RALEIGH — The popularity of a reality TV show about bargain hunters is being blamed for an increase in stolen Sunday newspapers across the country, including a spike in thefts at North Carolina's two largest dailies, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.
"Extreme Couponing," which began airing regularly on the TLC network in April, shows shoppers using hundreds of coupons to amass stockpiles of grocery items at a fraction of their regular cost.
The increase in local thefts coincides with the debut of the television show, said Jim Puryear, vice president of circulation for The News & Observer.
"There's a lot of theft out there," Pur year said. "One of the things we're beginning to do is move papers inside stores versus the outside racks, because some people are buying one paper and helping themselves to the rest. There's a big drive now for people who want four, five, six copies of the paper."
In news reports about thefts across the country, circulation managers and contractors have all noted a correlation between the increase in thefts and the airing of "Extreme Couponing."
One of the more serious cases involved the arrest of an Arkansas woman who stole 185 unsold copies of The Springdale Morning News outside a grocery store. She was charged with misdemeanor theft. A Boise woman also was charged with theft after she was caught stealing copies of The Idaho Statesman from a newspaper rack.
In many cases, Puryear says, it's the newspaper carriers who lose money, and carriers are reporting big losses.
Police charged a woman in Beaufort last month with stealing N&O newspapers from a rack near a Food Lion. She was caught by a contractor, who had noticed shortages at that location, staked out the rack and then notified police.
Rooting through bins
Puryear says people have also taken coupons from outside stores after trucks drop papers off, and that N&O employees have found people digging for coupons inside bins at company recycling centers despite "no trespassing" signs.
Under its agreements with advertisers, the newspaper is prohibited from giving away coupons in unsold papers, and the coupon-handling process at the paper is closely audited. Sunday copies of The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer cost $2 and can contain between $100 and $300 in coupons.
"People are getting real creative about this," Puryear said. "They watch this 'Extreme Couponing' show where people buy $300 worth of groceries for $1.20, and they start figuring out ways to get newspapers and coupons without paying for them."
Jim Lamm, the Charlotte Observer's vice president of circulation, says his paper is battling the same problems.
"It's like they turned on a switch in April, May and June," Lamm said. The first season of "Extreme Couponing" ran from April 6 to June 15 and averaged about 2 million viewers.
Lamm says the Charlotte Observer has moved most of its Sunday newspapers from racks to inside stores, and is aware of some retailers who have had to move Sunday papers behind the counters to protect them from sticky fingers.
On the bright side
Lamm isn't aware of any charges stemming from Charlotte newspaper thefts but knows some carriers have witnessed them.
"Carriers are independent business people," Lamm said. "Every paper that is stolen is money out of their pocket."
But in Lamm's view, the news isn't all bad. "The bottom line is customers are buying more newspapers, and customers are happy with the value of their newspaper, so there's a silver lining to every cloud."
Many newspapers, including The News & Observer, sponsor classes on using coupons and ways to save money on groceries.
A second season of "Extreme Couponing" will begin airing in September, so newspaper carriers will have to brace themselves for more coupon mania.
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