Alison Breen / Gavel Media

Technology Defeats History: Out of Town News Sells Its Final Newspaper

On a warm September afternoon, Harvard Square bustles with restless students, camera-toting tourists, and rushing business people who walk past the shelves stuffed with newspapers and magazines of the Out of Town News kiosk.

Every once in a while, someone notices the titles and the colors displayed in the rigged stalls of the brick walls with vaulted wood ceilings. Their stride suddenly slows. They scan the shelves from left to right, and some walk inside the red twitching letter lights to wonder through the titles.

Two women leave empty-handed. A man pushes the door open with his foot as he struggles to light up the cigarette between his lips. None of them buy a newspaper or a magazine.

Once vital in cities, newsstands now have to fight against the rise of digital news consumption, which allows people to know about events happening before they are even published in the papers. 

This battle is not always easy and, after 64 years, it has finally defeated Harvard’s historic Out of Town News.  The kiosk sold its final newspaper by October 31 due to the growing business competition in Harvard Square and the declining demand for print media, according to Denise Jillson, Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Out of Town News, as a business, has been rendered obsolete by the mere existence of the internet,” she says. “We just don’t get our news that way anymore.”

The move coincides with a $4.6 million renovation of the historic kiosk that has served as the newsstand’s home since 1984, and the brick plaza that surrounds it. While the structure that hosts Out of Town News will be preserved, this is the end for the newsstand itself. 

Out of Town Newsis going away, there is no replacement,” says Jillson. “The activity inside the building will change in that it will be returned to the public realm as it existed in the early twenties when it was used to get in and out of the T station.”

Although Out of Town News was founded in 1955, it moved into the brick and limestone structure it now inhabits in the early eighties, where it became the hotspot for people looking for international newspapers, hobby publications, and obscure journals. Decades later, Out of Town News has become the latest of the nation’s premier newsstands to close, after other victims of the digital age like Barnett’s in Athens, GA, and De Lauer’s in Oakland, CA.

Print media is a critical element of the news landscape, but it has been severely affected as more people consume news digitally. According to the Pew Research Center, newspapers in the United States lost $2.4 billion in combined advertising and circulation revenue from 2017 to 2018. The industry has lost $35 billion total, counting the yearly revenue from those two categories since 2005.

In order to survive the financial strain, newspapers have cut jobs in the newsroom. According to a 2018 PRC study, employment of news personnel since 2007 has dropped from 74,000 to 39,000 due to a decline in readership and advertisement sales. PRC also reported that 56% of the largest newspapers in the United States have laid off employees since January 2017.

One of the few exceptions is The New York Times, which continues to increase its employee payroll while seeing record revenue. This past May, the Times reported their total number of paid subscriptions surpassed 4.5 million, an all-time high for the company. Of that number, more than 3.5 million were digital.

Through the years, Out of Town News has sold publications to Cambridge residents, students, and celebrities. Julia Child regularly stopped by to buy German and Italian cooking magazines. Paul Allen and Bill Gates, founders of Microsoft, bought a copy of Popular Electronicsfrom the kiosk. And while now most customers might prefer to buy Harvard gear, cigarettes, or lottery tickets over reading material, some remain devoted to the original business.

One man who would provide only his first name, David, was shocked to hear of the closing. “It’s a shame really,” he says. “It’s sad to see that people are not reading the newspapers anymore.”

But to others, like Jillson, this is a natural evolution of technological change.

“We think of technology as a new thing, but the truth is technology has existed for a very long time,” she says. “This is one more technological advance that changes how we do business in a society.”