In Beijing, newsstands face battle amid changing times
BEIJING— Zhang Fan, 33, stopped by a newsstand one recent Sunday morning near his home in Beijing to buy a magazine, only to find the stand had been shut down.
Zhang, a designer living on the Guangqumenwai street in Chaoyang district, used to visit a stand just 500 meters from his residential community to buy newspapers and magazines.
But since he started to read news and other material on his phone, he can count on one hand the number of times he has visited the stand in the past year. He had not even noticed it had been closed for the past four months.
Due to falling demand for newspapers and magazines, newsstands in many cities have been closing. They have also been criticized for obstructing roads and sidewalks and for generally being eyesores.
The Beijing municipal government has decided to upgrade and regulate the city’s newsstands by turning them into “innovative reading spaces” and “convenient service providers” to better serve the public.
Li Zhigang, who is in his 40s and comes from Anhui province, runs a different newsstand in Guangqumenwai.
“I haven’t been given any notice of closure, but I noticed most newsstands within the Second Ring Road were torn down this year,” he said. “I don’t know any details about the new policy, but I hope I can continue my business.”
According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Management, the city’s newsstands will be better located based on passenger flow, the number of people living in nearby residential communities, and public demand.
Under the plan drafted by the commission and the Beijing Municipal Commerce Bureau, newsstands will become more like convenience stores and be “more fashionable”.
The plan has been submitted to the municipal government for approval. An official with the commission, who declined to be named, said the plan clearly states that the number of newsstands in the city should be based on public need.
“There is no easy way to solve the contradiction between people who love the printed word and have the habit of buying from the newsstands, and the owners’ continued operational losses,” the official said. “It’s also difficult to decide which department is responsible for footing the bill to upgrade newsstands.
The commission－and many people in Beijing－wants the streets to be wider and cleaner. With this in mind, it introduced a regulation in summer last year banning all 352 newsstands in the downtown districts of Dongcheng and Xicheng from selling food and drinks. Three stands were closed for selling food illegally.
Since then, many stands in the two districts have closed because most of their business came from food and drinks, while sales of newspapers and magazines were highly unprofitable.
There are 1,186 newsstands in the city, of which 306－that are not in the two districts－are licensed to sell food and drinks.
The closure of stands has attracted public attention, with many people, especially the elderly, strongly opposed to administrative intervention, as they have happy memories of visiting them.
Some people raised the idea of introducing newspaper vending machines, which are clean and convenient, but China Post Group is unwilling to pay for them as it believes they would be too costly to set up and they would not make a profit, according to an industry insider who declined to be named.
The official with the commission said: “The new policy has considered all aspects, and attempts to solve problems. We put the public interest first. The city will not keep a newsstand running for just a few people. Also, we won’t remove a stand that has a good turnover. It all depends on the market and needs.”
Generally, newsstands will be closer to their customers after they are moved to residential communities or become part of convenience stores. The government will make those that remain more attractive, the official said.
Newsstands may be facing pressures now, but they have had their good days.
Yang Na, who is in her 50s and comes from Hebei province, started running a stand in Beijing in 1998. In 2002, she bought her first apartment in the capital for 400,000 yuan－money she made from selling newspapers and magazines.
Before the internet became widely available, and with Beijing being the country’s cultural and political centre, most people liked to get their news from newspapers and television bulletins.
In 1997, the Beijing municipal government made setting up newsstands a city-level project and approved 75 stands that year.
In 1999, the city began setting up newsstands on a large scale. Two years later, the authorities decided to regulate the stands through an overall planning, management and supply channel.
The peak year was 2008, when the city had 2,500 newsstands, more than twice the number now.
At that time, Yang’s stand only sold newspapers and magazines. Her profit was about 7,000 yuan a month. Ten years later, she makes almost the same amount with the help of food and drink sales.
“I miss the days in 2007 when I sold several boxes of fashion magazines each day,” she said.
Arrival of iPhone
On Jan 9, 2007, Steve Jobs, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc, announced the arrival of the iPhone at his company in the United States.
