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Report On Business The newspaper box makes its last stand in the age of digital media

A woman walks by newspaper stands in downtown Toronto on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Though the battle for news readers is being fought online, there is a lonely sentry that still stands watch for print: the newspaper box.

It is an anachronism in almost every way – no cheaper than home delivery, less efficient than digital distribution and reliant on coins just as cashless and mobile payments are taking over.

Yet through rain, sleet, snow and a digital revolution, thousands of paid newspaper boxes are still standing across the country, many stocked with only a handful of copies each day, and propped up by a devoted few readers comprising largely, it seems, commuters, cottagers and dog-walkers. The boxes are at once symbols of print's rapid decline and also of its resilience.

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They endure a hard-knock existence. In Toronto, "the most common issue is trash being collected in or near them," said Ryan Lanyon, manager of the city's street furniture unit. There is a daily cat-and-mouse game over graffiti: Newspapers keep crews on contract and on call to power-wash away unsightly scrawls, as the city requires, but "sometimes we have to pull them off the street and repaint them," said Craig Barnard, senior vice-president of reader sales and service for Postmedia Network Inc., which runs the country's largest newspaper chain and maintains close to 3,500 boxes countrywide.

Then there's theft. In some locations, it's common. "You can put five newspapers in a box and only get paid for one or two," Mr. Barnard said.

The boxes cost money to license and return an insignificant slice of daily sales. (Free newspapers are another matter, still hugely popular among commuters, but facing new pressures as trains and subways are equipped with better WiFi and cellular signals.) And yet, even as the number of boxes on the street has been cut to half or even a quarter of what it once was in most cities, many newspapers have resisted doing away with them entirely.

"We've been purging over the years," said Sandy MacLeod, chief operating officer for print at the Toronto Star and the free Metro papers. The company maintains about 1,000 boxes, down from a peak of roughly 4,000, and has pulled them out of cities such as Windsor, Ont., when upkeep costs got too high.

Yet, Mr. MacLeod believes some small number will live on "indefinitely. It'll just get smaller." For some readers, "it's a habit," he said.

The coin-operated newspaper box dates back to 1947, thanks to the ingenuity of George Hemmeter, an American inventor who also created a food dehydrator used in the Second World War. For decades, the boxes were a near-daily convenience for readers, until online reading superseded them.

With next to no demand, companies that make the boxes have dwindled or diversified. But Douglas Eden remembers the days when business for newspaper-box makers "was booming, and it was busy." He was a manager at Tempo Display, once a leading Canadian supplier that churned out 350 to 400 brand new boxes every week. The company closed in 2007.

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"The way it all went with the Internet, sales went down to next to nothing," Mr. Eden said.

At times, Canadian papers also turned to a supplier in Shiner, Tex., Kaspar Wire Works, which dominated the U.S. market. But newspapers now prefer to refurbish their boxes rather than replace them, using Mr. Eden's small Mississauga shop, Refurbishing Services, where he and his business partner remove dents and repaint boxes.

"Basically, I've been doing this since 1977, and it's just, I like doing it," he said softly, though it isn't enough work to sustain even a small business on its own. "I keep trying to hang on to it, but I know it's fading away."

The New York Times has only 39 coin-operated vending boxes left across the entire United States – 36 in western states, three in Georgia and none in New York – that sell "very few newspapers," a spokesperson said. The company hasn't bought a new box in more than five years, instead funnelling single copies to 45,000 retail outlets – mostly convenience, grocery and drug stores, as well as coffee shops.

The Wall Street Journal no longer uses boxes, while The Globe and Mail did away with its own fleet three years ago.

The City of Toronto now licenses about 8,000 boxes – half the number that existed a decade ago – and only 15 per cent are for paid newspapers. But that figure has stabilized over the past few years, generating between $850,000 and $900,000 in annual revenue for the city.

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These days, the remaining boxes are simply stocked to meet demand. A Toronto Star vending box might carry three to five copies each day. The National Post or Calgary Herald could have five or 10 in a box. The Vancouver Province or Vancouver Sun might have up to 25, but the market is an outlier: "You've got a different climate there," Mr. Barnard said.

The Sun chain tabloids, which Postmedia acquired last April, are better suited to newspaper boxes, selling upwards of 4,000 daily copies from vending machines across Canada, because they "still work on front-page, impulse-buy, single-copy sales," he said.

But the costs of maintenance, distribution and rising licensing fees add up. Vancouver charges a fee of $26.98 a year for each of the first 100 boxes to encourage smaller community publications, and $80.92 for each subsequent box, to a maximum of 700 – a similar model to Toronto's. In Calgary, a box costs $50 a year, plus sales tax, but those near transit routes cost $75.

By concentrating on transit hubs and downtown pedestrian corridors, some papers say newspaper-box economics can still work, on a small scale.

"Generally speaking, you break even," Mr. Barnard said, though "it's not a case where we're running to the bank."

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