It Just Might Work: Medallion system for newspaper boxes

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Prior to regulation, the taxicab market in large cities like New York and Chicago had a “Wild West” quality: an oversupply of vehicles, often poorly maintained, with operators recklessly plying the streets to edge each other out and get the attention of passengers. To address the problem, most cities have adopted a medallion system to limit supply.

Newspaper boxes in Triad cities are a lot like the taxicabs of the early 20th Century in New York and Chicago: They proliferate on streetcorners and clog public space in a kind of arms race to command the attention of passersby with offers of automotive ad sheets, real estate guides and, lastly, journalistic publications of varying quality. When the demand for the product in the boxes diminishes, there’s no economic incentive to take them out of commission. Consequently, many boxes sit empty, deteriorating and causing visual blight. When new players come on the scene, it’s almost impossible for them to compete in the crowded, visually cluttered marketplace (yes, I’m a little bitter).

I propose that each of the three largest Triad cities establish street media circulation commissions to regulate newspaper boxes. In each city, each publication could be issued 10 medallions per box (or whatever amount the cities and industry representatives agreed upon). Each medallion would be issued for a nominal fee, say $5 per year, to cover the cost of administering the program.

Anyone with any experience in Triad print-media distribution knows that 10 downtown boxes is more than enough to meet readership demand for any publication. Every box holds 100 papers, but few publications need to stock more than 50 papers per box. And putting aside the derelict boxes, I would wager that the vast majority of the boxes receive no more than 20 papers with 75 percent returns at the end of the weekly cycle.

Everyone in the newspaper business would certainly like to see more robust readership numbers, and it makes sense for the number of street boxes to grow with market demand. Any publisher who feels that their quota of 10 boxes is insufficient to meet demand for their product should be allowed to bid for additional boxes in an open auction held once a year. Let’s say each city should have 20 boxes set aside for the annual auction.

Any of these numbers could be adjusted, with input from representatives of the publications. And in fact, a city employee heading each of the street-media circulation commissions should convene an annual meeting of the publishers prior to the auction to set quotas. The publishers know the market, but the city employee, as a neutral arbiter would have the final say. The system would incentivize newspapers to take boxes off the street where demand has fallen off, preserve breathing room for newspapers that have real appeal, and create a more aesthetically pleasing environment for everyone in our cities.