Since then, smartphones and the mobile internet have rapidly changed the reading habits of people worldwide.
Yang said: “From 2009, business started to decline. And it’s never picked up again.”
During a one-hour interview with Yang at her newsstand, seven customers arrived to buy drinks; four bought cigarettes and only one bought a newspaper.
The man who bought the paper said: “It’s very convenient to have newsstands. I hope they will be kept by the authorities. As for food and drinks, I don’t care. If they want to ban them for safety reasons, this is fine by me.”
A customer who bought cigarettes said he had not bought any newspapers or magazines at this stand for years, adding, “It’s just a cigarettes stand for me.”
Yang said she might start another small business, or retire if she cannot continue to run her newsstand.
“If there is a chance, I hope I can continue my newsstand business because I have been doing this for so long and many people living nearby come to buy newspapers or magazines regularly. We have become friends despite only exchanging a few words over the years. People know me,” she said.
More important, Yang said business is not as bad as some people think. As long as she can continue to sell food, drinks and cigarettes, the income can sustain her in Beijing, despite the high cost of living.
According to China Post Group, the country had 30,506 newsstands at the end of 2014－20,000 fewer than in 2008.
With the rise of the internet, and with newsstands starting to create problems such as obstructing roads and sidewalks, some cities have taken strict and quick action.
In 2009, Wuxi city, Jiangsu province, removed 1,241 newsstands. In 2012, Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, dismantled all 421 stands in the city and authorities said newspapers and magazines could only be sold in stores.
Reading never dies
Luo Ping, a writer who lives in Beijing’s Tongzhou district, wrote to the authorities last year, saying that newsstands are still an important part of the city’s public cultural system and should not be neglected.
She received a reply thanking her for her letter, and saying her views would be taken into account. However, she still fears for the stands’ future.
“It is not easy to build a network of newsstands in a city. They are the closest cultural facilities to ordinary people,” Luo said. “They have a reason to exist.”
Luo suggested that newsstand owners could try to sell innovative cultural products such as paper cuts and needlework to make up for the losses from selling newspapers.
However, all items sold at newsstands need to be approved by the authorities.
Ding Xiaozhe, 43, an accountant, said of the disappearance of newsstands near his home in Dongcheng district: “It’s a natural choice. Things that no longer fit with the times will be abandoned or fade away, which is reasonable.”
Ding loves to read and was a loyal buyer of the magazines National Geographic and Chinese National Geography at newsstands.
“Every time I moved apartments, I had to carry several heavy boxes of my prized magazines,” he said.
“I love good memories, but times change. We can read so much information on cellphones, and order digital magazines online. There’s really no need to keep that many newsstands. Generally speaking, it’s a waste of social resources to keep something that’s old-fashioned.”
Despite differing opinions about newsstands, the Beijing municipal government has decided to find a way to keep streets clean while allowing some of the stands to remain with upgraded facilities.
In 2014, the central government outlined the capital’s core functions as the country’s political, cultural, international communications, and scientific and technological innovation centre.
Since then, as an ancient and traditional city, Beijing has started to use its advantages to strengthen its position as a cultural centre.
Measures have been introduced to protect old streets and relics, build new cultural landmarks, improve the libraries’ network and service, host cultural activities and provide subsidies to support bookstores.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the government has drafted a plan, suggesting there should be a newsstand for every 1,500 residents.
In Paris, the authorities have attempted to expand the business scope of newsstands and reduce rents to help the owners. They allow the stands to sell food, drinks, souvenirs and candies to increase income.
In Japan, there are convenience stores on nearly every street. Each community has more than one such store, which sell newspapers and magazines.
Wang Hui, 33, the mother of a 6-year-old boy in Beijing, said she often buys cartoon and other magazines at a newsstand for him on her way home.
“I want to protect his eyes by reducing the time he spends on his cellphone and other digital devices. He likes reading magazines. It’s better to buy them at newsstands, because in that way I don’t need to subscribe for a whole year,” she said.
“I think that reading decides our kids’ futures. No matter whether there are newsstands or other places selling newspapers and magazines, reading will always continue in some way.”
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