We’re going to take a bit of a break from the hard-hitting issues to discuss my newest pet peeve: Newsboxes.
Newsboxes are the (usually) colorful boxes that sit within the public right-of-way where various publications are distributed, sometimes for a price, but usually free. They’re on my mind lately after a friend tweeted the following picture, pointing out that the placement of the boxes renders the (brand new) meter hitch bike rack useless.
I’ve been thinking about these boxes ever since. I had never paid much attention to them previously, but now that I’m looking for them, they’re everywhere and I can’t stop seeing them. (I had the same realization about bicycles when I rediscovered the saddle in 2005, then again about babies soon after my daughter was born in 2011). I’m beginning to notice just how much precious urban right-of-way is devoted to boxes like these, how their placement impacts movement, and the visual impact they have on our cities. It raises the question, how useful are these things?
Do these publications provide value to the residents of the city? Of course they provide literal value (and costs) to the city, in the sense that the box owners pay an annual licensing fee for each box (and subsequently staff time must be devoted to management), but beyond that, is this information actually useful to residents?
I am not opposed to news distribution or advertisement in the public right-of-way. I think there is an important role for boxes like these to play in our urban spaces. But their value is questionable in the age of the internet. And more importantly, do these boxes have to be so…. ugly?
I spent a few minutes walking around town, collecting the materials these various boxes had to offer, and perusing them. It seemed like about half the boxes were empty – I wasn’t sure if that meant the publications were wildly popular and had all be distributed, or if the boxes were rarely refilled. It seems like the contents of these boxes fall into one of a few categories, which are presented below in order of my assessment of their usefulness (and, for what it’s worth, all of these were 100% in the English language).
Pioneer Press and Star Tribune both use curbside boxes to sell newspapers. These are by far the least offensive of the newsboxes, and in my opinion also provide the greatest value. The boxes are not absurdly shaped or colored, and the boxes themselves appear to be of substantial metal construction. I support news distribution and these boxes generally seemed to be well maintained. Also, the fact that they are refilled daily gives me confidence that the boxes will be routinely monitored and responsibly managed.
I saw a few boxes distributing CityPages and Vita.mn publications. I am not a regular reader of either of these publications (certainly not in print), though both have produced interesting content that has drawn my attention on numerous occasions. It is clear to me that these publications actively contribute to public dialogue & entertainment. However, their boxes left something to be desired in terms of aesthetics.
Several of the boxes were advertisements for employment-themed content. It was hard for me to judge how effective these publications are at actually helping people find jobs. I want people to have jobs, and it’s a tough economy out there, so I guess I’m in favor of anything that helps connect people with jobs. However, the bulk of the materials wasn’t actually job listings, but short articles about finding jobs or ads from local schools to get more education to find a job sometime in the future. The value of the publications undetermined, their boxes are still ugly.
APARTMENTS FOR RENT
This is where I started raising an eyebrow about the usefulness of these publications. There were indeed many apartments for rent. But most of them seemed to be apartments in bucolic campus-style apartment complexes in urban fringe communities. Absent were advertisements for affordable 1-bedrooms in a historic brownstone in the urban core, or advertisements generally for the city where I picked up the advertisement. Or maybe I just missed them. I don’t know. But I did start to wonder whether the target audience for the types of apartments I was seeing advertised were more likely to be apartment searching in print publications or online. It raises a question about whether valuable urban space in a downtown setting should be used to advertise apartments in other (competing) cities.
HOMES FOR SALE
The homes for sale publications seemed to be some of the least useful publications out there. I hypothesize that the vast majority of people buying homes are using a real-estate agent or are internet-savvy and thus have better sources of information available to them, and I find the idea of someone searching for homes for sale in a print publication to be bizarre. The info is sure to be outdated as soon as it lands in the newsboxes, and of course the majority is just ads for the agents themselves, not actual ads for houses. Aesthetically, these boxes are the worst offenders, with the plastic molded into the shape of a little green or yellow house.
Last but not least, I completely draw the line at the glossy Star Tribune branded homes for sale publication where it seemed like a majority of the homes advertised were priced at $1,000,000 and higher, none of which were located near the location where I picked up the ads. Despite the heft of the publication, there was less info available about each home than is available online.
Point is, with the rise of the internet, I question the value of some of these publications, and I wonder whether these boxes are under-regulated. Also, the aesthetics of the boxes leave much to be desired. Cities have created visual standards for a lot of things, yet the visual appearance of these boxes seem to somehow fly under the radar in the Twin Cities. Even in historic districts where aesthetics are heavily guarded, these boxes are allowed to be nearly any shape or color.
Or, maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Maybe I need to be figuring out how to get the print version Streets.mn into hundreds of these boxes all over town. I’m imagining an orange molded plastic box shaped to look like an old CRT computer monitor. What do you think?