When Kathryn Jackson-Jones moved from Scotland to Chicago in 2022, she was excited to see colorful newspaper boxes dotting the sidewalks in her neighborhood.
“We thought, great, this is a place where we can find a local newspaper that will tell us [about] local issues, [and] events that are happening,” she said. “And we can just get to know what it’s like to live here.”
But she quickly realized the boxes were nearly always empty. Do any newspapers still use the boxes? she wondered. Is there any way to repurpose them, if they’re no longer useful?
And if not, why are they still here?
Not long ago, these boxes were piled high with print newspapers. Many of them operated like vending machines, where readers inserted quarters and tugged the door open to grab a copy off the top of the stack. (That’s why they were also known as “honor boxes,” because readers were on the honor system to take just one copy.)
Since then, the empty boxes have become a symbol of the demise of the print newspaper industry. Between 2005 and 2022, Illinois has lost about 40% of its local newspapers and 85% of its newspaper journalists, according to the Medill Local News Initiative.
But looking into the boxes still in use today offers a glimpse of how and why some local newspapers find them to be a valuable part of getting their stories to readers. And by following the decommissioned vending machines, we also learned about some of the most creative ways Chicagoans are upcycling these newsboxes and paying homage to a bygone era.
“No one was buying newspapers”
In the 1980s and early ’90s, most weekday papers sold for around 25 cents and could be purchased at newsstands or from coin-operated machines.
“It was easy for people to put their money in, take a paper out,” said Sheila Reidy, vice president of circulation with the Chicago Sun-Times. Reidy has worked in distribution for local newspapers — including the Chicago Tribune — for more than 40 years, and she’s seen a lot of changes. As the price of a newspaper went up to $1.50 or $2 a day, Reidy said it became harder to sell them out of the honor boxes. “Nobody had eight quarters,” she said.
The 2000s saw a sea change in the move to digital-first or digital-only news publications. In the past several years, even some of the most reliable Chicago weeklies have shut their doors: Hoy printed its final issue in 2019, and RedEye in 2020.
Reidy said it was around that time that both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times began to decommission hundreds of coin-operated newspaper boxes across the city.
“We began to move those off the street, because no one was buying newspapers,” she said.
“[Today], there may be one or two in hospitals, but for the most part there are no street corner vending machines of any newspaper, with the exception of free papers.”
The many lives of newspaper boxes
As newspaper boxes fell out of use, they wound up in a variety of places.
Some, like those belonging to papers distributed by Tribune Publishing — including the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and Hoy — were mostly removed from the sidewalks, and either scrapped or sold.Others were removed by the city, which gets rid of newspaper boxes it deems abandoned or obstructing a public way, according to the municipal code.
Still others were simply abandoned.
And a resale market for honor boxes emerged.
Elliott Ramos, an investigative data journalist for CBS Chicago, found a Chicago Daily News box on Craigslist back in 2012. As a longtime Chicago journalism professional and self-described “news nerd,” Ramos was thrilled to come across the near-perfect-condition newspaper box from the Daily News, which published its final issue in 1978.
Ramos turned the honor box into a display case for his collection of archival newspapers documenting historic events.
Some Chicagoans have refashioned the boxes into Little Free Libraries and pantries.
But perhaps the most prolific upcycler of newspaper boxes in Chicago is Horace Nowell.
Nowell, who works as a clinical data analyst by day, started refurbishing newspaper boxes in 2019. As a lifelong Chicagoan, he remembers passing the boxes on just about every street corner as a kid. And as a practitioner of do-it-yourself projects, he loved the idea of giving the honor boxes a new life. “It was a way to preserve the memories I have of growing up in Chicago,” he said.
He scours Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for the boxes, and has even reached out directly to news organizations when he’s noticed them removing boxes from the sidewalks. The process of refurbishing a newspaper box starts with taking it apart and sanding and repainting each piece. At first, Nowell took great pains to preserve the original lettering and logos on the boxes, but now he sources replica decals or creates custom lettering, depending on the client’s request.
