Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The end of newsies

Child newsies in 1906. "Midnight at the Brooklyn Bridge" -- Photo by Lewis W. Hine. Transfer from Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee. Ex-collection of Corydon Hine. Copyright George Eastman House Collection.
Stepping off the Long Island Railroad train, I look up to catch my bearings. Seventh Avenue is to the right, and I follow the stream of morning passengers toward the steps that lead up into the main hall of the train station.

After squeezing out of the narrow stairway, people around me seem to multiply into a enormous crowd of commuters, filling the large hallways of Pennsylvania Station. The mass of people flows like an urgent river toward the main exit up to the street level. I jump into the stream, bobbing and weaving between groggy businesspeople and office workers.

Heading up the Seventh Avenue escalator, daylight shines down into the chamber of Penn Station. And then I begin to hear the clear calls emerging from the light, as if welcoming commuters into the busy Midtown streets.

“AM New York. Come on, come on! Pick it up pick it up. AM New York!”

“Macy's Macy's coupon coupons. Macy's coupons.”

I stepped off the escalator, greeted with a bellowing, drawn out call, “Metrooo!”

These were the newsies, the people tasked with distributing free newspapers around New York City. And every morning, multiple newsies assemble at the entrances to Penn Station where thousands of people flow outward.

Most mornings I experience this scene. Sometimes I grab a paper. But recently, while walking through the newsie group, I thought back to the Newsies story, a well-known Disney musical film that was later adapted into a Tony award-winning Broadway show.

In the rural suburban Midwest school where I grew up, I had the opportunity to watch the Newsies movie more than one time. It left me believing that the mandatory first utterance of any newspaper hawker must be: “Extra extra! Read all about it!”

This newsie stereotype quietly followed me for nearly two decades, through my life in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, Washington D.C., Kaohsiung City in southern Taiwan, and Qingdao in China's Shandong Province.

But it was not until I moved to New York City in 2012 that I really became aware of any newsies in the urban environment. Despite populations of up to eight million, none of the cities in which I had previously lived had a newsie population to speak of.

In New York I finally got a dose of in-person newspaper distribution. And what I saw was initially disappointing to me. Whereas the young men in the Newsies would supposedly attract bystanders by announcing juicy headline news, real-life newsies would either stand silently, stoically offering papers to the world around them, or simply call out the name of their paper. At best, you would hear about the store coupons contained in the paper.

In my childhood, I had developed an archetype of a newsie that represented democratic ideals. News media is the fourth estate, and newsies are the grassroots of journalism, educating the public on-the-spot about political corruption or major social developments.

My naïve ideal of a newsie was shattered by the reality in New York City. Of course, my ideal itself was historically questionable. At the turn of the 20th century, newsies in New York City were practically an army of child labor, desperate to sell papers for survival. They might well have said anything to get rid of the product in their arms.

But even if newsies were selling papers premised on headlines, the nature of the product may have changed over the past 100 years. Most of the newsies I encounter are not selling anything, in fact; they are giving away free papers. These business model for free papers like AM New York or the Metro is premised on advertisements in its pages. This may explain in part why I will hear more about the coupons than the headlines.

The ideal of the newsie as I knew it is dead. I guess I'll just have to open the paper (or turn on my cell phone) and get up-to-date on the news myself.

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