’s a major threat to local media.

Berl Schwartz is the publisher of City Pulse, a free weekly newspaper in Lansing, Michigan. It’s where you go to read about artists, or a new restaurant, or for news about what’s happening at City Hall. There’s an edge to it, too: Last year, when the state legalized marijuana, some of the paper’s nine staffers headed to the capital to hand out joints.

But just before Labor Day this year, Schwartz, a veteran journalist who founded the alt-weekly nearly two decades ago, was trying to get one of the paper’s racks replaced at a local Kroger supermarket, which had disappeared without explanation. That’s when he got the bad news that City Pulse would no longer be carried at the grocery chain’s four area locations. 

Pick-up rates at Kroger and other grocery chains outflank those of publications people have to pay for.

It turns out City Pulse isn’t the only alt-weekly to have gotten the boot. As the Memphis Business Journal reports, Kroger is removing all free newspapers and magazines from its stores nationwide, effective October 15. That could be a major blow to the small, independent publishing business.

The Cincinatti, Ohio-based grocery chain, which didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time, told the Journal that it made the move because its customers have deserted print for digital, and fewer of them are picking up the papers on their way into our out of its stores.

Publishers, however, are pushing back, saying that the pick-up rates at Kroger and other grocery chains outflank those of publications people have to pay for—major metro dailies or national newspapers, for instance. The sentiment among the publishers I spoke to for this story is that Kroger’s decision to kick out alt-weeklies and other free papers doesn’t recognize their importance in communities, and they’re hoping the company will reconsider. 

Time was, some publications had their own branded, brightly colored boxes, out of which spilled not just alt-weeklies, but other tabloids, niche publications for seniors or the spiritual or queer communities, and lots of free auto and real estate rags. But you might not even notice the free local paper racks at your supermarket anymore. They’re such a grocery-store mainstay, so often cluttered in the vestibule when you walk in, or mixed in with the store circulars behind the grocery carts, or crammed into the entryway between the sliding doors. Sometimes they’re in the aisle between cashiers, easily missed on your way out. 

All of these free publications have one thing in common, though. They rely on advertisers, who buy space for their messages, or special offers, like coupons or rebates, knowing that free papers are likely to reach a captive audience of shoppers. Big, broad distribution points, like sidewalks, public libraries, or grocery stores, are part of the appeal for publishers. 

So a chain like Kroger, second only to Walmart in size last year, can be crucial to their survival. The company operates supermarkets under a number of names, including Ralphs, King Soopers, Fred Meyer, and QFC, among others

Several alt-weeklies I contacted said they distribute a significant portion of their papers at grocery stores. Schwartz told me that local Kroger locations account for 16 percent of his weekly circulation. John Weiss, publisher of the Colorado Springs Independent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said that over 10 percent of its 36,000 weekly copies are distributed at King Soopers stores in the Pikes Peak region. (That paper has started an online petition, asking Kroger to bring them back.) And in Memphis, Tennessee, the venerable Memphis Flyer distributes 20 percent of its 45,000 papers, every week, at the store.

Without these distribution channels, single-copy newspaper sales, as opposed to daily subscriptions, have collapsed.

Alt-weeklies like these are, to a degree, an anachronism. They think of themselves as glue for the community—a sort of corkboard, or public forum, for local citizens to get the word out, from the ubiquitous events calendars for theater or music, to the ads and reviews of new businesses. And many of them feature award-winning local journalism and longtime columnists. But as media watchers know, their backbone—an advertiser-driven revenue model—is a vestige of another time. Alt-weeklies, along with the print industry in general, has continued to suffer since classifieds moved online. 

As a result, what we think of as a local amenity and part of our identity as a community member—picking up a paper at our favorite watering hole or retail establishment—has become increasingly rare. Kroger is not the only retailer to pull away from print. Global supermarket chain, Aldi, stopped selling newspapers and magazines in September. So did Starbucks, earlier this summer. Without these distribution channels, single-copy newspaper sales, as opposed to daily subscriptions, have collapsed. Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism training and research organization, told me that airports and hotels could soon follow suit.

Some publishers I spoke to said they think the decision to pull their papers came from the top at Kroger, with local managers helpless to appeal and passing complaints off to the Cincinatti headquarters. After all, the chain is facing intense competition from online grocers, namely Amazon and Walmart, and has spent billions of dollars redesigning its stores to juice sales. Cost-cutting at store-level wouldn’t be entirely unexpected.

It’s worth noting that, although alt-weeklies are free to shoppers, the space for them isn’t free to publishers and distributors. Stores can charge hundreds of dollars a month to provide placement for the racks. The decision to boot them, therefore, could be an indication that free papers aren’t as profitable as something else that takes up space—merchandise displays, online delivery systems, or self-checkout stations, for instance.

“There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy there. Kroger is a huge corporation, and it’s favoring another huge corporation.”

Although Kroger is nixing free papers, it will continue to sell daily papers. In Lansing, that includes not just major national papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but metro dailies, including The Lansing State Journal and The Detroit Free Press. The fact that Kroger continues to stock the latter two, which are owned by the Gannett Corporation, irks some critics, who say that it’s another deathblow to local media. 

“Gannett has their own racks, and multiple publications,” Schwartz said. “There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy there. Kroger is a huge corporation, and it’s favoring another huge corporation.”

Moreover, according to Schwartz, the action conflicts with Kroger’s justification for getting rid of his paper in the first place, which is that customers aren’t reading print. While it’s true that the readership of daily newspapers is declining nationwide, Schwartz said that’s not the case for free papers. In fact, he said, his pick-up rate of 3,100 copies a week at Kroger is higher than ever—nearly three times as many as in 2012. He attributes that to the rising cost of buying a national daily newspaper. A copy of The New York Times, for instance, will cost you $2.50. If you want a weekend edition, you’ll pay $6.00 (everywhere but in New York.)

“Unless Kroger wants to end up as the Amazon of grocery shopping, and everything’s online, I don’t get this,” Schwartz said. “They should be fighting to keep customers coming in. Why would you get rid of something that people want?”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.