Supermarkets bag newspapers at the checkout counter

Newspapers are slowly fading away from the American consciousness, and one new trend will only hasten their disappearance.

Aldi, the German-owned grocery store chain that has plenty of supermarkets in the United States, became the latest store to announce that it will no longer be selling newspapers or magazines. More and more supermarkets are replacing their news racks with candy, toys and other non-newsy items.

“We have seen a few grocery and retail stores move to eliminate onsite newspaper distribution,” said David Chavern, President & CEO of the News Media Alliance. “While news consumers are obviously moving to online sources, we should all be aware that these moves really hit small and alternative newspapers the hardest.  There are thousands of communities where the best source of information is still a free weekly paper and eliminating access doesn’t help anyone.”

Chavern also said that “most of the outreach has been directly between publishers and retailers and that “we understand that there are new arrangements for onsite access to digital additions of news products.  But that doesn’t do much for publishers who have a long history of grocery store distribution.”

That has been especially true at a place like Kroger - America’s largest supermarket chain by revenue – which decided to no longer carry free newspapers and magazines as of October 15, ending an arrangement they had with local outlets for the past 20 years.

The local publishers were paying a distributor, DistribuTech, for space in the Krogers stores, and they, understandably, are not happy.

"There are thousands of communities where the best source of information is still a free weekly paper and eliminating access doesn’t help anyone”

- David Chavern, President & CEO of the News Media Alliance

One paper that is fighting back is City Pulse, a free weekly newspaper in Lansing, Michigan. People in that town relied on it for news about artists, new restaurants, and most importantly, what’s going on in the city hall.

Berl Schwartz is the Pulse’s publisher, and he is leading the charge with a petition against Kroger's. 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 one of the chain’s supermarkets, and it had disappeared without explanation. That’s when he was told that City Pulse would no longer be carried at the grocery chain’s four area locations.

Schwartz posted a letter on City Pulse’s website on October 3 updating his readers on his efforts: “Thank you for your outpouring of support for City Pulse in the face of a misguided and inconsistent decision by the Kroger Co. to ban free publications from its stores nationwide. Nearly 1,200 of you have signed a petition asking Kroger to reconsider; many of you have also called or written Kroger. Your efforts are deeply appreciated — and important. I wish I could report that Kroger is reconsidering. But Kroger has given no indication of that yet. Therefore, we hope readers will continue to voice their dissatisfaction.”

The letter from Schwartz included statistics that back up what he called Kroger’s “misguided and inconsistent decision.” Over 3,100 people picked up a copy of City Pulse this year, a big increase over the 1,100 in 2012. In Cincinnati, which Kroger’s home city, around 8,400 people a week were getting their local free newspaper, CityBeat, at the supermarket. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, 4,000 a week pick up the paper at Kroger. The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle reported that 12,000 a month pick up that free publication at Krogers in that area.

Schwartz also noted that Kroger's has found room for some papers, noting, “in this market, other free publications associated with Gannett, which owns the Lansing State Journal, remain available in Kroger stores. Perhaps Kroger does not want to disturb its arrangements with Gannett and other paid newspapers, which may be more lucrative than what City Pulse and other free publications have been paying for space.”

The Association of Alternative News Media – whose membership includes the Austin Chronicle and Pittsburgh City Paper - also launched a campaign last month to try to get Krogers to keep free publications like its member alt-weeklies in stores, and individual news outlets are asking their readers to call Krogers and complain.

Kroger's blamed the move on the changing technology and audience. "We are removing the publication racks from our stores because more publications continue to shift to digital formats, resulting in less customers using the products,"  Teresa Dickerson, corporate affairs manager of Kroger's Delta Division, told The Memphis Business Journal.

The strength of hyper-local papers is in stark contrast to the decline in bigger papers’ circulation, especially single-copy sales from newspaper boxes (remember those?), newsstands, and retailers such as supermarkets.

The Sunday Des Moines Register sold around 59,000 single copies in 2011, and by 2014, that had fallen to 28,000. As of the second quarter of 2019, it is down to just 13,000 copies. This a much speedier decline than the Register’s print subscription and home-delivery numbers.

The Washington Post is experiencing a sort of renaissance, as political tensions in the nation's capital hasn’t made the prize-winning paper this relevant since the days of Richard Nixon presidency, but it’s hard to tell by its store sales. In 2011, it sold an average of 56,000 daily (non-Sunday) single copies; three years later, it was 30,000, and currently, it’s 12,000. The decline in sales of Sunday papers isn’t much better, from 127,000 eight years ago to 75,000 in 2014 and 35,000 today.

But the news changes and it seems unlikely that the retail fate of publications will see good news moving forward as technology marches on.