Hot on the heels of those Manhattan Irish pubs, several of which sit frozen in time after St. Patrick’s Day, we encounter another example of Mt. Vesuvius erupting and coating everything in ash. But this time the Pompeii is a much more suburban setting. The Interstate 270 corridor bisects Montgomery County, the most populous county in Maryland, a slab of 500 square miles that absorbs a considerable chunk (but certainly not all) of the post-war housing developments that comprise Washington DC’s affluent bedroom communities. Smack in the middle of this county is Rockville, the county seat. And right off one of the main exits to I-270 is Woodley Gardens, a nondescript but fully occupied strip mall, just a mile away from Rockville’s downtown. Zooming in ever further, perched right there next to the shops at Woodley Gardens is this unassuming news rack.
It’s a sight common across communities large and small, though it’s hard to find a consistent name for it. News rack, newspaper vending machine, newspaper dispenser, or the more esoteric “honor box” (presumably for those that use the honor code to hope people pay for the product)—all of these terms apply. The one here in Rockville doesn’t look too different from most in the region, carrying the District of Columbia’s flagship newspaper, The Washington Post. But take a look at the contents inside that misty window. Isn’t the paper sagging a bit too much, as though the worker who installed it got a little careless?
Come to think of it, doesn’t it look a little too yellow? It’s not easy to see through the misty glass, but a good squint can make sense of it.
This issue is wee bit on the old side. Really old. October 15, 2016, which apparently was the last day the news carrier serviced this particular box. (Sadly, the date is the only surefire signal of its age; the headline about “Assad’s forces advance in Syria” isn’t as likely as it was back then, but it wouldn’t turn many heads today, over five years later. I took this photo over the past weekend.)
This frozen-in-time relic should come as no huge surprise to most American readers: news racks have served a diminishing purpose, as fewer people turn to physical copies of newspapers to get their daily scoop. A Chicago Tribune article from 2020 notes that the decline of the news rack comfortably parallels the public’s shift toward digital media sources: news racks comprised 46% of same-day, single-copy sales of US newspapers in 1996, but that number had plunged to 20% by 2014. The News Media Alliance, which provided those figures, no longer tracks such data; the sales are statistically insignificant. The overall drop in print circulation—more than 50% since a peak in the early 1990s—prompted Starbucks (the nation’s most prevalent coffee shop) to stop selling New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal a few years ago, since the absence of news racks gave customers the flexibility to pull one off the shelf, read it while sipping coffee, then leave it at the seat without paying for it. The demand for physical newspapers is largely gone.
At the very least, news racks, with their spring-mounted dispensary mechanism, safeguard against the Starbucks free-rider predicament listed above. But they pose other problems. The decline of newsprint compounded with the escalating price of a single copy has further diminished the appeal of these formerly ubiquitous contraptions. The plummeting demand for newsprint has deterred news rack manufacturers from installing upgrades, so basically none have paper currency acceptance options, nor can they read credit/debit cards. As a result, people have to feed the little coin slot. With a weekday Tribune running around $2.50 (and the Sunday New York Times soaring past $6 and far more prone to additional hikes amidst the current inflation), few people carry that many quarters. Silver dollars and half-dollar coins aren’t common, and most news rack coin slots won’t accept them.
The obvious outcome is that the demand for news racks has fallen even more steeply than the product they sell within them, and it has happened so quickly and with such overwhelming public indifference that it hasn’t even evoked a counter-response. In contrast, the demise of malls is taking its sweet time, but it’s generating tsunamis of nostalgia from various documentarians of the ones on life support (this blog is among them). News racks aren’t real estate like a mall, and when one dies, it usually gets scooped up and sent to a grave yard managed by the news outlet itself. Most of them are metal and grow rusty and unsightly, discouraging hobbyists who might otherwise transform them into a miniature library or book exchange. Compare this to the random video rental drop box: I captured one on Instagram several months ago featuring the Blockbuster Video logo. It now stands as a gimmick, triggering fond memories of the 90s and 2000s.
Apathy for news racks is great—so great, in fact, that the Washington Post hasn’t bothered to fill, empty, or remove this one in Rockville. Nor have customers demonstrated enough interest in a yellowed last surviving copyto purchase the few still sitting there. With few exceptions, newspapers over 48 hours old illicit no interest whatsoever; they become bird cage liners. Heck, it’s possible the coin accepting mechanism at this news rack in Rockville doesn’t even work. It may have to do with the fact that it’s standing at a minor strip mall in the heart of the ‘burbs; a few news racks do still survive in the busy, worker-dense Federal Triangle and Penn Quarter neighborhoods within the heart of DC. But otherwise a neglected news rack is about as interesting as a cheap rusty hubcap on the side of the highway. Not something likely to decorate the neighbors’ front lawn. Unless the neighbors get annual tetanus shots.