One Man’s Litter Is Another Man’s Free Speech – But Is It The Right Way To Treat Readers?

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If you haven’t heard, Orion Township in Oakland County and the biggest paper in town, the Detroit Free Press, are now in a legal dispute over a Sunday edition called “Select,” delivered in a pink paper bag to some communities in Metro Detroit.

So what is “Yes! Your Essential Shopper” or “Sunday Select?” According to a release in 2007:

Sunday Select offers our advertisers a new way to reach active consumers. With Sunday Select, these consumers opt in to receive the advertising package of national and local pre-print advertising wrapped in an editorial product called Yes! Your Essential Shopper.

Many corporate-owned newspapers use the Select program created by Gannett, the owners of the Free Press, including those owned by McClatchy and others.

Wrapped around the pre-print ads is Yes! Your Essential Shopper, a fast-read editorial product with up-to-date information on fashion and style; home and garden; health and beauty; personal technology; food and dining; seasonal shopping and more. It also draws on fresh design elements: bold colors and large typography seen on popular Web 2.0 social networking sites.

Complaints have been mounting for years that despite the claims that the free papers are “opt-in,” many who receive it never asked for it – basically, if true, that’s real-life spam. Multiple media outlets have reported this, and that apparently it’s very hard to opt-out of receiving the special Sunday paper.

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Orion Township officials decided last week to send the Detroit Free Press two $800 littering tickets due to the complaints they received of unwanted papers. In return, the paper sued the Township for $5 million in punitive damages from each Orion Township official, saying that their free speech was being denied.

“The fact of the matter is, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – spells Michigan Constitution – protects us in that regard. We don’t need consent, but we like to have consent,” Fink said to Fox 2.

“We don’t need consent, but we like to have consent” could be legally correct, but sounds really, really bad from a customer service perspective.

The Driveway Is A Battleground As Print Brings In More Money Per Reader Than Digital

Below the surface of this free speech or litter debate may be economics. Even if they say it’s not, it’s important for context.

An online visitor is worth a lot less than a print reader as advertisers do not pay as much – the often cited easy measure is for every $10 in revenue a print product generates, the equivalent digital product generates $1. Other pieces say that every print reader brings in 20 times the amount of money than an online reader does, all-in.

Because of this, newspaper revenues nationally are in a tailspin, and free papers count in audited circulation numbers. In 2013, The Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) reported that the circulation of the Sunday Detroit Free Press was 708,114 – 416,986 subscribed with with 285,073 of those being branded editions like Yes! Select and other products. The Echo Media data doesn’t have the branded media numbers but shows that paid circulation for the Sunday edition is now down to 355,000, or a 15% decline.

The AAM itself no longer publishes newspaper subscriber numbers in a way the general public can access.

According to a recent WDET interview by outgoing publisher Joyce Jenereaux, the combination of Freep, Detroit News (and other publications like the Lansing State Journal and Hometown Life) are in total seeing 9 million uniques some months.

But that’s a fuzzy number too as accessing a site on your phone and your desktop computer – or from a different browser on your desktop – can count as two unique visitors when you’re one person.

It May Be Legal – But Is It Respecting The Reader? 

Even though the Detroit Free Press may prevail in court if it goes that far, it’s not a good look for the Free Press to sue a township over complaints by readers who don’t want the paper. Regardless of the financial situation, it feels out of touch with how things work in 2016.

It’s not easy to unsubscribe from the free select paper, either. If you go way down to the bottom to “Subscriber services,” there’s no mention of the select paper.

The township supervisor only wrote the littering tickets after trying unsuccessfully to stop delivery.

There’s a byzantine system by email or phone which people have had mixed success with. Searching their site for “yes select” or “yes sunday select” is also of no help.

Getting something you don’t want on your driveway every week is annoying – and although the corporation might be able to charge for the advertiser, on the personal level, it makes the paper come off like it’s out of touch.

What publications who often do solid, in-depth work like the Freep need are not just readers, but readers that value and are willing to pay for the product. Instead, those readers are complaining to their city officials that it’s unwanted garbage.

That’s the problem they should fix before suing anybody.

1 comment
  • Things have changed, and it’s not my problem that I don’t junk! I wanna pick what I read, and if I got this on my driveway I’d throw it in the trash.

    But I’ve never bought a print newspaper and probably never will.

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