Goston, running for re-election, says his Black College Monthly magazine reaches 300,000.

The Florida Lottery and state’s agriculture department for five years together have spent nearly $250,000 in taxpayer money to advertise in publications owned and operated by a Gainesville city commissioner.

Lottery officials said they believe Commissioner Charles Goston’s publication — Black College Monthly — has a statewide monthly circulation of 302,000, but said they haven’t attempted to confirm the figure.

In January, Goston told The Sun his magazine has a monthly circulation of 50,000. It is distributed at some churches and a few convenience stores in east Gainesville, but is not widely available anywhere in the city. Editors at newspapers in the state's largest cities, including several that specifically serve African-American communities, said they are unfamiliar with Black College Monthly.

Likewise, officials at the University of Florida and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), the state's largest historically black university, say it isn't distributed on their campuses. 

In a contract with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Goston says his publication has a monthly reach of 320,000 — up from the lottery's figures — and his four websites reach between 30,000 to 70,000 visitors a day, according to purchase orders.

Both state agencies told The Sun their agencies don't check to see whether the print circulation and online audience figures are accurate, only that the ads were published.

Goston, who is running for re-election, has not responded to numerous requests for comment, nor provided documentation to back up his circulation claims.

Records show the lottery has paid Goston at least $188,000 since 2013 to run ads promoting Bright Futures, a statewide scholarship program, in Black College Monthly, a monthly printed magazine located in Gainesville. Since 2013, the Department of Agriculture has also paid $60,000. Ads also run on the publication’s website, BlackCollegeMonthly.com.

Goston claimed in insertion orders submitted to the state that his publication was distributed at universities around the state.

“We can only verify circulation if the publication is audited, which Black College Monthly is not," said lottery Communications Director Constance Barnes in an email to The Sun. "They report a circulation of 302,000 monthly.”

Barnes said Goston added online ads into the agreement, placing lottery ads on four websites he owns, including two that haven’t been substantially updated in almost three years.

The most recent billings to the lottery show officials paid Goston $41,527 in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. For the 2017-2018 billing cycle, another $38,000 was budgeted for his publication.

According to the websites, Goston is the owner, publisher, president and editor of the magazine and its network of websites.

The magazine usually features an occasional column written by Goston, but is mostly made up of articles and photos from major and local publications not attributed to those outlets. They include outlets such as ESPN, The New York Times, Tampa Bay Times and New York Daily News. Goston has said writers submit those articles to him to boost their readership.

Barnes said the Florida Lottery hires a third party, PP+K, a Tampa-based marketing company, to handle its advertising and that lottery workers don't regularly monitor Web traffic for the four sites and magazine. She said the lottery has limited manpower to investigate claims made by those they advertise with. Barnes also said the agency's focus is to generate interest in Bright Futures and to make more people aware of the scholarship program and to reach students at black colleges and universities.

Barnes said one of the lottery's advertising goals is to reach minorities and that the digital ads were thrown in as part of the agreement with Goston at no additional charge.

The publication promotes and gives the appearance that it partners with FAMU, though university officials say there is no partnership.

Kanya Stewart, an assistant director of media relations with FAMU and editor for A&M Magazine, said she is familiar with Goston's publication, but that the university doesn’t help distribute it or advertise in it. The publication claims it is distributed to all black universities in Florida and runs photos and ads of FAMU.

She said they haven’t received copies of the publication “in a while.” Even when they did, she said it wasn't always taken out of the box.

“It’s not a mainstream publication,” she said. “We receive it, but don’t distribute it ... It’s not a high circulation.”

Stewart said the publication and website may be running FAMU ads to give the appearance that it partners with FAMU, but it doesn't. She said she believes a marching band photo, which has appeared on the publication’s front page for years, and other ads were used without permission.

“They’re supposed to ask us,” she said. “We can honestly say we don’t help promote their publication.”

In purchase orders submitted to the state, Goston said his magazine has a circulation size of 320,000 and is distributed to “all colleges and universities in the state of Florida, all high schools, all black businesses statewide, Winn Dixie’s, Publix’s, Walgreen’s (sic) and CVS Pharmacies.” It also says the magazine is distributed to "all" African-American churches, black sororities, fraternities, libraries, federal buildings and live sporting events.

Advertisements for the agriculture department's Fresh From Florida campaign appear in Black College Monthly, its website, the Black College Football Today site, and Goston’s two other sites: BCMnetwork.net and AfricanAmericanVoterGuide.com.

BCMnetwork.net hosts advertisements, including Florida Lottery ads, and links to Goston's other sites, but otherwise appears to have been dormant since 2013. The site has a contact page and a blank advertising page that says, “Rates for 2014 Coming Soon.”

On the voter guide website, the last election discussed is the August 2014 primary and local races — at least five election cycles ago. The site, however, shares a PDF link to a 2016 edition of the magazine and is updated to show Goston is running for re-election, linking to a campaign email seeking donations.

In an email exchange with The Sun, Adam Putnam’s press secretary, Aaron Keller, wrote that the department reviews information provided to “make sure the opportunity fits our goals.” Payment is then made upon “proof of deliverables.” He later said that the claimed readership figures aren't checked for accuracy.

“Advertising deliverables are simply proof that the ad ran in the publication or on the website, it’s not related to readership,” Keller wrote.

An audit of BlackCollegeMonthly.com traffic performed by The Sun using the service SEMrush found no one went directly to the site from December 2017 through February 2018. The site saw no more than five visitors during any month in 2017. The site gained 71 viewers through Google searches in that time, the search showed. The search didn’t include mobile traffic.

The print magazine lists a rate of $8,500 full-page ads, and has charged local candidates running for office about $800. In December, Goston's campaign bought a full-page ad on the cover for $250, campaign expenses show.