The man who sells newspapers on O’Connell St is fervently, ardently and undeniably against smartphones.
Among other things – including any discussion of his real name or how long he has dabbled in the trade – the man who sells newspapers on O’Connell St is also against TikTok, online porn and what he calls “accountant-run” journalism. For a man whose livelihood is based around storytelling and truth, he favours anonymity above all else. These topics, among many others, are the subject of our offbeat chatter during last Wednesday’s sunny spell.
Found perched beneath the sunbleached cover of his decades-old newsstand, he remains resilient, in the face of a world now increasingly online. But not – it should be noted – without some bones to pick.
“The worst part about the whole business is that somebody like you, who has no affiliation with newspapers, doesn’t think they’re missing anything. So when they do go…” – he gestures toward his hodgepodge of the day’s red-tops and broadsheets – “they won’t be conscious of the fact that they’re gone, because you’ll never have them.”
“When one of the old customers either retires or dies”, he adds, “there’s no replacement”.
And it is this – the very literal manifestation of a dying trade – that drew me here in the first place. Polka-dotted around Dublin’s most famed streets sit these weatherworn huts – auctioning off such fruits as daily newspapers, medical masks and crossword booklets – these vendors have been the camouflaged cornerstone of city dweller life for decades.
When one of the old customers either retires or dies there’s no replacement
But there is no denying that there is some truth in his affirmation: despite legacy, necessity and history, the demand for print journalism has squandered in the 21st century, and there is little to no hope of its revival.
“Say between six o’clock in the morning and 10 o’clock in the morning, traditionally speaking, that would be that busy time … Then the evening time, say half four to half six. That’s all gone now. Finished completely. I wouldn’t sell a half a dozen papers from six o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock in the morning. If you get a bad day, weather wise, you can just throw your hat at it.”
And this is the question I begin to ask myself, in between the lulls of conversation: how many patrons have paid visit to this stall in our 40 minutes together?
There was the older man, known as Pat, who emerged from the hum of O’Connell St about three minutes in. Pat asked about a sports match, laughed at the prospect of the vendor being interviewed and requested one copy of the day’s edition of the Sun for his mother.
“Your mother still loves you anyway, Pat”, the vendor laughed, as the two exchanged paper for a handful of coins. “She has impeccable taste.”
Thirty minutes later, conversation was halted once again. A tourist, in search of a facemask approached the stand. Unwilling to pay the fee of €2 for a medical-grade, he mumbled expletives under his breath. The vendor, undeterred, resumed our conversation.
Even besides newspapers, you go around town now and in the traditional sense of the word, newsagents as we knew them are gone. You have a Spar, a Londis or whatever, and some of them keep papers and some of them don’t keep them at all
“Mr Putin has invaded the Ukraine. Isn’t it true?”
Triumphing a life devoted to the distribution of news, the man who sells newspapers on O’Connell St is as sharp as a tack – navigating conversations from conspiracy theory, the coronavirus, to the mass production of print journalism. He is up to date on political divisions, internet trends and dating apps.
Yet throughout, an undeniable yearn for the past reigns.
“We’re yesterday’s news … You see, even besides newspapers, you go around town now and in the traditional sense of the word, newsagents as we knew them are gone. You have a Spar, a Londis or whatever, and some of them keep papers and some of them don’t keep them at all. It’s not worth their while. The importance of newspapers in the newsagents, they were important. They’re not important now. It carries no weight whatsoever, they don’t care. A newsagent or a news vendor, that was their bread and butter.”
In his words, the loss of print journalism is symbolic: “Like the motor car to the horse and trap.” However, not only is this dying industry a loss for vendors like himself, but also, he stipulates, to future generations.
“People like you with your phone, you’re the demise of my trade.”
“It’s like a plague … It’s easier to promote any kind of crap on that” – he gestures to my phone. “I’m not saying they’re always holier than thou” – he points to the newspapers – “or print only the truth – they all have their agenda to a point. But it’s a lot easier to get away with crap on that than it is in the papers”.
He’s adamant that our potential descent into alternative cyber chaus fraud fake news is not to be entirely blamed on the readership. Newspaper companies have dug their own graves
And this is something that the vendor feels incredibly strongly about: the power of print. And if his verbal assertions of this were not enough, the stand boasts a homemade sign, plastered to the side of its external rouge. NEWSPAPERS. YOU BUY OR WE DIE. DON’T LET PRINT BECOME EXTINCT. ALTERNATIVE CYBER CHAOS FRAUD FAKE NEWS.
