Exclusive! Tab Nabs Enemy Rags

Herald drivers are striking back at their freebie competitors—by stealing boxfuls of their papers.


At 6:30 a.m. one August morning, Dorchester District Court is a ghostly shell of the people-packed hub it’ll soon become. The only noise is the rumble of a Boston Herald truck, which parks across the street. The driver steps out with a bundle of newspapers, and places them in the Herald’s yellow street-corner box. Then—as City Journal surreptitiously looks on—he strolls to nearby Metro and BostonNow boxes, both already filled for the day. He empties them, carries the stash of papers to the truck, and drives off.

We witnessed similar raids, conducted by other Herald drivers, near the Shawmut, South Attleboro, and Northeastern T stops the following week. “We certainly don’t condone this behavior, if indeed the allegations are true, and we intend to investigate further,” says Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage. Metro publisher Stuart Layne says he was not aware of the problem, adding, “I would hope that all the newspapers are above this type of activity.”

As the presence of free daily and weekly papers here increases, hardball tactics like this seem inevitable. Readership studies show that free papers do a better job than their pay peers of attracting new readers. For the Herald, which relies on single-copy sales for 77 percent of its weekday circulation, that makes the freebies serious competition. (The Globe is somewhat insulated thanks to the 49 percent stake that its parent, the New York Times Company, holds in the local Metro.)

By their very nature, free papers are always at risk for sabotage. Unlike in other states, there’s no law here specifically forbidding their mass theft. And because freebies thrive on their ability to canvass a wide area—the Metro, for example, has about 800 boxes—their staffs simply can’t monitor every location. But they do try. Weekly Dig publisher Jeff Lawrence once hired a private eye to watch a box that was emptying mysteriously quickly. The culprit, it turned out, was an angry Bostonian—and (surprise) it wasn’t the first time that had happened to the puckish Dig.

Sometimes, Boston’s Department of Public Works saves a paper’s opponents the trouble by snagging distribution boxes that run afoul of the city’s myriad regulations, and storing them at its Frontage Road yard. We recently spotted a dozen boxes there—most with stacks of unread papers still inside.