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A few weeks ago, I reported on how the brother of 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas profited from renting a school parking lot during Riot Fest. It was a short news article in the October 14 issue of South Side Weekly, one that revealed a family making money through connections to local politics. In other words, a Chicago love story.
The 12th ward in the city’s southwest side includes portions of McKinley Park, Little Village, and Brighton Park—neighborhoods where at least 50 percent of the population speak Spanish. The story was printed in both English and Spanish. I wanted to get my hands on a few copies of the issue to pass out to residents of the ward, including those who spoke to me.
The morning the issue hit stands, I used South Side Weekly’s distribution map to find the nearest news box. The corner of 22nd and Damen is one of the more residential areas of Pilsen, with barely any foot traffic and a bus stop. There was no box there. I walked a couple blocks north and south of Damen. Still nothing. The box, I figured, must’ve been misplaced or removed for some reason.
So, my search continued west on Cermak from Damen toward Marshall Boulevard in Little Village. It’s a 30-minute walk—or ten-minute bus ride, but it was nice out—to the next closest news box, at least according to the map. Cermak is a busy two-lane road lined with car repair shops, carnicerias, and big grocery stores for miles. It only made sense that I’d find a news box somewhere along the way.
Yet again, nothing. I reached a branch of Douglass Park on Marshall Boulevard, typically crowded with families picking their children up from school, and couldn’t find a news box anywhere. It wasn’t just the South Side Weekly ones—I couldn’t find any Reader boxes, Newcity boxes, or any of the remaining RedEye boxes. It was a newspaper desert, with barely any news outlets and little coverage.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Who even grabs the paper from a news box anymore? Newspapers, we’ve been told, are dying.
In 2020, the New York Times reported a record-breaking addition of 2.3 million digital-only subscriptions. Meanwhile, print lagged behind and added only 833,000 subscriptions. Earlier this year, the Tampa Bay Times slashed print publication by five days. A few months later, they shuttered their printing plant and sold it. Even the Reader, the alternative weekly newspaper you’re reading right now, moved to a biweekly print schedule.
Google search results are only a reminder of our fate: “Print newspapers are dying faster than you think.” “Print is dead. Long live print.” “The slow, sad death of print.”
Print newspapers have been in decline for decades. But, as a recently employed staff writer for one of Chicago’s free newspapers, I can tell you that print is certainly not dead. A lot of smaller newspapers, like us, still rely on print. When something prevents us from distributing the paper—like missing news boxes—it hurts our audience the most, especially people who might not otherwise get our news.
At a recent community meeting about the media coverage of Little Village at St. Agnes of Bohemia School, residents raised concerns about lack of access to digital news. “Why should people pay for a digital subscription if coverage is not in their main language?” one person asked. It echoes the point of a 2020 Nieman Lab report that immigrants are at the bottom of the news chain due to language barriers and lack of critical reporting from their perspective.
The parking-lot-deal story in South Side Weekly was translated into Spanish for that reason. How else would some residents of Little Village hear about it?
I walked south on Marshall Boulevard toward Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. The tall Greek columns greeting visitors at the entrance tout the enormity and legacy of the school building. This was once Harrison Technical High School; now it houses two elementary schools, Telpochcalli School and Maria Saucedo. On weekday afternoons, parents wait outside for their kids while street vendors prepare chicharrones and raspados.
The parking lot next to the school, the site of Alderman Cardenas’s brother’s parking lot deal, is no smaller than the school. I was there just a week earlier talking to residents of the neighborhood, those who were eager to read about an attempt to “sell their neighborhood” in the paper. I couldn’t find a news box anywhere.
I walked another ten minutes down California toward the Cook County Jail. The only other place to find a news box in Little Village, according to the map, was at 26th and California. Sure enough, there it was. I helped myself to a few copies, passed them out to street vendors, and stuffed a few more in mailboxes.
