Rushing home from work near the Piata Sudului metro station, in the 4th sector of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, few passers by take the time to stop and grab a paper at one of the two newsstands standing shoulder to shoulder on the street.
One of those who does is 70-year-old Puiu Dascalau.
“I’m used to buying the newspapers every morning and now I’m late, because I was in the city and because of that I could not get them. Still, I came here, because this is my favourite newsstand and I’ve got used to it, it is good that you get informed,” he says.
The owner of the newsstand is Alexandru Onofrencu, 20. His father set up the business six years ago. However, lately it’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain the firm.
“Since last year, nobody [owning a newsstand] in the fourth district has an operating permit. Probably the city hall wants new newsstands,” Onofrencu told Euronews.
In order to operate legally, for a 5 square metre newsstand, Onofrencu needs two permits: one for the actual space he is using (a location agreement) and an operating permit which has to be renewed every year. Although he says he applied to obtain the required documents from the city hall, he’s been waiting for more than a year.
He’s resigned to the problem and accepts his case is not unique: “It’s a situation you can see across the country.”
The local city hall in the 4th sector and the Association of Press Distributors from Romania have been discussing the issue of new newsstands for over a year. More recently, the authority issued an order that would lead to the replacement of the old newsstands with new ones, but a calendar for the changes have not been agreed. That led to the current situation: where operators do not modernise their newsstands and are therefore not given the legally required permits.
Ionut Nejloveanu, the president of the Association of Press Distributors from Romania claims that none of the newsstands in Bucharest have all of their legal permits. “For a year and a half, no city hall has issued operating permits and in practice, this puts us outside the law.”
However, in the fourth sector of the city, where Onofrencu works, the authorities are now going a step further and have begun removing the unlicensed premises.
Bucharest is split into six districts or sectors. With a population of almost 300,000 people, the 4th sector represents around 15% of the Romanian capital’s population and comprises mostly modest, residential neighbourhoods.
‘Clearing the steets’
Mihai Florea has run ten newsstands in the area for the past two decades. On the night of the 19th September, the local police and workers from the city hall arrived unannounced in a truck and armed with crowbars simply hitched up two of his kiosks and took them away. Two others were also removed with official notification beforehand.
The municipality says the removals were necessary to make room for renovation work in the area.
Florea admits there is little he could do, because in common with all the other operators he had been unable to obtain his permits: “I filed the documents to obtain the extension of my operating license last year, but I haven’t received any answer.”
“Practically they [newsstands] were operating illegally,” he acknowledges.
The clampdown from the authorities comes as newspaper publishers and sellers battle a long-term and worldwide trend in declining readership, hurting their ability to fight back.
In an attempt to draw attention to their problems, the Association of Press Distributors from Romania declared a general strike two weeks ago. Many of the capital’s 300 remaining kiosks closed, others remained open but displaced banners marked with the single word: “protest”. As a sign of solidarity, some newspapers ran front-page headlines proclaiming a “Black day for newspapers in Romania.”
“I saw the strike poster, but I didn’t know what it is about,” says Gabriel Olteanu, 38, who buys newspapers only infrequently.
Nevertheless, he considers “it would not be a good idea to shut them down and to have only the newsstands in the shopping malls, these ones on the street are good too.”
According to the Association of Press Distributors from Romania, in the 4th sector of Bucharest, there are currently 35 newsstands compared with 110 last year.
“They can replace the newsstands, that’s a good thing, but they can fund them from the city hall budget and those selling newspapers could be local authority employees, if they want to control the newspapers,” notes newspaper buyer Dascalu.
A similar plan was announced by the general city hall of Bucharest, in a press release following the continuous disagreements between the local authorities in the 4th district and the owners of the newsstands. The general city hall said that it is considering a proposal to build the newsstands from its own funds and allowing business owners to repay the cost over a fixed period or rent the structures.
But sitting in his worn newsstand, Onofrencu is resistant: “It depends if they will still rent us to us, it depends on the procedures to rent them. If someone will come up with the money and will get involved in this business, it would mean that we all go home and only a chosen few will remain.”
Regarding the cost of replacing the newsstands, Onofrencu calculates it could be around 3,000 euros. The 200 newspapers he sells a day make him around 820 euros a month, but he admits he is lucky to have a busy location for his business.
While the debate continues about how a modern newsstand should look or what terms should be applied to replacements newsstands are closing all over the country as their owners give up.
The distribution department of “Gazeta Sporturilor”, which is the third most popular paper sold on the streets, estimates that there are 2,538 newsstands in Romania. Another 700 press distribution points receive publications once a week, but don’t sell dailies.
In 2010 there were 6,567 newsstands and almost 4,500 as recently as 2015. Those that remain are increasingly reliant on an older generation of readers and younger audiences go online for their news.
“I buy newspapers, but since I am retired, I try to find something to do with my time, so I mostly buy crosswords magazines,” says Ilie Opritoiu, 77.
“I buy almost two per week. I have to buy something, I intend not to, because I don’t have too much money, but to do something. I limit myself to about 6 lei (1,3 euros) per week. When I get up, these attract me, you become addicted to them,” he adds.