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Out of Town newstand in Harvard Square adjusts to the digital age

Posted by Your Town  October 12, 2012 10:13 AM

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Raj Petel kept a watchful eye from his stool near the cash register.

The 26-year-old manager of Harvard Square’s Out of Town News newsstand crossed the arms of his red plaid shirt and surveyed the few people who were mingling in the store. Customers brought magazines and candy to the counter as another employee quickly hit a few gray buttons to ring up the sales-- but no one bought any newspapers during this chilly early October evening commute.

For cities spanning the country from Boston to Baton Rouge, this may be the new reality for big-city newsstands. According to a study from the Pew Research Center released on Sept. 26, city residents are far less likely than their rural counterparts to depend on local newspapers. Researchers looked at over 2,250 residents from suburbs, cities, and rural areas. Less than half of those from any of the neighborhoods said that they depend on hard copies of newspapers.

That’s not news to Petel. He used to rely heavily on newsprint sales, but now fewer than 50 percent of his sales come from newspapers. Instead of handing over cash to get a paper full of daily information, customers now get their news online for free. Yet Petel believes that thanks to a mixture of innovation and hope, his store will be able to weather the newspaper storm.

“We still try to get all the papers,” Petel said. “We want the papers no matter what. That said, he acknowledged, “The last few years with the Internet have left the papers declining.”

USA Today, the Boston Globe, The New York Times and other kings of the black-and-white world are stacked in organized piles outside the store’s entrance, keeping court with local titles like the Somerville Journal and the Lexington Minutemen. The small, dimly-lit stand is beloved by both customers and tourists for having an impressively thorough selection of titles.

On one recent morning, 69 copies of the Globe, 65 copies of the Times, and 49 copies of the Boston Herald sat on the shelves awaiting buyers. The Globe is one of the newstand’s best-selling papers, according to store employees. Only a few unsold copies are sent back to the publisher at the end of each day.

But Petel knows that relying on stocking newspapers isn’t going to keep the familiar cha-ching of the cash register ringing.

“If you just focus on newspaper business it’s not a good future,” he explained. “It’s not the right time. The last five to seven years, we shifted the focus to magazines because they don’t know what will happen to the newspaper business.”

Journalist Adrienne LaFrance agreed that a single-stream revenue model could put newsstand retailers in jeopardy. The Globe, for example, created a separate subscription only website, bostonglobe.com, to join its other, longstanding free news and information site, boston.com.

“From a business perspective, print is dicey,” the Nieman Lab employee said in an email response to a question. “The old revenue model is broken and it is not coming back. The key to sustaining any news enterprise — print, digital, or otherwise — will be to find diversified revenue streams.”

The Out of Town News stand has done just that. Petel estimates that about half of his profits come from magazine sales, while the other half is made up of a combination of newspapers, refreshments and souvenir sales.

Magazines from around the world, line floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves labeled with fierce “NO READING” signs. Coolers of soda and rows of candy bars line shelves near the cash register. Harvard Crimson T-shirts are folded neatly near the entrance. Towers of brightly colored postcards advertising Boston landmarks pepper the outside of a building that has become a landmark itself.

The kiosk sits a stone’s throw away from the nearby Harvard Square MBTA station—in fact, the newsstand was actually part of the subway stop in the 1920’s. Sheldon Cohen founded the original newsstand in 1955. He then sold the over 450-square-foot business 39 years later. The City of Cambridge owns the stand and has rented it out to various management corporations over the years.

Muckey Corp., a company specializing in grocery and convenience stores, now manages the newsstand. It reportedly signed a five-lease in 2009 after pledging a winning bid of $140 per square foot.

Petel shook his head when asked about rumors that circulated a few years ago that the store would close.

“When I saw it in the paper I was kind of thinking, ‘How could this happen?,’” Petel said. “We didn’t even know. They didn’t even ask us. It’s not gonna happen.”

Arlington resident Desiree Goodwin is glad that the store has survived.

“Sometimes you can get disconnected in a virtual world,” the 48-year-old Harvard employee said as she purchased a stack of glossy gossip magazines.
“My serious reading is done online, but you can’t beat the printed page.”

Goodwin isn’t the only one turning to the Internet for news. The Pew research shows that city residents are more likely to get information from a variety of digital sources, including social media. The study also mentions that the city dwellers that took part in their survey were substantially younger than the other local community populations, with a third of the urban respondents coming in under 30.

“Young people just pretty much look at their iPhones,” Petel said. “But if they have a project or something, then they come in and buy the paper.”

It’s a combination of those underlying needs mixed with tradition that keep Petel feeling as though both newspapers and his newsstand have a future.

“It’ll always be here,” Petel nodded, gazing around the store. “It’s a historical landmark. Everyone likes this place, so it’s not gonna go anywhere.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.



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