Friday, October 05, 2007

How not to distribute a free daily newspaper

COMMENTARY: We're frustrated to read that a group of environmentalists is petitioning British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to have him ban hawkers who give away London's free daily newspapers. Don't get upset at the environmental group Project Freesheet, headed by Justin Canning. Canning is simply taking advantage of an opportunity handed to him by the thoughtless distributors of London Lite and thelondonpaper. Both papers have been liberally handing out papers to subway riders (or passengers of the "tube" as they say in England), many of whom drop the paper seconds later, creating a very visible mess. Canning has documented the mess on videos posted online.

This policy of flooding a market with free papers in the hopes that they will be read by somebody reminds us of the techniques employed by the Examiner newspapers in the United States. The Examiners dump their papers on people's doorsteps, regardless of whether the resident wishes to have them or not. Stopping the Examiner has proven to be next to impossible, as residents in Baltimore, Washington and San Francisco have discovered. Many are suing the Phil Anschutz-owned newspaper and lobbying for legislation to ban such distribution.

These sloppy tactics cause several problems:

1. They cause observers to think free dailies have little or no value. That makes it harder to sell advertising. It's better to have readers thinking the paper is in demand so that they hold on to their copy of it, and look forward to getting one the next day.

2. They lead to legislation restricting distribution. Such laws hurt newspapers that attempt to distribute their papers in a responsible fashion.

3. They give the public the impression that publishers don't care about the environment. Now we could argue that newsprint is a renewable resource (trees are a crop just like barley, corn or soy beans), but it still looks like waste to a public that is growing increasingly sensitive to environmental issues thanks to the global warming controversy.

What's needed here is self-policing. If newspapers, whether in London or Baltimore, aren't careful about how they distribute (and how that distribution looks to the public) they may find that they can't distribute in many places in the future.