The Interviews: The Full Impact of Falling Newspaper Circulation
By Rachelle Bowden in Miscellaneous on Feb 13, 2006 12:17PM
After Tribune Company papers around the country announced in November that newsroom jobs would soon be deleted, a subsidiary of MoveOn.org fired off press releases and circulated online petitions to try to stop the cuts. Citing the need for “strong watchdog journalism,” the e-activists held out hope that they could shame the media giant into reconsidering.
The importance of public interest journalism aside, there is no denying that paid print newspaper circulations – at the Tribune, Sun-Times and many newspapers across the country – have dropped in recent years. While internet news has become more accessible, printed news has become increasingly less dominant. And the local market for free tabloid-style newspapers, now largely controlled by the Trib’s RedEye after the Sun-Times’ Red Streak struck out, offers more convenient options for ‘L’ and bus riders.
The impact on traditional journalists is obvious: their jobs are in danger. But what about those at the other end of the assembly line, the employees who actually hand you your paper, stock the vending boxes or toss a bag to your doorstep? Chicagoist talked with two downtown vendors this past week about staying warm in the winter, long hours on the job and how changes in journalism affect their bottom line.
State and Madison
Al Lewis can be found mornings starting at 5 a.m. at the corner of State and Madison, where he tries to sell about 70 papers. For the evening rush hour, he heads across the river to Madison and Canal, a location he calls “up top.” By 6 p.m. – if all goes well – he’s made another 130 sales.
Lewis, a self-described “whopping 50-years-old,” has been selling papers for about seven years. “Too long, unfortunately,” he said. While Lewis wears a bright orange Sun-Times apron, he actually works for an independent contractor.
Lewis, who is homeless, corrected Chicagoist when asked to describe his job.
Lewis: It’s not really a job. It’s a hustle. At least that’s it to me. It keeps a little money in my pocket without asking people, you know, panhandling or anything on the streets.
Chicagoist: Do you have any favorite customers?
Lewis: Yeah, I got quite a few. Hell, those favorite customers are the ones that put money in my pocket.
Chicagoist: Any least favorite customers?
Lewis: No, not really. I mean, unless someone really pisses me off, which one can do every now and then, but nah. Depends on how they come. If I’m serving one person and they want their paper and they’re trying to catch the bus. That’s about the only time. Nothing major.
Chicagoist: Casual rudeness?
Lewis: Not even rudeness. Depends on what mood they’re in, depends on what mood I’m in. They might clash sometimes.
Chicagoist: Do you feel the impact of declining newspaper circulation?
Lewis: Yes, no doubt. I’m about to lose my spot up top.
[“Up top,” Lewis’ evening position at Madison and Canal, is where he makes most of his money – $40 when sales are good.]
Chicagoist: They cut people when sales fall?
Lewis: Yup. About to be cutting in maybe about 2 weeks.
Chicagoist: Do you think you’ll be cut?
Lewis: Yes…I’m hoping I don’t get cut. I’m hoping I don’t get cut. But one route was already cut up North, so they’re heading down here next for the evening. Sales have dropped off, number one because – Boy, you said you’re going to put this on the internet? – Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why. Internet’s hurting the newspaper business. Big time.
[A passing couple asks Lewis where they can find a cup of coffee. After directing them down the block to Dunkin Donuts, Lewis shakes his head and grins.]
Lewis: Boy if I had a dollar for that… [He laughs.] I’d be making some money. A lot of people looking for a coffee. It’s cold.
Chicagoist: How are you staying warm?
Lewis: Plenty of coffee, and I’m layered pretty good. Being out on the street, you layer pretty good.
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Ontario and LaSalle
Up in River North, at his regular sport near the 50th Anniversary McDonalds, Wallace (he asked to be called by his first name only) wades into the street when the light turns red. He walks between the lanes of stopped cars, looking for customers. When traffic starts moving again, he walks backwards toward the intersection, hoping someone will stop as they drive by.
Wallace sells the Sun-Times, and sometimes the New York Times, from 4:30 in the morning to around 12:30 or 1 p.m. Triple-layered to stay warm, (“You still get cold sometimes,” he said.) the Southsider has been selling papers in the area for about a year.
Chicagoist: Do you have favorite customers?
Wallace: A lot of friendly people. We talk about the game, talk about the day’s events and what happened, you know.
Chicagoist: Do you think the internet cuts back on your sales?
Wallace: Yeah, it does, it cuts back a lot. A lot of people really don’t buy the paper because they read it off the internet. And they’re not into reading it, you know, like they used to. Everything is speeded up. The internet is quicker, they save more money. I guess it’s free. I don’t know what the reason is, but a lot of people just don’t buy it for that reason.
Chicagoist: What about the free paper, the RedEye?
Wallace: Yeah, that goes good. That cuts down on a lot of money. They won’t buy a paper at all.
Chicagoist: Do you get tips from a lot of people?
Wallace: Yes. Sometimes they might give me one dollar, two dollars.
Chicagoist: What did you do before you started selling papers?
Wallace: This I’m just doing between jobs, because I like to work. I like to keep busy. I worked in the factory before. I’m trying to get back to the factory. I worked at Elk Grove Village. We manufactured refrigerator doors.