A newspaper rack dispute in metropolitan Jackson between The Clarion-Ledger and a free alternative weekly has drawn national attention.

The controversy involves the distribution methods of The Clarion-Ledger in supermarkets, shopping malls and other retail areas, and how that affects the ability of smaller, free newspapers to compete.

The Jackson Free Press claims that the daily (owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the United States) is using underhanded techniques to either force free papers to hand over more cash for distribution costs, or see their individual boxes and racks get forced out of commercial spaces.

In May, the Ledger launched the Distribution Network for Central Mississippi (TDN), which created distribution centers at various commercial locations with room for multiple publications.

The centers are large plastic racks, usually outside of convenience stores or high traffic areas, that display free publications and eliminate individual distribution stands.

(The Madison County Journal is not involved in the Gannett dispute because at least so far it does not involve coin-operated racks, although the city of Madison this week ordered several Journal racks removed, see story page A5.)

Gannett entered into agreements with the businesses in question that if a free publication declined to sell their papers through TDN, then the publication would no longer be able to give away publications at that specific commercial location.

The Jackson Free Press reacted swiftly and angrily. The free weekly has created a “Goliath Blog” on its website dedicated to denouncing the distribution model, which has been implemented by other Gannett papers around the country, although these systems are distinct from TDN.

“Goliath Blog” also gives specific instances of what it believes to be sordid businesses practices (including relocating Free Press and other independent distribution boxes next to dumpsters) on the part of the Ledger.

Quoted in the July issue Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade magazine, the Free Press publisher, Todd Stauffer, attacked the Ledger for attempting to quash competition and the free market for papers. Stauffer claimed that the daily “probably sees this as an opportunity to kill at least two, maybe three” of the free papers in the Jackson metro area.

In the same Editor & Publisher article, Stauffer claimed that if he were to sign on with the TDN distribution system, his publishing costs would increase by up to 20 percent.

A representative from the Ledger stated in Editor & Publisher that the practice is not anything new, and that it is designed to allow store owners to reduce the clutter from several distribution boxes, each selling a different paper.

The representative also expressed the belief that it is better for a local paper to manage such a distribution system, than to have an outside company with no ties to or knowledge of local publications handling the newspaper racks.

John Newhouse, publisher of The Clarion-Ledger, wrote in a public statement that such an outside company would likely charge much higher distribution fees than what his paper is currently asking for using TDN.

The Ledger recently purchased one of its free competitors, VIP Jackson magazine, which was started in early 2005 as an upscale magazine for the Jackson area. The magazine will publish its first magazine under the ownership of the Ledger in August.

The Free Press held a meeting with the Ledger and representatives from other free papers (including Metro Christian Living, formerly Jackson Christian Family) to debate the issue.

Some stores, after learning of the details of the arrangement, have backed out of the TDN agreement, according to Editor & Publisher.