My favorite weekly freebie, The Beat, was mercilessly run out of business several months ago while in its incarnation as MetroBeat. The culprit, of course, was the megalithic Gannett News Corporation, and it’s local shill, The Greenville News. The Greenville Cage Liner started it’s own weekly rag called, The Link, which went head to head with the Beat, and used some pretty nasty tactics to drive out the competition. Editor James Shannon gave a blow-by-blow of what happened when the Beat was resurrected back in July. Here’s a short synopsis…
So what’s the problem? We’ll serve our readers and The Link can have their niche. There’s room for both of us, right? You’d think so, but there was more to come. Suddenly, these multi-windowed free publication green boxes started appearing outside convenience stores, restaurants and other business establishments – many of which had carried MetroBeat or its predecessor publications for years. It turned out those boxes were being placed there by a company set up by the Greenville News called The Distribution Network (TDN). The boxes carry a number of free publications, many of them published by the Greenville News.
The merchants who accepted these boxes are paid a small monthly fee. In exchange, they sign a contract requiring them to remove any other free publication racks from their premises. That is their right, of course; it’s their property. Gannett understands leverage very well, and for a small store owner making a thin margin on everything he sells, even a minimal monthly payment can seem significant.
The downside for MetroBeat was the certified letter we would get from the Greenville News (well, from TDN which is the same thing) with a list of racks we had to remove – or they would confiscate. No doubt the contract these merchants signed gave TDN the right to seize our newspaper boxes and racks, cleverly written documents drafted by some of the legions of lawyers on the Gannett payroll. So maybe they decided there wasn’t room for both of us in this market after all. Of course, they did offer to carry our paper in those green pigeon coops – at a price that would have run into six figures annually and stripped us of any ability to compete with The Link, which after all, they own. We were starting to feel a little like the mom-and-pop department store across the street from a new Wal-Mart Super Center.
The real problem was that even merchants who said they wanted to keep MetroBeat in their stores were told that the contract they signed to get the $80 bucks a month or whatever it was from TDN meant they no longer controlled what they could offer in their own store.
Today, it really hit home just how bad this practice is, and it doesn’t just affect The Beat. I was at Henry’s Smokehouse (by far, the best BBQ in town) picking up some pulled pork for our after-game bash. As I waited for my order, I looked around for the reading material that Henry’s has always provided for those that wait. They usually have Leonard’s Losers and several For Sale By Owner flyers sitting around. Today there was nothing – only a collection of business cards sitting where the freebies used to be. After getting my BBQ and driving around to the other side of the building, I saw the reason for the missing flyers – a sickening green box of free publications provided by, you guessed it, Gannett.