Take Our Paper, Please!

A crazy day around here, but lookit: We hear Washington City Paper has decided to take their paper to the streets, in an apparent effort to staunch their lightly bleeding circulation numbers. The approach is simple: Put twenty real, live human beings on the streets handing out the paper to passersby (much as D.C.’s two daily commuter freebies do in the morning, although City Paper figures afternoon is a better time to hit their readers). Now the official reason they give is that retailers who normally carry the alt-weekly line of publication–the coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and so on–are cracking down on freebies that contribute not much to their interior ambience besides litter.

For our part, we certainly are familiar with this struggle, and we make it a point of business practice to maintain good relations with the fine people who allow us to distribute the magazine in their lobbies and foyers. We know from painful experience that there are a number of challenges facing the freebie crowd–in the first place that it is a crowd, with dozens and dozens of pamphlets, broadsheets, chapbooks, real estate and automotive and sexual shoppers, and so on, cluttering up entryways and gutters throughout the city.

Most publishers of materials like this do not ask for permission before dumping their reams off wherever and whenever they please. They see legitimate and reputable publications doing it, and they assume it’s OK to do the same. It probably would be OK, if they took the same care that the better operations take, i.e. to clean up after themselves and others, to tidy things up, to show a little respect to both the business owners and the other publications, to ask permission, and so on.

Second, it is true that many of the national chain retailers have no sympathy for local publishers, and have policies and attitudes that frankly don’t win them much favor in our pages. (The irony is that a magazine like ours has found a terrifically passionate readership in the outer suburbs where national chains flourish—but we have to work like dogs to make it available to them.)

But when we look more closely at the sitch in D.C., we have couple of questions. City Paper execs say they are having trouble getting distribution, and yet they have not actually lost any distribution spots during the period that their circulation has declined considerably. Lost spots have been replaced by new ones, they say. Thus many lost retail positions have been replaced with street boxes.

So why is circulation still going down at City Paper? It seems to us that it may have less to do with uncharitable merchants and more to do with a disinterested readership, and the need for an editorial opening of windows. If readers really want a publication, if it’s a true must-read for a significant portion of the city, they’ll find it wherever it is distributed. It’s interesting that some City Paper readers say they can’t find the paper, or that it’s gone by the time they get around to seeking it out, and that strikes us as a problem of staying stocked where you are most wanted. (The two free dailies cannot be helping much, but what we’ve seen of most of these commuter papers is that they make a good seat cover on the bus, and a fine place to deposit used chewing gum.)

Now, as to whether it might be more effective to have a pushy human being in an orange T-shirt pressing the paper into your hands, we can’t say. But it is interesting that City Paper’s readership is an alarming ninety percent single, and undoubtedly starving for human contact.

Now there’s a savvy approach to a serious circulation challenge: merging the desperate, growing singles space with the declining rate base right out there on the streets of Washington D.C.