The digital newsstand

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Who says newspapers are obsolete?

I've modified an old newspaper box to deliver the latest headlines to my living room each morning, and I don't even have to fumble around for quarters. It's a simple home project that you can make with just a few used parts. (Check out these sales of newspaper racks, computers and monitors.)

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Sure, I could get the news on my desktop computer or handheld gadget, but as a newspaper editor, I've got a soft spot for tradition.

Front pages shown here feature some of Birmingham's big stories during the past year: the rise of
"American Idol" Taylor Hicks, the firing of Alabama Crimson Tide Coach Mike Shula and the hiring of Nick Saban. (The Birmingham News took home the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting soon after.)

(See the digital newsstand in action in this 30-second video clip)



Here's the scoop:

THE BOX
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I found a used newspaper vending rack for sale on eBay for about $100, shipped. (Yeah, you can also find them on most downtown street corners, but who wants to deal with those pesky concrete anchors and padlocked chains?)

When the 3-foot-tall, 85-pound package arrived at my doorstep, it came wrapped in cardboard with just a few wadded-up newspapers for padding. Inside the cabinet was the coin-operated mechanism, which had been detached from the top for shipping. The door handle – slightly bent – poked out of the cardboard container.

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The decals covering the sides showed that this rack once belonged to The Journal-News in Rockland County, N.Y. The box was
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dirty and a little dinged up, but the door opened smoothly after a few dents were hammered out. Most importantly, the window was in good shape.
The box had two layers of decals,
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which peeled off mostly intact. From beneath emerged the ghostly globe of the Gannett logo. A scraper and some potent chemicals wiped it out, along with the rest of the sticky residue.I sanded the surface, washed the cabinet inside and out and masked the acrylic glass window before spray-painting the exterior a glossy black.

I reattached the coin box on top, but kept the door unlocked for easy access. (Like many other newspaper boxes, it's a bit finicky.)

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THE MONITOR

The window measures 14" by 11", which are the approximately screen dimensions of a standard 17" monitor. Online deals for small flat-screen LCD monitors can be found for about $130, and savvy shoppers may get even luckier.Finding a monitor with the right exterior dimensions was the tricky part.

The casing around the screen needed to be small enough to fit into the door inset, which is 16 1/2" by 13". A
17" LG Flatron LCD monitor, with just a 1/2" border around the screen, provided the best fit.

The monitor sits on a steel brace, which originally held the wide, clear plastic piece that pressed a newspaper against the window. The leg that attaches to the monitor stand extends back over the bottom brace, which tucks in underneath to provide more support.
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THE HARDWARE

The screen lined up perfectly with the window and fit snugly inside the door, so just a few brackets were needed to secure it. Inside the top of the door, existing holes were used to attach 3 pairs of L-shaped brackets and some other assorted hardware that hold the monitor. At the bottom, I used a 1/4" piece of wood to fill the gap between the monitor and the door brace, using screws to keep the monitor in place.

THE COMPUTER

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Just about any computer can run a slideshow or operate as a digital jukebox.

The adjustable shelf inside the newspaper box is big enough to hold a Power Mac G3 tower, which can be bought used at
rock-bottom prices.

I opted to go small with a
Mac Mini, which includes a DVD drive and a wireless card. The more recent models come with an infrared remote
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control, but third-party remotes are available for older Macs.

A subwoofer fits below the adjustable shelf inside the cabinet, and satellite speakers are connected outside.

I ran some
rope lighting through the inside of the cabinet and down the back of the outside. It's not quite "Pimp My Ride," but the backlighting adds a bit of a dramatic effect.

THE PROGRAM

With a little
AppleScript work, I trained my Mac to get the papers.

The Mac Mini connects to the Internet and to my
iTunes library through my home wireless network. Each morning the computer launches a script triggered by an iCal alarm. While cueing up a music playlist, the script automatically gathers images, crops them in half with GraphicConverter and launches a slideshow with PhotoPresenter, a nifty little $8 shareware program with lots of snazzy transitions. The remote can pause or cycle through the pages.

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My images include pages I've produced an editor at The Birmingham News. The front pages of The News and hundreds of other newspapers are available online daily at the Newseum. The kiosk makes a handy Web browser and picture viewer, but you'll want to keep copyright law in mind before downloading images.

In addition to
playing slideshows, music and videos, the digital newsstand can be set up to perform other automated tasks, such as sending downloaded items as e-mail attachments, displaying RSS feeds or even printing a newspaper.

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My modified box is a work in progress.
I printed a customized 11" x 17" rack card to dress up the front, but otherwise it's lacking frills. If I'm feeling adventurous, I might paint a design on the sides,
add some accessories or see if I can connect the coin mechanism to a remote that controls the slideshow.

At least I'll get to keep the quarters.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Comments are welcome.