print fills the streets

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s award-winning CEO, recently predicted the end of print media:

In the next 10 years, the whole world of media, communications and advertising are going to be turned upside down — my opinion.

Here are the premises I have. Number one, there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.[1]

Newspaper boxes crowd high-attention street sites around Washington and other cities. Don’t bet on IP networks changing this urban streetscape.

newspaper boxes crowd the streetscape

Thirty newspaper boxes stand outside the main entrance/exit to the Court House metro stop in Arlington, Virginia. Five boxes sell four daily newspapers — the Washington Times (25 cents), the Washington Post (50 cents; two boxes), USA Today (75 cents), and the Wall Street Journal ($1.50). All the other boxes offer free newspapers or print publications. These free publications include four Spanish-language newspapers (two dailies, two weeklies), two Catholic-Church-sponsored weekly newspapers (one in Spanish, one in English), two gay-lesbian-bisexual-trans news weeklies, a Capitol-Hill news weekly, a city-life weekly, a weekly reporting national news conspiracies, and a satirical news weekly. Eight boxes offer free print publications oriented to particular products or services, mainly homes and automobiles, but also books and employment. Within a hundred-yard radius of this site stand another forty newspaper boxes that together provide largely the same publications. [2]

Newspaper boxes are a distribution network with some important advantages. Newspaper boxes stand for free on public property. Because U.S. law strictly scrutinizes content-specific government regulation of print publications, very different types of print publications have an equal legal opportunity to establish newspapers boxes.[3] Because many persons travel through public spaces outside areas such as metro stations, newspaper boxes located there have good opportunities for attracting attention. Moreover, metro rides, by limiting alternative actions, favor opportunities to read. Because paper is cheap, portable, and durable, free print publications can effectively take advantage of these opportunities to serve advertising to everyone.

IP networks aren’t competitive with newspaper boxes. Perhaps some time in the future networked news boxes will advertise content and provide means for downloading it to portable reading devices that everyone carries. There are many, many obstacles for such a development. It’s unlikely to happen even in twenty years.

General-coverage print newspapers that persons pay to buy probably will disappear within a decade. Such publications already are a minority among those offered through newspaper boxes. Unless cities ban newspaper boxes, newspaper boxes and the print media they contain are likely to continue to exist for decades.


[1] Postful insightfully observes that all content is already aggregated and distributed digitally and is only pushed to print for output.

[2] Here’s a list of the individual publications, along with some additional information about them.

[3] In Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., 486 U.S. 750 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a city ordinance that gave the city’s mayor wide discretion to determine what publications were allowed in newspaper boxes. In City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc., et al., 507 U.S. 410 (1993), the Supreme Court declared that a selective and categorical ban on “commercial handbills” was unconstitutional. Practical challenges to establishing new newspaper boxes and maintaining existing ones are significant. Some cities are pondering new regulations for newspaper boxes while publishers are fighting strongly against restrictions.

One thought on “print fills the streets”

  1. excellent and insightful article and here we are almost 10 years later, shouting about sustainability but little to no change in removing the paper from our city streets.

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