This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 30th, 2019.
Starting September 2019, Starbucks says it will no longer sell print newspapers in their stores, citing “changing customer behavior.” As a for-profit company, Starbucks certainly has the right to eliminate anything in its stores that doesn’t sell well. That’s just good business. However, I would argue that newspapers are in a different category than bulk coffee, snacks, or music CDs. They are purposely designed to be affordable, disposable, and recyclable. As a snapshot of daily news and opinion, they are created to inform and inspire on a daily basis, without need for expensive equipment or subscriptions. As a flourishing corporation in democratic America with public spaces in most communities, Starbucks has a duty to provide access not only to great drinks and atmosphere but to an affordable presentation of the day’s news and views, for the benefit of their patrons’ mental wellbeing. Coffee is a great start to the day, but an inexpensive, professional report of what’s going on in the world so we can better calibrate our contribution to it? That’s essential, even in today’s digital age.
Let’s Get Physical
The latest World Happiness Report from the UN suggests that as digital media use goes up, general happiness declines. The chance to break away from a screen for a while is valuable. The coffee shop gives us a chance to interact with our humanity for a few moments—the warmth of a latte, the sound of people chatting, and yes, the feel of newspaper print, the day’s news arranged for us not by a Big Tech company governed by algorithms, but by a passionate team of writers and editors committed to reporting the news and pursuing the truth.
Holding a print newspaper is different than holding a screen displaying a digital representation of a newspaper. First, it has a definite beginning and end, without the rabbit trail of links and suggested stories. This respects our time. Secondly, the print newspaper was made to be experienced on one particular day in the history of the world—today. It is a tactile representation of what is current. The choice of content and layout means we can focus more on reading than navigating, and the size of the page means we don’t have to strain our eyes on a small screen. Third, newsprint can be shared with someone else or left behind for others. Many of us get information from our screens these days, myself included. It’s healthy, though, to do things without our screens too, and print newspapers, like books and magazines, offer a good way to practice this.
Virtually all public libraries, and many public businesses, continue to make print papers available, recognizing the enduring importance of print media and the need to make it accessible to everyone. As the largest coffee chain in the U.S., Starbucks has a responsibility to all their customers, whether or not they bring a digital device with them. Having print newspapers available provides affordable access to the day’s news and views for people who don’t have a screen or don’t want to use one. And if it’s about floorspace, which Starbucks has suggested, they can do away with the fixtures that hold the papers and store them on wall racks.
Keeping Big Tech in Check
As appealing as their products and services can be, we need to keep our relationship with Big Tech companies in check to preserve our privacy and our ability to think for ourselves. When we rely on companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others to provide us with our news and information, we leave ourselves open to algorithmic and human bias. The most recent example of this involves a senior Google executive revealing corporate plans to sway the 2020 presidential election by training Google’s algorithms to sway public opinion and access to information. Similar stories of internal bias have recently involved Google’s YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and other tech companies. And then there’s Facebook, currently under investigation domestically and in Europe for their callous handling of the private data of millions of people. These companies are still largely unregulated and the algorithms that govern their data collection and services are off limits to the public, leaving us vulnerable to internal manipulation and misuse. We need to get our news and information from a variety of trusted sources, both online and off.
For Starbucks, the profit in carrying newspapers is not just in the number of copies sold but also in the enrichment such access brings to their customers, as well as the enhancing effect newspapers have on the whole café atmosphere – indirect but important returns on investment. By reconsidering their decision, Starbucks has a timely opportunity to preserve our collective mental wellbeing and defend the integrity of American journalism. So the next time you’re in your neighborhood Starbucks, ask a manager to pass along your support for selling print newspapers along with your favorite beverages. If customer behavior changed once, it can change again.
Sign the petition to show your support for print newspapers in Starbucks!