Nowell has turned the boxes into everything from record player holders to bar carts, and worked with the Chicago Reader to upgrade several news boxes for the paper’s 50th anniversary. So far, he’s refurbished a couple dozen of them, and sells them at makers markets around the city.
“[People tell me], ‘I haven’t seen one of these in decades! I remember carrying a pocket full of change and getting the newspaper [from one] every day on my way to the train,’” Nowell said. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had with people are around the nostalgia factor.”
A persistent struggle
One person who knows a lot about nostalgia and appreciation for Chicago print newspapers is Nicole Marroquin, an interdisciplinary artist and professor at the University of Michigan.
A few years ago, she started visiting libraries and archives in the Chicago area, and creating a list of print newspapers that covered Chicago’s Latinx communities during the 20th century. Many of them were distributed through coin-operated and free newspaper boxes.
Marroquin looked at Spanish-language and bilingual papers, as well as newspapers in English that reported on majority-Latinx neighborhoods. “I also became interested in newspapers that had to shift,” she said. “In other words, they hadn’t been a Latinx newspaper, but then they had to [become one], because they were the community newspaper and then the population, the readership, shifted.”
One of these was the West Side Times, which she said provided critical coverage of Latinx communities particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, and adapted to include bilingual sections in its print editions.
Other types of publications she focused on included Mexican expat newspapers, which covered events happening in both Mexico and Chicago, so readers could keep up with news in both places; and newspapers and newsletters that covered schools.
“In a couple of newspapers, they had a youth column, where the youth could speak and express themselves,” Marroquin continued. “Or they’d have life advice columns.”
This is something she feels is largely absent from today’s news coverage: an openness to letting people, especially young people, decide what’s important about their own lives and giving them a space to share it.
After spending so much time with print newspaper issues from the 1920s through the 1990s, Marroquin said what stands out most to her is the continued striving to get important stories into the hands of people to whom they mattered. “They were reporting on schools, they were reporting on labor … they were reporting on the cultural organizing that was happening. … I wouldn’t say there was a Golden Age [of Latinx print news in Chicago] as much as there was a persistent struggle,” Marroquin said.
The enduring presence of — and desire for — newspaper boxes
Print newspapers and newspaper boxes are not strictly things of the past.
Many of the city’s free weeklies continue to make use of newspaper boxes, although the majority of the ones you see today are plastic.
Jesús Del Toro, who manages La Raza, said even as the paper has adapted to a digital news landscape, “boxes in streets in key points in our main Latino neighborhoods” remain an important part of their distribution strategy.
Recently, La Raza staff picked up old and damaged boxes and invested in more than 200 new boxes that they placed in areas like Cicero, Back of the Yards, Humboldt Park and Hermosa, Del Toro said.
Overall, however, news coverage in Chicago has shifted to favor digital formats. While Chicago is something of a journalistic oasis in Illinois, with dozens of independent outlets covering local issues, fewer and fewer have a consistent print presence.
And as the dependability and visibility of newspaper boxes is lost, some Chicagoans have a difficult time accessing information they need to navigate the world.
James, who asked Curious City not to use his last name, lives in a tent in Humboldt Park. He remembers using a few quarters to buy a copy of the Sun-Times from an honor box, or grabbing a free neighborhood paper. “We depended on that,” he said. “That’s how we got our news.”
With limited access to the internet, James said it’s been a challenge to stay informed about issues that affect him or to keep up with what’s going on locally and globally. “I don’t know what’s going on in the world anymore,” he said.
Similarly, Daniel Jackson said before 2020, he relied on print newspapers for notices about nearby churches distributing food and clothes. Now, the newspaper boxes he used to count on are always empty. “I’d be willing to pay for [the paper],” he said. “I’d even pay a dollar.”
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag
Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s digital and engagement producer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org