There is no dearth of bad news about the state of the newspaper business: Declining circulation and advertising linage, translating into repeated downsizing of staff and bureaus.
But much of that is abstract for those not actually losing jobs. So here’s a blast that brings the harsh reality home: Out of Town News, the venerable international news outlet in the epicenter of Harvard Square, in the epicenter of one of the more literate nooks of the world, is closing.
Out of Town News used to be a bustling hub, situated just outside Harvard Yard, across from the Harvard Coop bookstore, at the literal crossroads of Massachusetts Ave, JFK Street and Brattle Street. It was at the entrance (or exit) to the Red Line of the subway system.
As the Boston Globe reported:
John Kenneth Galbraith bought a copy of Le Monde there every day. Julia Child searched for obscure Italian and German cooking magazines, and Robert Frost once stopped by - it actually was a snowy evening - to get directions to a reading.
I used to stop by often. Outside there were stacks of the Globe and Herald, The New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Inside were shelves laden with newspapers from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Athens, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo: Indeed, 200 cities. Its name was truth in advertising. There were also hundreds of magazine titles, inside and outside. Customers could stand there and browse—or even read—without fear of being asked to move along.
But times change. I haven’t bought anything from Out of Town News in maybe 10 years. And apparently many others haven’t. Galbraith and Child are gone—replaced by a new generation that can read today’s Le Monde online—instead of paying $4 for a two day old issue.
Out of Town News was started by Sheldon Cohen in 1955. Previously he hawked newspapers with his father at the subway station. I met Cohen in the early 1980s. At the time I was working at a policy research program at Harvard, trying to scope out the implications of the inevitable transition to digital for the information industry. For a guy with ink under his nails, he was precociously curious not only about what threats that might have for the print business but what opportunities it might hold for him.
Though later I would see him now and then in the Square, I don’t know for sure where those few discussions lead him. But with great timing—maybe luck, maybe insight—he sold his business to Hudson News in 1994—yes, the year that the Internet went commercial and the Netscape browser was released. Hudson News is the purveyor of print media and over priced gum at newsstands in many airports. According to the Globe, Cohen, now 77, wept when he was told that the kiosk would be closed.
Institutions need to sunset when they have outlived their usefulness. There is probably a majority of two or three generations of Harvard students who have walked through Harvard Square for four years and never stopped into Out of Town News or even thought much about it. I wonder what will be the media institutions that disappear for them to shed a tear over when they look back.
[Added March 30, 2009: Reports of the death of Out-of-Town News were a bit premature. See this brief update.]