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Kroger's ban on free publications a mistake

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Do you shop at a Kroger supermarket? Or maybe at Ralph’s, Fred Meyer, King Sooper’s, Fry’s, City Market, Pick n Save, or … well, never mind, all of these and more are part of the vast Kroger fiefdom of 2,759 grocery stores spanning the US. It also owns 38 food processing plants, 44 distribution centers, 1,556 gas stations, and 251 jewelry stores. In short, Kroger is BIG — a colossus that is America’s largest grocery chain, dominating many local markets from coast to coast. The Cincinnati-based retail conglomerate sacks up revenues topping $121 billion a year from us consumers.

Yet, for all of its mass and money, Kroger has recently shown itself to be pathetically small in many of the communities it supposedly serves and profits from — small as in petty, snooty... bullying.

The chain’s carefully crafted PR image portrays it as “America’s Grocer” — wherever you are, they present their stores as your friendly neighbor, supporting all things that make your community unique and vibrant. So imagine the surprise of thousands of shoppers, local businesses, community groups, and other real neighbors this month when the giant’s aloof executives in faraway corporate headquarters arbitrarily ejected a core element of vibrancy for many cities: The myriad of alternative newsweeklies and community papers that are distributed in the stores free of charge. In one blow, top honchos in Cincinnati summarily kicked all such local journalism out of their stores in Colorado Springs, Lansing, Louisville, Memphis, Omaha, Salt Lake City and hundreds of other cities in 35 states. While establishment newspapers that peddle the corporate line — from hedge fund-owned dailies to The Wall Street Journal — are still allowed to peddle their papers inside Kroger, customers can no longer find racks of the free community papers that cover a wide diversity of local stories, offer alternative viewpoints, publish investigative exposés, report on community events, and otherwise actually let people know what’s happening in their town.

By shutting out these community papers, Kroger is literally banning the free press from its stores. That’s not only unneighborly — it’s un-American.

Corporate executives, like most politicians, never do anything wrong. Instead, if anything wrong “happens,” it was someone else’s fault, not the chiefs’.

That’s been the gutless claim of Kroger supermarket honchos who senselessly yanked all local newsweeklies and community papers out if its stores. Cluelessly, top execs seemed to assume no one would notice their sweeping purge, but when a firestorm of local protests (under such banners as “DontLoseLocalNews”) reached all the way to the executive suite in the mega-chain’s Ohio headquarters, a PR flack was rushed out to explain who was responsible for banishing the papers: The papers themselves! They failed to keep up with the digital age, she asserted, so shoppers are no longer picking up the free papers.

WRONG. While it’s true that chain-owned daily newspapers are losing readers after shriveling their coverage and jacking up their prices, free local independent weeklies have become more valued than ever by folks looking to fill their town’s print-news gap. As the publisher of the weekly in Lansing, Michigan, points out, media audits show that the pick-up rate of his paper by Kroger shoppers alone has nearly tripled since 2012.

Lest you think that poor Kroger shouldn’t be burdened with offering free papers, let me note that it got paid by a distribution firm to carry them. In addition, those papers have real news, food for thought, and other valuable content that the grocer is allowed to give for free to its customers and communities — a considerable PR plus for the stores. Kroger’s edict to remove free weeklies nationwide is a case of corporate conceit at its most stupid. It was issued from Kroger’s HQ with no warning and no consultation (much less negotiation) with papers or communities. It didn’t have to be so inept and ugly — and now that they’ve bungled the operation, Kroger’s executives have gone into hiding, petulantly refusing to meet or even return phone calls to the people they’re hurting, apparently hoping the furor will just go away.

That’s truly stupid. Indeed, a group of indy papers has now launched a national campaign to call out Kroger’s executives, literally rallying us supporters of independent local news to give them our two-cents-worth. Call toll-free to 1-800-KROGERS (576-4377), then press 3 for “store experience” and to speak to a Kroger manager — and demand that they restore the free press to all of their stores.

(Syndicated columnist Jim Hightower is a progressive political activist and author. From 1983 to 1991, he served as elected commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture. His column appears in about 200 newspapers. This column is courtesy Creators Syndicate.)

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