AS more and more people look to their handsets and tablets for the latest news and gossip from around the world, the operators of Shanghai’s iconic red newsstands are finding it increasingly difficult to eke out a living.
Li Ping has been running a stand on Longcao Road since 2003, but fears she might not be doing so for much longer.
“Business was quite good at first, when people still read newspapers and magazines,” the 55-year-old said.
“But nowadays, the Internet gives them all the information they need for free. So why would they pay us for it?”
Gao Bei, who runs a newsstand on Rushan Road in Pudong, is equally resigned to the fate of her business.
“Now is the era of information and e-business, which means that sooner or later we’ll all need to find new jobs,” she said.
Both Gao and Li operate stands owned by Shanghai Oriental Newsstand Co. The company was established by the city government in 1999 to provide jobs for people who had been laid off by a number of large corporations that closed around that time.
Over the past 15 years, the stands, with their distinctive red frames and decorative, open book detail on their roofs, have become a feature of the city.
Li said she started working as a newsagent after losing her job at a tea company. She said she earns 20 percent of whatever she sells, which these days comes to about 2,000 yuan (US$325) a month, or just above the minimum wage of 1,820 yuan.
If certain magazines fail to sell well, it is not uncommon for her to take home less than the minimum, she said.
Gao took over the running of her newsstand from a relative in 2004, at a time when “you could still make decent money.”
But over the past decade, with the growth of online news and entertainment sites, her daily sales have plummeted by about 80 percent to just 600 yuan per day. Gao takes home just a fifth of that figure.
To help boost sales, both Li and Gao have recently expanded their product offerings to include a range of beverages, cigarettes, snacks and toys. But even with the new stock, making a decent living remains a challenge, Gao said.
Industry in decline
Oriental Newsstand declined Shanghai Daily’s request for an interview yesterday, but an employee agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity.
The person said the company has about 2,120 stands across the city, though a number of them are not currently in operation.
“After finding it increasingly hard to survive, several owners quit the business in favor of something more lucrative, while others simply retired,” the insider said.
Sales of print media have been in decline around the world, and the company is well aware of the impact that has had on the operators’ businesses and incomes, the person said.
In an effort to buck the trend, the company last year relaxed its rules on what the operators are allowed to sell, so that many of them now boost their takings by offering drinks, snacks, phone cards and lottery tickets, the source said.
Despite the gloomy outlook, the company has no plans to close down the stands and is always looking for new ways to make them more lucrative, the person said.
The source also explained that under current rules, only Shanghai residents are permitted to run the newsstands, which they can apply to do by contacting their neighborhood committees.
“(But) we are exploring ways to relax that policy so that we can get more of the vacant newsstands back in business,” the person said.
Shanghai resident Wang Ning said she hopes something can be done to save the newsstands, as they have become a cultural symbol of the city.
“The government managed to find money to support local bookstores, so maybe now it can come to the rescue of the newsstands,” the 26-year-old told Shanghai Daily.
Sun Xun, a professor at Shanghai Normal University, however, took a more fatalistic view.
“Like many great inventions that have disappeared from our lives, newsstands will one day be nothing but a memory for an earlier generation,” he said.
Tell us what you think
There’s no doubting the fact that newsstands have over the past 15 years become a distinctive feature of Shanghai’s streets, but where do you stand on the issue of their gloomy future?
Should the government, like Shanghai resident Wang Ning suggests, come to the rescue of these “cultural symbols?”
If you think so, what exactly should the authorities do to help?
Or perhaps you agree with Sun Xun and think that the newsstands have become outdated. In the modern world of online portals and 4G technology, why should anybody care about how or where people got their news in the so-called “good old days?”
Then, of course, if the newsstands have become an anachronism, what, if anything, should Oriental Newsstand Co do to help its operators?
Maybe they could convert the units into mini coffee shops, or refit them as dog grooming parlors. What do you think?
At Shanghai Daily we’d love to hear from you and, who knows, your ideas might even provide a lifeline for the city’s struggling newsstand operators.
Even if they don’t, we’ll still publish some of the best ones in a future report.
So get thinking, and e-mail your thoughts and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.