But this too – our potential descent into alternative cyber chaus fraud fake news – is not, the vendor notes, to be entirely blamed on the readership. This is imperative: newspaper companies have dug their own graves.
This began, he says, with the increase in newspaper prices.
“In the course of the passage of time, the newspaper companies themselves got greedy … at one time people weren’t conscious of how much a newspaper costs now … I remember when the vendors had a bit of clout with the publishing office, with the Independent and places like that. We’d say, there’s no need to put [the price of] the papers up. Do you know what they used to say? The market can stand it. That was it, that was their stock and trade answer.”
“And it wasn’t for the sake of the newspaper, it was for the sake of the money. Squeezed everything out. That’s what they did … They themselves have contributed to the way it has gone.”
And after that, came the move online.
“The newspapers themselves, instead of all getting together and saying ‘we’re not going online, we’re going to go, no matter what, we’re going to stand firm on it. Stick to our print’, They all chickened out.”
“I’d say in another few years, what’s going to happen is they’ll have no print Monday to Saturday, they might have papers on the weekend
And as online subscriptions and advertisement brought income to the newspapers, it was the street vendors who bore the brunt.
“I’d say in another few years, what’s going to happen is they’ll have no print Monday to Saturday, they might have papers on the weekend, Sunday papers. But the ordinary Monday to Saturday will be all gone.”
“The last, I’d say, 10 years now, it’s very noticeable with customers, especially with all the COVID businesses … because it was affecting the older generation more than anything else, they were the only people that I had as customers … they were the first affected by the whole thing and that decimated the whole thing even more. It was downhill anyway but that expedited the whole thing.”
And not only is this expedition of street vendors powered by the move of journalism online – it also is encouraged by such developments as the world of online porn.
Once a staple of any newspaper stand, the sale of x-rated magazines has also plummeted in the face of the modern age.
“I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but you’d think one of the biggest downsides of the whole mobile business is porn, there’s no doubt about it … You would think that government legislation would mean absolutely no porn on phones.”
“If I sold two a week, it would be as much [sic].”
Gesturing toward his limited selection of withered naked ladies, he commends the magazines for their limitation of such vulgarity as is often seen in online porn – vouching for greater roadblocks to porn access for minors in this realm too.
“The thing is with those basically you have some kind of way of restricting.”
Naturally, I wonder if he supports the limitations on the sale of these magazines to minors too.
“You have to be 18. Absolutely, without a doubt.”
You don’t take it as an occupation, you’re actually born into it. Even if you don’t want to do it, you’re still doing it. It becomes a habit, it’s a part of your life
For the vendor and I, this very topic – childhood and innocence – becomes a mainstay of our conversation. Beginning his time as a newspaper vendor very early in his youth, the man who sells newspapers on O’Connell St looks back on this time with a palpable sense of endurance.
“When I was a kid, I used to do deliveries … There’s one thing for sure, you don’t take it as an occupation, you’re actually born into it. My grandfather, my father – you’re doing it and you don’t even know you’re doing it. Even if you don’t want to do it, you’re still doing it. It becomes a habit, it’s a part of your life.”
And it is here, on the lower end of O’Connell St, that this habit became a part of his life. In these early days, the newspaper selling industry was a robust, well-populated one.
“[Every newspaper] had their own fleet of cars, vans and all that … If I was left short of something, you’d have a van out to you or a fella on a motorbike coming around with whatever you were left short of.”
“If you want to compare that to agriculture, at one time, when the harvest came everybody had to be out in the village and do the harvest, because everybody needed it. The other side of that was that it was a communal thing. Everybody was working together. There was the aftermath, the celebration.”
But as our conversation comes to a close, as the piles of newspapers remain high, as the sun drains more colour from the front of the stand, it is clear that this time is over.
These vendors could often make as little as €15 from six in the morning until six in the evening
While for many, the purchase of newspapers has become a weekend activity at best, for vendors like this one, what once was a livelihood is now the sole means to scrape by. Left in the shadows by newspapers, by online print, by once-loyal customers – these vendors could often make as little as €15 from six in the morning until six in the evening. And with newspapers showing little interest in pumping funds into a suffocating industry, time will only tell how much longer such cornerstones of Dublin city will remain.
So in our closing moments, fueled by a new perspective on the power of print, I score the clusters of coloured paper for my day’s selection. Under the critical eye of the expert, my hand lands on the morning’s copy of the Irish Times.
“That’ll be €2.40”, he announces, with an assertion that no phone payments by card are allowed.
With coins dug up from the depths of my pocket coat, the deal is exchanged. But not without one of the vendor’s exemplary quick whips.
“You have terrible taste.”