News: Why 'CityBeat' Got Thown Out of Kroger

Editorial: The Real Story

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As you've probably heard by now, as of Jan. 1 Kroger no longer distributes CityBeat at its area stores.

There's been some media coverage of our situation, particularly in light of Kroger's silly corporate decision to hide the covers of Cosmopolitan magazine (see Burning Questions story on page 10). And, in the paper, we've been running full-page ads to tell readers where to get CityBeat instead of at Kroger (see page 17).

The bottom line is that Kroger has every right to decide what newspapers and magazines to distribute at its stores. We don't claim any sort of inalienable right to be included on the stores' free publication racks.

But here's the catch: We do deserve to know why, specifically, we got the boot, and CityBeat readers (and Kroger shoppers) deserve a straight answer as well.

Since October 1995, CityBeat had been distributed at Kroger stores throughout Greater Cincinnati. We paid a monthly fee of more than $2,000 — a lot of money for a then-1-year-old, independent business but worth it, we decided, because of the high visibility in high-traffic grocery stores.

By last month, we were moving about 7,000 papers every week through 58 stores, from Florence to Middletown and from Harrison to Lebanon. That's out of a total circulation of 50,000.

Kroger was our only distribution spot in many of those outlying areas.

We'd run into trouble with Kroger officials before this final solution. In 1998, CityBeat was told our distribution contract would not be renewed due to complaints received about our same-sex personal ads and about a specific Tom Tomorrow cartoon — complaints, we later learned, from one persistent individual. Last September, CityBeat was yanked from Kroger racks on a Monday due to complaints about our cover story on local writer Dallas Wiebe, whose controversial book had been censored 30 years before.

In those cases, we were allowed to resume distribution. No one at Kroger or at the company's distribution vendor — whom we actually contracted with and paid the fees to — asked us after those incidents to change any editorial or advertising policy. We wouldn't have changed anything about CityBeat if we'd been asked, but we weren't.

In November, we began the process of negotiating with Kroger's distribution vendor, DistribuTech, over details of our Kroger contract for 2000. On Nov. 23, we received a letter from DistribuTech that said the contract would not be renewed.

"This letter is to inform you that Kroger has elected to exercise their rights and remove the CityBeat magazine off of the community rack program within the Greater Cincinnati stores," wrote DistribuTech's Randy Leppert. "The reason for this decision is the recent amount of complaints they have received in regard to the content and language found within the 'Savage Love' column."

That seemed fairly cut-and-dried to us. Frankly, with the threat of being pulled from stores constantly hanging over us and with the rising expense of the rack program, we weren't all that disappointed to be out of Kroger.

But then the media coverage began, and the Kroger responses started getting warped.

In the Dec. 24 issue of the Business Courier, Kroger spokesman Steve Jagers told reporter Dan Monk that "overall content" was what got CityBeat dropped, not anything specific.

"We've just had numerous complaints," Jagers was quoting as saying. "We've talked to them about that before and they've failed to do anything about it."

For the record, no one at Kroger ever asked us to address anything, much less our "overall content." What would that mean, anyway — change our paper into an apartment guide?

On Jan. 11, Channel 5 ran a story that connected our situation to Kroger's announcement of the Cosmo cover-up. Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes told reporter Ryan Owens that CityBeat had "very explicit and very suggestive columns" and that the company was "responding to customers' complaints throughout Cincinnati and Dayton."

Note to Rhodes: CityBeat is not and never has been distributed in any Dayton Kroger store.

The next day's Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front-page story about Kroger's Cosmo announcement that included a mention toward the end that CityBeat had been banned from stores "because of complaints about some of its columns and personal ads."

I can only assume the personal ads referred to are of the same-sex variety, which got us in trouble with Kroger two years ago. For those keeping score at home, The Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post run same-sex personal ads and remain available at all area Kroger stores.

That's three different reasons (and one incorrect piece of information about "customer complaints") cited for why CityBeat is no longer welcome at Kroger — Savage Love, overall content and personal ads. Well, which is it? All of the above? None of the above?

In any case, we've obviously been kicked out for inside content — columns, articles and ads — and not for racy, suggestive covers, which got Cosmo covered by a brown-paper wrapper of sorts. Does anyone else see the hypocrisy here?

I think what happened is this: The people in Kroger's Cincinnati/Dayton store management team who deal with free publication distribution matters decided they just didn't want the hassle anymore of fielding complaints about CityBeat — especially when those complaints were reaching high-ranking Kroger corporate officials. No matter how many or how few, the complaints were bothersome, so we were removed.

I get the feeling no one told the Kroger public relations people about the decision or why it was arrived at, much less actually consulted with them ahead of time. The spokesmen are out there trying to put out the Cosmo fire and end up getting asked about CityBeat and have no earthly idea what to say, so they wing it.

Again, Kroger has every right to run its company the way it sees fit. We've already lined up other distribution points, so we'll be fine. But at least get your stories straight, folks.

I also have every right to buy my groceries where I want to, and I no longer buy them at Kroger. Judging by the reaction of other CityBeat staffers, our families and friends and supportive readers (see Letters on page 8), a lot fewer Cincinnatians will be shopping at Kroger in 2000.

Hey, respect is a two-way street. ©

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