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Detroit Free Press Select

A newspaper has the right to toss a packet of ads and coupons onto your doorstep. And you have the right to ask for it to stop. But if it doesn’t – whose rights take precedence?

That was the question raised in a lawsuit that’s now been settled. The Detroit Free Press newspaper and the suburban township of Orion have agreed to resolve their dispute over the “Detroit Free Press Select”, a bagged bundle of circulars, ads and coupon inserts delivered to homes throughout the Detroit area. After several township residents complained that the deliveries kept on coming after they had opted out, the township ticketed the paper for littering.

And the paper responded by suing the township last year for violating its right to free speech.

Now, the paper has dropped its case. “The township agreed to stop ticketing, and to work with the Free Press to address any delivery complaints, which I understand have ceased,” Detroit Free Press attorney Herschel Fink told Coupons in the News.

The paper says it already gives all residents the ability to call and opt out of receiving the Select. But under the terms of the settlement, the paper will identify a point person whom Orion township can call directly to ensure that opt-out requests are acted upon.

“It does not prohibit us in the future, if this new system doesn’t work, from writing a littering ticket again and telling them the system isn’t working and the residents are still getting these papers,” township supervisor Chris Barnett said in announcing the settlement at a recent township board of trustees meeting.

But since the resolution involves setting up a special, dedicated opt-out hotline for residents of one township, that raises the question – what’s the point of the regular opt-out phone number for everyone else who’s not party to this settlement, if their opt-out requests aren’t being honored?

“What do I need to do to stop this?” a recent visitor to the Free Press’ Facebook page asked. “I have called and emailed as suggested 5 times and it still comes… It is unwanted, unwelcome trespassing and litter on my private property.”

The dirty little secret is that many who deliver these advertising packets aren’t necessarily inclined to react quickly to such opt-out requests.

According to the latest figures compiled by Inmar, coupon insert distribution has held relatively steady the past several years. But newspaper readership has been declining precipitously. So how are so many people still getting coupon inserts if fewer people are getting the paper?

It’s because those inserts are bundled together with other ads and store circulars and tossed into their front yards, or stuffed into their mailboxes, or inserted into free community newspapers. The more homes the distributors deliver to, the higher the circulation figures they can cite to advertisers and coupon providers. Are newspaper subscriptions on the decline? No problem, just throw some more “free” ads and coupon inserts onto as many doorsteps and driveways as possible in order to keep those numbers up.

So opting out isn’t always easy. “Twice a year, a sticker on the front page informs recipients how to opt out,” the Free Press argued in its lawsuit.

Twice a year? If you happen to miss that notice the day it’s delivered – or if you call, the paper misplaces your request, and you misplace the phone number – that could mean at least six more months of deliveries, and six more months of happy advertisers pleased with their circulation figures.

Orion seemed taken aback to learn that defending these deliveries was apparently so important to the Free Press, that it responded to a couple of $800 littering tickets with a federal lawsuit seeking $5 million from Orion Township and each member of the township board.

Barnett did not respond to requests for comment, but he didn’t hold back at the recent township meeting. “My dad taught me about bullies. And my personal comment is that they were certainly bullying the township,” he said of the newspaper. “This was not about us telling the Free Press they can’t deliver papers in the community, it’s just that they have to honor their own opt-out clause.”

Some couponers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Free coupon inserts delivered to your door, without even having to pay for the newspaper – what’s not to like about that?

But not everyone is a couponer. And not everyone welcomes unrequested ads and inserts – especially if they’ve already asked for them to stop coming.

Other communities with similar problems – like a Chicago neighborhood that sued a local paper in 2013 for failing to stop deliveries – may be looking to the Orion case to see if the settlement holds.

While the Free Press is pledging to do a better job honoring opt-out requests, advertisers are continuing to clamor for as many people as possible to see their ads and coupons, and Orion is taking a “we’ll see if this works” approach – so this dispute may not be over just yet.

One Comment

  1. …all part of the 99.5% of coupons that go unused each year…

    Fun Fact! Manufacturers spend the same cost per thousand (CPM) for these unwanted, direct-to-trash coupon books as they do actual Sunday newspapers.

    (Coupon publishers pair the free stuff with the good stuff and charge a single CPM for all of it. Good times!)

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