For nearly two decades, Starbucks has been a spot where you could buy a newspaper to spread over a table and spend a leisurely Sunday morning absorbing the news of the world while sipping a triple grande. Even on a frantic weekday, a newspaper and cup of coffee offered a physical, tactile respite from our increasingly digitized worlds of work and socializing.
But if you want that restorative chemistry of newsprint, ink and caffeine after September at Starbucks, you’ll have to bring your own newspaper.
On Friday, Starbucks officials confirmed that the Seattle-based coffee giant will stop selling national and local newspapers at its more than 8,600 company-operated U.S. locations beginning in September.
Coming at a moment when newspapers everywhere are struggling — and when Starbucks stores have become the private equivalent of the public square, where tens of thousand of citizens meet daily to exchange news and views —the company’s abandonment of newspapers seems a particularly telling sign for the state of the media.
The decision, first reported in the New York Post, will eliminate the three national dailies that are now sold in racks at Starbucks — The New York Times, which Starbucks has carried since 2000, and The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, both of which have been in the stores since 2010.
It will also do away with local newspapers, including The Seattle Times, which has been available at Starbucks stores across the Pacific Northwest since at least the early 1990s.
Although retail, or “single-copy” newspaper sales have declined recently, Starbucks and other retailers remain “an important channel for news sales and distribution,” said Curtis Huber, The Seattle Times’ senior director of circulation and audience revenue, adding that Starbucks was among The Seattle Times’ top five retail distributors.
Starbucks spokeswoman Sanja Gould said the move follows the decline of in-store newspaper sales and is part of the company’s broader attempt to respond to “changing customer behavior.” Gould also noted that the decision will not affect the more than 6,100 Starbucks licensed locations in the U.S. that are non-company operated, such as those in many airports and hotels.
Just how significant Starbucks’ move away from newspapers will be for newspaper publishers is hard to say. Many newspapers appeared to have been caught by surprise by the news, and on Friday were still attempting to determine the impacts.
But it can’t be good news for an industry that was already battling to attract readers and advertisers. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, in a single year — from 2017 to 2018 — print newspaper circulation nationwide fell 12% for weekday editions and 13% for Sunday.
Adding insult to injury, Starbucks retail locations, with their high visibility, heavy customer traffic and a clientele that was often inclined to linger, represented a perfect sales environment for newspapers.
“That’s half of the reason I’m even here,” said Bob Hackman, a customer at the spacious Madison Valley Starbucks, after being told by a reporter that Starbucks was planning to eliminate newspapers. “As a retired person, I use Starbucks as a social gathering place to get coffee and read the paper.”
So valuable was Starbucks as a marketing venue that all three national newspapers were willing to compensate Starbucks financially, in some cases in the form of free advertising, to have their papers distributed at Starbucks, Gould said. The company’s decision to remove the newspapers comes as those distribution agreements were all expiring, Gould said.
According to the New York Post, the change came partly in a response to problems with lost and stolen merchandise. One industry source told the Post that “many Starbucks customers take [newspapers] off the rack, read them while they finish their lattes, and then either leave them on the table or walk off with the daily paper without paying.”
Starbucks’ Gould rejected those reports as untrue and said that the decision was made after a regular review of in-store strategy and offerings. “We are always looking at what we offer our customers in our stores and making adjustments to our portfolio based on changing customer behavior,” Gould said in an email statement.
Whether customers appreciate this adjustment may not be clear for a while.
Certainly, the coffee company has been under pressure to develop new products and strategies — and eliminate those that underperform — as it struggles to recapture the rapid growth of its earlier years. Removing newspapers is simply part the company’s “continuous efforts to enhance the overall experience in our stores for both partners and customers,” Gould said in a statement Friday.
Gould also said that Starbucks is in discussion with newspaper publishers over different ways to bring news content to its customers. That hopeful sentiment was echoed by The Wall Street Journal, whose spokesperson told the Post that “we are actively discussing other ways that [Starbucks] customers can access WSJ.”
Yet whether Starbucks customers are actually up for those new modes will likely need time to play out.
At the Madison Park location, customers seemed divided.
Among some younger customers — a critical demographic for Starbucks — news of the disappearance of newspapers caused barely a ripple. “I don’t read the newspaper at all,” said Danny Do, 24, who said he and his friends gets their news almost exclusively from Facebook and other social media sites. “So this doesn’t really affect me.”
Among older customers, opinions ran in the other direction. “I’m of the generation that grew up with the newspaper,” said Hackman, a self-described senior citizen who says he visits his local Starbucks almost every day, orders coffee or tea and settles in to scan the headlines and do the Seattle Times’ daily crossword puzzle. “To shift entirely to the iPhone — that doesn’t work for me.”
Chuck Wallace, who flipped through a copy of The Stranger while waiting for his coffee, also said reading newspapers was part of his Starbucks experience. “I’d like to continue to have the paper,” said Wallace, 62, of Bellevue. “I’m old-school, though.”
Some older customers said the company’s decision could cost it business.
“There are times [the newspaper is] the only reason I come in,” said 67-year-old Marsha Saylor, who buys a copy of The New York Times from her neighborhood Starbucks every Sunday. “On Sundays, I always get a latte. Now that means I won’t come in and get a latte. They’ll lose business from me.”
Even some younger customers seemed uncertain about the change. “I feel like every time I go into a Starbucks, I see people sitting around and reading newspapers,” said Emilee Mendoza, 22, who recently moved from Colorado to Seattle’s Central District.