BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're in virtually every city and town in America -- leaned on, trashed on, opened, closed and ignored -- I mean the humble newspaper rack -- a ubiquitous piece of street furniture pretty much unchanged since it was designed in 1957. Kevin Helliker [sp?] wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the current marketing war raging between the traditional green metal box, called TK-80 when it was modestly updated some years back, and a host of other sleek new designs.
KEVIN HELLIKER: The new machines are architecturally pleasing. They allow you to look at the front page of the paper without bending over which is a big problem with the TK-80, and they also are, are slanted at the top so that people can't leave their trash and cups on them. What they're mainly trying to sell to newspapers is the idea that a better-looking machine and a machine that was more user-friendly might reverse a years-long decline in newsrack sales. Newsracks used to account for more than 50 percent of single-copy sales at newspapers and it's down to 35 percent. And this is the big debate in the industry -- is that decline attributable to societal trends such as the rise of convenience stores or is it a case of newspapers having failed to invest in the kinds of news racks that would help boost sales?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about just the decline in newspaper readership generally?
KEVIN HELLIKER:Well there's, [LAUGHTER] there's a question the industry isn't too eager to explore that deeply, but an investment in better-looking machines that aren't all, all rusted out might help reverse that decline a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Since those new machines have been out there at least a little bit, have they had any discernable impact on the sale of newspapers?
KEVIN HELLIKER: The Bakersfield Californian has swapped out half of its 200 racks for a new model and has since then posted a 1 percent increase in sales. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow! [LAUGHS]
KEVIN HELLIKER:Now [LAUGHS] the, the-- the Californian claims that that represents significant progress because before that sales were declining. But others would point to that as evidence that the investment really isn't worthwhile.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know it always struck me that these machines represented what might be considered the last evidence of the honor system in America. You put in a quarter, you open it up, you can take one newspaper or you can take all of them as some of the down-and-outers in New York City do and then they sell them for a discount in the subway. Have stolen newspapers posed any kind of significant problem?
KEVIN HELLIKER: Stolen newspapers represent about 2 percent of the total put out there, and they have represented a problem. The new machines aren't able to keep people from taking as many papers as they want. Some of them do have technology inside the machine, however, that will tell the machine operator if 20 papers suddenly disappear at exactly 3:15 so that the paper could then keep somebody on watch there if, if it happened repeatedly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Which would cost them even more money!
KEVIN HELLIKER: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what about bringing back the newsboy yelling "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"?
KEVIN HELLIKER:I, I suspect that that was probably the heyday of the single copy sales, although the problem with, with hawkers as they call them is that they were out there for only certain hours, and the great thing about the newspaper machine is it's standing there on guard 24 hours a day, ready to sell that paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Well thank you very much.
KEVIN HELLIKER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Helliker is a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in Chicago. [MUSIC]