Sunday coupons, sales tax on readers’ minds…

Let’s examine today two of the most frequently asked questions about The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Why is it that some Sundays I can’t find my coupons?

It always pains journalists to realize that one of the most popular features of the big Sunday paper is the coupon packets that come with it.

When they are missing — as they frequently are on holiday weekends — the newspaper gets dozens of calls asking if they have been inadvertently left out of that Sunday’s paper.

Other times, we’ll get calls from readers in one part of metro Atlanta who didn’t get a coupon packet while a relative in another part of town did. What’s up with that?

Herewith, a primer on coupon distribution:

The first thing to bear in mind is that advertisers decide where their inserts and coupons will be distributed. They pay the AJC to deliver material where they want it to go and on what weekends. (That’s why they hardly ever appear on busy holiday weekends. The theory is that you probably won’t be spending time shopping.)

The AJC divides its circulation into more than 225 distribution zones, and advertisers select only the ones they desire. The paper would be happy to sell the full circulation. But many advertisers don’t want to pay for that. So they buy for the greatest payoff.

That could mean targeting areas where they have stores or face strong competition. Most concentrate within 30 or so counties of the Atlanta metro area. That’s why readers in such places as Ellijay, Cordele and Sandersville get few inserts and coupons. Our zones generally correspond to ZIP codes, with some sliced thinner.

Within each zone, Sunday papers that are home-delivered and those sold individually usually have the same inserts.

Generally, if the ads in your paper differ from what someone else received, it’s because you’re in different zones. There may be other reasons — the newspaper didn’t receive enough of the preprinted coupons to distribute, or there was a mistake at one of our distribution offices — but most of the time it is simply a matter of putting the coupons and inserts where the advertisers want them.

Why do I pay sales tax on the newspaper some places and not at others?

The issue of Georgia’s sales tax and its relation to the newspaper comes up frequently. Some readers mistakenly believe there is a constitutional prohibition against taxing newspapers. There’s not.

What generates so many questions on the sales tax is the inconsistency with which it appears to be applied. Many merchants don’t tack on the tax to the price of a paper as they do with most other items they sell. But that doesn’t mean the state’s not getting its share.

When the tax isn’t added, the retailer simply pays the tax out of the cover price. That’s what the AJC does when it sells papers from coin boxes. When home delivery subscription bills go out, our computers check the customer’s municipality and include any applicable local sales tax as well.

The Newspaper Association of America reports that about half of the states have an exemption from the state sales taxes, while nine states, including Georgia, “tax all sources of circulation income — over-the-counter sales, news rack, subscription.”

Still, some merchants will charge the sales tax on top of the cover price of the newspaper. A few will even charge more than the stated cover price — especially those who sell the Sunday AJC in other states — if it costs them more to have it delivered to them. They have that option, although we discourage it.

The merchants get to make the call on whether to build the tax into the cover price or add it on at the register. Either way, the state gets the revenue.

My thanks to George Edmonson, my predecessor in this job, who did the original research on these questions and answered them a few times himself.