Don’t steal this newspaper

Steal This Book is the radical how-to manifesto of 1970 by the late Abbie Hoffman. The book was in part an unsavory guide to freeloading in a wealthy country that subsidizes its “rebels,” but it occasionally displayed a sense of humor. Take, for example, Hoffman’s admonition: “It’s so easy to get on welfare that anyone who is broke and doesn’t have a regular relief check coming in is nothing but a goddamn lazy bum!” Hoffman observed that with “all the money in Amerika, the only thing you’ll have trouble getting is poor.”

The freeloading spirit that permeates Hoffman’s manifesto is also on view in the New York Times story earlier this week on events roiling the Star Tribune, the heading of which alludes to Hoffman’s book: “Steal this newspaper.” The Times reports:

ABOUT a month ago, The Star Tribune in Minneapolis let it be known that, as a cost-cutting effort, free copies of the newspaper would no longer be broadly available around the newsroom.

Skip to next paragraph Instead, the staff was offered an electronic edition of the paper — “an exact digital reproduction of the printed version,” no less — that they could access online. Those who insisted on seeing the fruits of the their labors in its physical form were told that they could purchase copies for 25 cents, half the retail cost, from boxes around the office. (This change in policy was first reported by City Pages in Minneapolis.)

So far, so weird. Journalism is not jammed with perks — well, not at most newspapers, anyway — but it was always assumed that you could grab a gratis sports section on the way to lunch.

Last Monday, the going got weirder. Star Tribune reporters who came to work and booted up were greeted by the following message from Steve Alexander, senior vice president for circulation, who had been spending time researching the program’s introduction:

“During the first week that the additional on-site racks were in service, 43 percent of the Star Tribunes removed from those racks were not paid for. For the second week the rate was 41 percent. This is called ‘pilferage’ in our business; but put more plainly, it is theft, pure and simple.”

Mr. Alexander proceeded apace: “Taking more than one newspaper from a rack when you have only inserted enough money for one paper is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Employees who steal newspapers will put their jobs at risk. There is zero tolerance when it comes to stealing from our company, even if it is a 25-cent newspaper.”

When the memo landed on Romenesko, the journalism site, the company, rather than realizing that it had stepped in something unwholesome, began telling employees that the leaker would be found out and dealt with. The sideshow left some employees embarrassed and wondering why a debate over free personal copies of the paper was obscuring the fact that the public was buying the newspaper — and almost any newspaper — less frequently.

“The whole free newspaper-Romenesko leak issue is our version of the gay marriage debate,” said Jon Tevlin, a staff writer. “We’re deeply in debt, circulation is falling and profits are down 14 percent this quarter. So let’s obsess about something that isn’t really very significant.”

THE episode hit a sour note for the McClatchy Company, the owner of The Star Tribune, which has been doing a victory lap after buying some Knight Ridder properties. Reached last Friday, Robert J. Weil, vice president of operations at McClatchy, expressed wan support for the no-free-papers initiative — “everyone in the industry is under tremendous expense pressure” — before getting out the 10-foot pole. “McClatchy had nothing to do with this decision. Our newspapers all operate autonomously.”

Ben Taylor, the paper’s senior vice president of marketing and communication, offered a more robust defense that went like this: The newspaper has a long tradition of protecting employees from layoffs, so it is searching every corner to cut costs.

“We were looking for ways to save money that do not impact our product or our customers,” said Mr. Taylor, adding that the personal copies totaled more than 4,000 on weekdays and 5,000 on Sunday. He said that the cost savings for the paper, which has a daily circulation of 379,713 and 666,683 on Sunday, was “significant.”

There is a tedious logic to all of this. People who make doughnuts or lattes or S.U.V.’s do not get to consume their products freely. But whacking the incremental costs of producing a few thousand extra copies of a newspaper seems not worth the profound statement it makes. Those free papers buy a huge amount of good will internally, a totem of a daily miracle that is produced and admired. They are also a reminder, amid all the bad headlines in the industry, that there is civic good under way.

Predictably, the new policy enraged the people who actually make the newspaper, some of whom apparently engaged in the guerilla tactic of putting a quarter in for their copy and then plopping many others on top of the box for the grabbing. More broadly, the Dickensian policy poured gasoline on the culture of complaint that is everyday newsroom life.

Doug Grow, a Star Tribune columnist, recalled that The New York Times once called his paper “the most ridiculed newspaper in the country” for its adoption of new-age policies, like banning “Redskins” and other American Indian nicknames in sports stories. He said he felt the crown had passed to The Times after the Jayson Blair episode.

“I think this is our attempt to win it back,” he said. “One of the benefits of getting older is that this becomes just another chapter in the ongoing comedy. Our stock is dropping and we have cost issues, so maybe we can take away reporter’s notebooks while we are at it.”

There is an implicit broader message. If the people who make the paper believe that an electronic version of the product is just as good as the one readers pay for, why bother subscribing? This month, Jack Shafer, the media columnist for Slate, suggested that the new, improved Web site of The New York Times had persuaded him to stop paying $621.40 for an annual subscription.

It is one thing to beaver away, building out a digital gallows. Given reader habits and industry trends, that kind of innovation is required. But at some point — perhaps when reporters are denied access to newspapers — publishers are saying something else to their employees and their readers: What you’re holding has no value.

There is much of interest in the Times story; the material it provides for comment and analysis is so rich. I invite readers to provide us their comments on the Times story at [email protected] with the thought that we will post the best of the comments here tonight or tomorrow.

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