Newspaper racks still exist, so Jose Leal owes me $100

Posted on August 9, 2018 3:55 pm by | Economics | Books | Channels | Media | Publishing

Newspaper Rack

Ten years is a long time.

In 2008, audiences were gushing over The Dark Knight and dissing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The iPhone was only a year old and people were still in love with their Flip video cameras. MySpace was still a popular social network. Passengers carried portable DVD players onto their flights. Justin Long and John Hodgman were still cranking out those Mac vs. PC commercials. (Their roles would be reversed today.) Everyone experienced Britney Spears’s meltdown, Tina Fey was parodying Sarah Palin on SNL, we lost Tim Russert (and Meet the Press has never been the same), and digital picture frames were products at stores like CompUSA.

It was also a heady year for all things digital, with irrational exuberance running high.

It was also the year I made a bet with Jose Leal.

The wager was simple. If 10 years later I could still buy a newspaper from a newspaper rack on a street corner, Jose would pay me $100. If I couldn’t, I’d pay $100 to Jose.

At the time, in a blog post, I prognosticated that newspapers would adapt to the changes that were the cause of their struggles. “Print newspapers in 10 years won’t much resemble a newspaper today,” I wrote. “My guess is that their focus will be hyperlocal.”

Newspaper racks are thriving

I was wrong about that, but I wasn’t wrong that newspaper racks would continue to serve up freshly printed news, features, sports, comics, movie times, and what-have-you.

As an overall category, printed newspapers continues to decline as people get more accustomed to getting news on their phones and tablets. In 2017, weekday print circulation dropped 11% over the year before and Sunday circulation fell 10%.

Those numbers, however, are deceiving if not taken in context. As of two years ago, newspapers reached 69% of the U.S. population each month, with 81% reading the print format, which is still the most popular format for reading newspapers. Fifty-one percent read only print. The New York Times has about 4 million subscribers, a quarter of whom still get the Grey Lady in print.

The predicted death of print at large also failed to materialize. In fact, print is experiencing something of a resurgence. The publishing industry expected ebooks to capture half of all book sales. Instead, ebook sales topped out at about 25% and then began to slide. Ebook sales fell 10% in 2017 to just 19% of all book sales.

A number of factors account for the failure of ebooks to become the dominant book format, including publishers charging too much for them. But research has found (for example) that children—who were supposed to be the vanguard of the new era of all things digital—prefer to read books on paper over screens. In fact, one study found, eReading devices can actually inhibit reading among children. The study also found that the more devices a child had access to, the less they read overall.

Print is a growth industry

It’s not just books. 2017 was the best year ever for sales of the board game, “Magic: The Gathering.” There are game shops where you can wander in and see players seated at long tables, engrossed in play not on computer screens, but with paper cards. My brother’s kids are hooked on another card-based board game, Settlers of Catan. Video games are unquestionably popular, but they haven’t replaced paper-based gaming. As with almost all new technologies, digital hasn’t killed print. Print adapted.

There is no shortage of brochures. Business cards are still (unimaginably) a thing. In fact, print sales overall in 2017 were up 1.5% over 2016. You read that right: Print is on the rise.

To put it bluntly, print wasn’t just the least-best option that we used while waiting for digital to come along. Print has an important place among types of media

Printed newspapers, though, unquestionably have a tough road ahead. They can’t be anywhere near as current as a news site or app. You can’t click through from an article to related resources, watch a related video, or enlarge a photo. Yet I still believe a print newspaper has value, mainly in the serendipity of discovery. If a print newspaper has original content that is relevant and interesting, readers will anticipate turning the page to find something new and unexpected, something they never in a million years would have clicked on.

Many newspaper racks

Last March, New York Times technology reporter Farhad Manjoo—a voracious consumer of news via social media—experimented for two months, getting his news only from print newspapers: the Times (his employer), the San Francisco Chronicle (his home-town paper), The Wall Street Journal, and the Economist (it’s a magazine but it calls itself a newspaper). “It has been life changing,” Manjoo wrote. “Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins. “

Manjoo also discovered the “blessing” of the newspaper: “I was getting news a day old, but in the delay between when the news happened and when it showed up on my front door, hundreds of experienced professionals had done the hard work for me. Now I was left with the simple, disconnected and ritualistic experience of reading the news, mostly free from the cognitive load of wondering whether the thing I was reading was possibly a blatant lie.”

Why Jose thought newspaper would die

Jose’s rationale for believing print newspapers were doomed had their origins in other issues. He firmly believed that citizen journalism would replace (rather than augment) professional reporting. I believe in citizen journalism but don’t believe for a minute that untrained people in their spare time will be able to accomplish the kind of reporting done by dogged professionals with their training, interview and research skills, and connections who spend their time doing nothing else.

Jose also figured opposition to the “rape of our forests” would spell the end of print newspapers, but paper companies like Weyerhauser tend massive forests, part of replanting programs that contribute to the wood harvested each year from U.S. forests—for all purposes, not just print—amounting to less than annual forest growth. Print accounts for only about 36% of all timber harvested in America. The paper industry is using recycled paper for 39% of its fiber needs.

In other words, print is pretty much a sustainable enterprise.

Finally, as he suggested in a July 18, 2008 blog post, Jose figured that the loss of advertising revenue would kill the industry. Despite newspapers losing all-important classified revenue to Craig’s List and eBay, digital subscriptions, native advertising, and display advertising have helped keep the industry afloat and, in some cases (like the “failing” New York Times) thriving.

Because Jose was wrong in his predictions, and because print not only remains popular but is finding new footholds, I can still buy a newspaper from a newspaper rack on the street. In fact, the photos sprinkled through this post are of the racks I pass on my walk to work, from the Montgomery Street BART station (which is actually on Market Street) to my office on Third and King Streets in San Francisco. And these are the racks that are only on the one side of the street I walked on today.

Note the rack with digital signage built in. Print newspapers can generate revenue with digital advertising. (Also, I’m very happy to include beer in this post.)

So here’s my message to Jose:

I can take payment using PayPal, Venmo, or Zelle. Let me know which you prefer.

Another rack



  • 1.Hi Shel, as I pointed out on a comment to the original post, I am more than willing to pay my debt. But, I guess based on your choice of payment methods, that you're not as much a fan of print when it comes to the exchange of money ;-)

    Jose Leal | August 2018 | San Jose, California

  • 2.Ha ha! Jose, I'm looking forward to a drink with you and call the debt even! I'll be in touch later this week...

    Shel Holtz | August 2018

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