By Deana Meredith
When Tom Lappas started the Henrico Citizen 18 years ago, his goal was to connect his community by providing citizens the information they needed at no cost to readers.
He recalls that while growing up there were three weekly newspapers that covered Herndon, Virginia, which was a town of 25,000 back then.
“I read them all religiously,” he said. “It gave me a sense of place and belonging there. I wanted to do the same here.”
During his adulthood, Lappas worked for a family-owned group of publications in Richmond that closed when the owners decided to move away. Lappas said that three of his co-workers joined him on a part-time basis to establish the new paper and make it freely available to readers.
The award-winning twice-monthly Henrico Citizen is distributed to about 110 locations, according to its website. But that number will decline on Halloween when Kroger removes all free publications from its stores in the Richmond market.
“The policy to remove the racks is on an enterprise level across the country,” Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic, said. “We decided to remove these publication racks because the racks are no longer driving customer engagement in stores.”
Lappas said that his distributor notified him in August of Kroger’s decision. As of yet, the decision hasn’t impacted the C-VILLE Weekly, according to its publisher, Aimee Atteberry.
In addition to gas stations and retail locations, grocery stores have been a popular way for free publications to reach their audience.
“I think grocery stores are a great place for free publications because everybody has to buy food,” Lappas said. “It makes it easy for people to easily pick up our issues.”
Kroger newsstands make up nearly 18 percent of the Henrico Citizen’s distribution.
“It’s a significant chunk,” Lappas said.
But this isn’t the first time this has happened. When Martin’s grocery stores were purchased by Publix, the paper was in nine of the stores. Lappas said they decided to reallocate the issues that were once in Martin’s stores to other locations, including Food Lion and Wawa.
“That’s probably what we’ll do with half of that Kroger distribution,” he said. “We’ve got some room to add to the Food Lions and Wawas.”
He is also looking at placement in some other local businesses, including restaurants in the area.
Although it’s frustrating, Lappas said he isn’t too worried about losing distribution at Kroger.
“It’s not going to cost us a whole lot of business. Our pickup numbers are very good in the spots we’re located,” Lappas said. “It’s just another bump in the road for me.”
For several years, the Henrico Citizen has been sending newsletter subscribers an electronic version of the entire newspaper. Doing so has been another way the newspaper has been able to give its advertisers additional exposure.
“It doesn’t really matter to me where people read us. In reality, if they’re reading print or a pdf version, they’re getting the same thing,” he said.
The pickup numbers in stores have remained the same, he said, regardless of people’s ability to read an electronic version of the newspaper.
In the past couple issues, Lappas said that he has included a coupon that encourages people to clip it out and take to Kroger. The coupon encourages the grocery chain to keep free publications in their stores.
“It hasn’t impacted us yet, but I can’t say it won’t eventually,” Atteberry said, adding that many of her alternative news weekly colleagues across the country have faced similar circumstances.
The issue has predominantly affected those publications that contract with DistribuTech to place their papers in the various locations. The C-VILLE Weekly contracts with a different distributor.
Readers are the ones who get hurt, Atteberry said, as Kroger moves toward a cleaner, less cluttered entrance to their store.
Between 10 and 30 percent of the C-VILLE Weekly’s distribution is through Kroger stores in Charlottesville and surrounding areas.
“As far as weekly papers go, we’re the source of hyper-local news. We’re having conversations with our readership,” she said. “We’re not just reporting facts. We’re recording the conversations people are having in our community. The readership has a very personal and loyal connection with us.”
Atteberry said many of her colleagues are losing large quantities of readers because of such decision, and she can’t imagine being in the same situation.
“I find it very sad that their loyal readers will have a harder time accessing their local paper,” she said.