Those Colorful Newsboxes

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.

Boxes blocking bike rack.

Newsboxes.

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).

NEWS

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.

ALTERNATIVE NEWS

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.

EMPLOYMENT

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?

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16 Responses to Those Colorful Newsboxes

  1. Matt July 26, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Yep. Streets.mn on the street! Let’s do it!

  2. David Levinson
    David Levinson July 26, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    This is how San Francisco does it:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/2009_news_boxes_SanFrancisco_USA_4061909904.jpg

    Much tidier (and aesthetically pleasing). Requires central planning and a contract for someone to manage all the newspaper boxes. Interestingly note in the image all the boxes look empty, except the one for UC Berkeley Extension.

  3. Alex July 26, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Believe it or not, it’s better than it used to be. I think it was around 2006 or 2007 that Minneapolis revised its regs for these boxes, requiring them to be clustered in some fashion that avoids other street furniture (presumably the ones in your picture are in violation, or maybe the regs didn’t anticipate bike racks on parking space number signs), regularly maintained, etc. Somewhat akin to the current energy options push, the City actually threatened to ban them altogether, after which the Newsbox Industry (I prefer to call them Paper Pushers) gladly submitted to regulation. You can imagine the chaos that used to reign on our sidewalks before this occurred.

    Personally I prefer the Hennepin approach, where the individual papers supply their own boxes but they are all shoehorned into one corral. They may be ugly but at least there’s variety.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 26, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Thank you for raising awareness of this important issue.

  5. Jim Ivey July 26, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Thanks for posting this. The frustrating thing is that in Saint Paul (where the photo was taken), we actually have an extensive, thoughtful ordinance that’s intended to keep these things under control. But it’s not enforced at all, and the vendors know it, so they don’t remove graffiti/trash, don’t replace broken/rusted racks, and even the big players (Star Tribune / Pioneer Press) have started putting out new racks without getting permit stickers for them.

    • Alex July 26, 2013 at 11:20 am #

      That’s St Paul? Couldn’t they have gotten different colors for their Parking Space Number Signs? Why are you guys always copying us?

      • Jim Ivey July 26, 2013 at 11:30 am #

        We actually got them first, but they sat in a warehouse for four years before they were deployed.

    • Jim Ivey July 26, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Just for example, if you zoom in you can see that all of these permits expired in June. The photo was taken in July.

      • Luke Finsaas July 26, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

        Jim,

        Do you know who you would call/email? That image is definitely from Mears Park, and it’s true—they basically surround the park with those ugly boxes..

        • Jim Ivey July 27, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

          Luke,

          News racks require right-of-way permits, so they’re managed by Public Works. The office is actually in the Traffic Operations site up at 899 Dale.

          Up until now I’ve submitted all of my complaints/reports using the “Saint Paul Connect” mobile app (also accessible at http://seeclickfix.com/downtown_ramsey). Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be getting any follow-up from Public Works yet. But I still think it’s important to get a lot of people using the app and voting on issues that you think are important, to show the city that it’s a useful tool that they need to integrate into their community outreach processes.

          The CapitolRiver Council passed a resolution at our last board meeting to ask the city to start enforcing the ordinance in downtown. That won’t necessarily solve anything, but I’m hoping it’ll be the first step in having a conversation with Public Works about the importance of helping us keep our sidewalks clear of trash, and that we’re willing to do a lot of work to help out. Maybe a joint CRC/PW field trip where we walk around and look at some of the obvious offenders. We could even bring along reporters from the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, with a little extra shame for the places where they’ve installed their racks without actually filing for a permit.

          That leads into a couple things we could consider: Increasing the fees associated with right-of-way permits for news racks, and instituting significant fines for non-compliance. If you’re going to have an ordinance, at least make sure the cost of enforcement is covered.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 26, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Maybe the state should take over newspaper box inspections…

  6. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott July 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    You forgot one category: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mplstopography/8668701299/lightbox/

  7. Evan Roberts
    Evan July 26, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    before I had a smartphone these were a great way of picking up reading material for the bus wait and the bus ride. and in winter I find it slightly easier to read the papers with my gloved hands than the smartphone. So they have their uses. The fancy houses advertised in the Strib are both a fantasy (nice house!) and a turn-off (all that driving to get to your house in some exurb).

    • Matt B July 27, 2013 at 11:43 am #

      Speaking of these publications’ “usefulness” at bus stops, has anyone else ever seen a dozen of them spread across an uncovered bus bench to provide a dry seating area following snow/rain?

  8. Hal Davis July 29, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    New York City, like San Francisco, requires uniform consolidation of newsboxes — multiracks — in come parts of the city, one stand that holds several different publications and is maintained and supplied by one company.

    But elsewhere in NYC, they seem to be a mess:

    http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130606/upper-west-side/decrepit-newsracks-should-be-banned-uws-local-leaders-say/slideshow/391368/1

    Upper West Side Community Board Votes to Ban ‘Decrepit’ Newsracks

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