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Starbucks: Ministry of Information


Struggling monolith to serve up news alongside caffeine fix.

Coffee drinkers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your solitude.

Starbucks (SBUX), reeling from the need to close 600 of its stores, plans to serve up news alongside shots of double espresso. Perhaps the rag, entitled The Good Sheet, will spark discussion and maybe even gooey communitarian feeling among its customers.

This is yuckier than last week's coffee grinds.

Luckily, the news will be presented free - and worth every penny, frazzled customers are likely to say. The only upside: The plan is a welcome relief from Starbucks' efforts to sell customers the cornball music playing at many stores.

Imagine dragging yourself in for coffee in the morning, or after 4 long, hard hours of turning wheels in corporate America, and find that Uncle Starbucks wants to spark a discussion on a topic dear to your heart but remote from your everyday experience - such as the need to save the whales, or the knotty problems of carbon emissions, healthcare and education.

You might want to slug the nearest barista.

This is a pilot program, and Starbucks plans to offer the papers for 11 weeks. Shareholders yanking their hair out about cost can relax, because it appears each issue will feature one advertiser that covers the cost of that week's edition.

Still, this is a blueprint for trouble. If the papers are in fact non-partisan, they'll be as bland as cold toast and about as exciting as your ex-sweetie. But if there's a bit of snap to them, someone, somewhere is bound to get upset about something - and say so stridently.

As a media pitch, however, Starbucks' plan is almost interesting. The dead tree editions of major newspapers, including the Washington Post (WPO) and the New York Times (NYT) continue to lose readers. Publishers are struggling for new ways to reach an audience, especially a younger one. Something like The Good Sheet might be a plausible way to reach people who no longer subscribe to a newspaper - or only glance at one now and then.

But Starbucks isn't a media company; it sells ambience. For many, Starbucks is an escape, a place to relax and gather your thoughts as you sip an expensive (and gooey) frappuccino. For many customers, efforts to spark discussion about DBI topics (that's dull, but important) will be about as welcome as your junior-high gym teacher shouting at you as struggled to complete 10 pushups.

But it gets worse. Starbucks is also thinking about hosting "discussion nights" in its stores. This raises a basic question: Can you create a community meeting place from the top down, or does such a thing just bubble up because like-minded people gather somewhere and like to chat?

It's not hard to imagine a notice like this appearing at Starbucks:

Fire the cannons of narcolepsy!
Tonight, we'll be discussing the federal deficit: good or bad? Tell us what you think. Iced tea 50% off! Next week: Bye-bye Lehman Brothers.

On the other hand, it's impossible to imagine people going to McDonald's or Burger King to discuss, say, how ethanol subsidies raise the price of corn and therefore beef, boosting the cost of cheeseburgers across the land. But Starbucks' lunacy could make Dunkin' Donuts look more attractive to customers who just want a cup of Joe.

Starbucks' brilliant plan to spark discussion in its stores will rob you of your solitude. It might also steal your sanity, or what's left of it after another day at the office.

Does anyone have a Bailey's Irish Cream handy?
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