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Bert Archer: A newspaper left on a subway seat is the original social media


Image by Ilyse Krivel

There’s a poster in the TTC right now that really pisses me off. The TTC is known, at least by me, for having some of the worst in-house ads anywhere. The best of them are clumsy, like last year’s puerile and condescending animated-garbage campaign (not the first clumsy litter spots), while the worst, like their recent stumblingly wordy version of NYC’s “See something, say something” security drive, are incompetent embarrassments.

But this one’s just stupid.

As part of their latest anti-litter series, among the water bottles and coffee cups inanely “saying” they don’t belong on the floor or wherever they are, there’s a newspaper sitting on a subway seat saying it, too, does not belong there.

But of course that’s just where it belongs.

Ad rates for media like newspapers and websites are based on the number of people who read or look at them. In the case of the latter, these numbers can get pretty exact, but in the case of print, they have always been estimates based on various forms of data gathering. There is data about how many issues get picked up or sent out, how long people spend with each issue, each page, and how many people end up reading each of those issues.

That last one can be a doozy, and it’s one of the reasons Reader’s Digest has done as well as it has over the years. One issue of Reader’s Digest in a doctor’s office might get read by hundreds of people, which means that the readership figures, the numbers advertisers pay attention to, are many times higher than the more exact but less significant circulation or subscription numbers. Publications with a high degree of shareability are inherently more interesting to the companies who pay for ads. It’s one of the reasons the old web standard of “stickiness”, a measure of how long someone spent on a piece of web content, is being replaced by how liable it is to being spread around.

But it’s not just advertisers I’m concerned about here. It’s the nature of the medium that drives the sorts of stats those advertisers look for. Families have long spread the paper around, section by section, swapping them over the course of breakfast or brunch. Papers and magazines get delivered to common rooms of all sorts, from doctors’ offices to reception areas and lobbies and college residences. They get handed around, dissected, cobbled back together and handed around some more. It’s precisely the sort of communal, behaviour social media is attempting to reproduce online.

I regularly bring papers onto the subway and set the sections down in the seat beside me as I finish with them, leaving them there when I get to my station. I think of it as a sort of donation. I paid for the paper, and I’m scattering it to the transit winds so others may be able to read about those wacky Karzais and that unconscionable Chris Brown. Newspapers are not candy wrappers, they don’t become garbage once they’ve been read.

Recycling’s great, but do you know what’s better? Re-using.


Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @bertarcher.

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