It took me an hour to find the latest issue of the South Side Weekly. Jason Schumer, the managing director of South Side Weekly, knew exactly how I felt.
A few years ago, Schumer noticed half a dozen boxes missing from CTA train and bus stops. A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) told him the city typically removes boxes to ease pedestrian traffic. Schumer noticed it would frequently happen during marathons. “I was frustrated because from our perspective, being a small print newspaper, it’s a huge deal to lose six boxes,” he told me. “It’s almost irreplaceable to us because we can’t afford to buy new ones, we’re relying on reusing old ones.”
News boxes cost anywhere between $200 and $250. Replacing them is a huge cost for South Side Weekly, which only has at most 240 distribution locations, including 45 boxes and a print circulation of 8,000. They also rely on local businesses and libraries for distribution.
“I just don’t think people are going to pass by a news box and grab a paper,” said Clemente Nicado, founder of the Chicago Tribune’s now-defunct Spanish newspaper, Hoy. He’s now the publisher of the Nicado Publishing Company, the umbrella organization for Negocios Now and El Chicago Hispano, which are produced entirely in Spanish. He doesn’t use news boxes for distribution of either paper.
“We have to meet people where they’re at like laundromats and grocery stores,” he told me. A few days after my search, I found a stack of the latest issue of El Chicago Hispano on the counter at Cafe Jumping Bean under the Damen el stop in Pilsen while waiting for my drink.
It was an easy read with stories about high COVID-19 rates in Latinx communities and a campaign to get more people vaccinated. It was a convenient spot for the paper to attract readers, unlike the worn-out boxes right outside.
So, where do the news boxes go when the city removes them? In 2018, after a failed attempt to get answers from the city, Schumer went looking himself. He didn’t find South Side Weekly boxes, but he did find a few others near the intersection of Ashland and Cortland in Bucktown under the I-90 interstate. The abandoned boxes with names of unfamiliar papers were laying in dirt and gravel awaiting judgment day.
It was, he told me later, like a graveyard of print news.
Recently I went looking for those news boxes in that same spot under the highway, but couldn’t find any. Instead it was a dumping ground for unused waste bins and street signs. There was also a homeless encampment nearby. The Chicago Department of Transportation officials did not respond to questions before publication of this story.
The search for news boxes is about more than that one issue of South Side Weekly. When print news no longer becomes readily available, it creates news deserts like the one in Little Village where residents who might only read in print can no longer do so, even about issues that directly impact them. News, whether read in print or digitally, should also be available in the language spoken in those communities.
When we talk about the switch to digital news, how do we ensure accessibility remains at the forefront for non-English speaking people?
At the Reader, for example, I’m part of our new Racial Justice Reporting Hub and Writers Room, which is focused on transforming how we cover race(-ism) and resistance in a meaningful way. As publisher and editor in chief Karen Hawkins wrote recently, it’s part of a larger effort to “truly be a publication for all of Chicago.”
An equal part of that is making sure we’re actually reaching you, the reader. Right now we have a print circulation of 60,000 papers and nearly 1,200 distribution locations. That’s not enough. I’d like to see a Reader distribution map that includes more boxes in Gage Park, Back of the Yards, and West Englewood, just like there are in Lakeview, Andersonville, and River North.
It’s also in our best interest to, at the very least, translate our stories into Spanish so that we’re also reaching Chicago’s Latinx communities now representing a third of the city population.
“We can always do more,” said Tracy Baim, also publisher of the Reader, who I grilled about the paper’s distribution model, maybe something you shouldn’t do in your first week on the job. She told me she just ordered boxes for heavily trafficked streets on the south and southwest side. “I believe that print media is a great equalizer, especially free print media, and it’s why I think we’ll hang on to that mode of distribution for as long as possible.”
Does your neighborhood need more news boxes? Are you a local business interested in helping distribute our paper? Let us know. I’m also eager to hear from you on how to shape our new approach to covering racial injustice in Chicago. You can e-mail me at email@example.com.
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