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EDITORIAL: They’re messy but they’re not litter

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MY COUSIN IS FOUR YEARS OLDER and was the coolest guy I knew when we were kids. One day he got a call from a friend who needed somebody to do his newspaper delivery route that afternoon. My cousin invited me to go along. It was fun at first, then kind of dull until my cousin, fed up with tossing newspapers squarely on front doorsteps, started heaving multiple papers over hedges, into doghouses and onto porch roofs. Amazing how quickly papers disappeared from the canvas bag, and when they were gone we headed home.

Then the phone started to ring. People who subscribed to the newspaper (in those days nearly everyone did) were upset that their papers had gone astray. Stern adults interviewed us boys separately. I probably ratted out my cousin, but the trail of mislaid papers was evidence enough. I’ve long forgotten whatever punishment followed, but to this day I remain impressed by the fuss grownups made about their newspapers.

Paper routes for kids have disappeared for all sorts of reasons but the need to get print newspapers into the hands of local readers is still a dicey proposition, as the available audience lurches after each new screen-based fad. Those of us in the newspaper business look for every opportunity to reach those who enjoy reading printed pages. We have to employ many distribution strategies if we hope to make a living at gathering and sharing the news.

Lately the issue in this county has been newspapers that people don’t want to receive rather than ones they do. Copake and other towns have grumbled about Columbia-Greene Media, which publishes a paper called Shop & Find, delivering in ways that create some unsightly messes. What’s more, residents fear that when copies pile up in front of a house it signals that the place is empty and invites vandalism or worse.

Shop & Find caries some news but focuses on advertising, including fliers from major advertisers. That may explain some of the complaints from folks who don’t wish to have it delivered and would rather not see unread copies cluttering their neighborhood. It’s also possible the messes might make some of those same residents less inclined to support other papers published by Columbia-Greene Media, which include the Register-Star in Hudson, the Chatham Courier and the Daily Mail in Catskill. That would be an unfortunate unintended consequence of this distribution strategy.

Does this sound like crocodile tears? I hope not. The Columbia Paper stands to gain little or nothing if our competitors antagonize readers. I’d much prefer to attract subscribers because they believe we produce a mix of news and information that’s more to their liking rather than think readers have chosen us to spite a competitor. And it seems more likely people will just stop reading newspapers altogether if they get annoyed enough with the distribution.

But let’s be clear. Columbia-Greene Media Publisher Mark Vinciguerra asserted his company’s First Amendment right to distribute the publication in an interview in The Columbia Paper last week and I support his position. The publication may generate clutter here and there if the people making the deliveries are careless or in too big a hurry, but it is not litter. And neither towns nor the county should react to complaints by making or enforcing laws that attempt to stop it.

The publication isn’t litter if the intent of defining it that way is to limit its distribution. As Mr. Vinciguerra says, the Constitution forbids laws that restrict free speech and freedom of the press.

And it’s not litter because litter is what a slob tosses onto somebody else’s property because the slob can’t be bothered to clean up after himself. But the Columbia-Greene Media doesn’t want you to throw away its publication. It wants you to read the thing. And some readers value its contents.

The challenge for all of us in the newspaper business is figuring out the most efficient, effective ways to convince the public to read what we publish. I don’t know what calculations Columbia-Greene makes that lead the company to deliver so many papers for so long to sites where the publication isn’t being read. But it can’t continue too long. No newspaper has money to waste.

Newspapers are businesses. The market determines our fate. You, the readers, are our market. If you’re angry, tell the publisher. He’s the person who can fix it. Like a newspaper you have the right to speak your mind.

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