Every weekend the indoor stoop leading in to my building is blanketed with blue bags filled with the New York Times. The timely, informative content printed on the Paper of Record's pages lives and dies in those bags, as weekend after weekend for years they have gone unclaimed. Between the time they are dropped off and the time they are deposited into the building trash bins, exists a window in which human beings could learn a thing or two about the city, the nation, the world, and monocles. So if those paying for that service don't want it, what about the subscription-free tenants? When does your neighbor's unclaimed newspaper become your newspaper?
This does seem to be a rather uniquely urban quandary, as I imagine in more rural areas neighbors aren't looking around for unclaimed newspapers on porches. According to Native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, it's not cool to take unclaimed papers—"The moral issue here is straightforward—stealing in capitalist societies is considered wrong." However, "property that's left on the vestibule floor is available after it's been there for 24 hours." Which in this case does nobody any good, since by then it's old news.
Another Gothamist writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has a timing system—"I take papers after 12 p.m. during the week and 2 p.m. on weekends. Those papers, especially the WSJ, litter the sidewalks/stoops everywhere yuppies live. Why leave that valuable information in the gutter?"
In 2010, we asked a veteran New York Times reporter (who also demanded anonymity) about this, and he told us that it's cool to claim one of the unclaimed papers by noon—"If you're not up and out in the morning, I think you lose your right to it. You snooze you lose. But there are other factors that are way more important than the time. Like how tough the neighbor [you are taking it from] is. Can they kick your ass? Are there any surveillance cameras around? Will the neighbors see? That's way more important than whether or not you are ethically right."
Another Times reporter disagreed, saying "I would ask that a paper liberator wait until 10 a.m. Monday to liberate a paper. It's a quality-of-life downer to not find it waiting for us."
When I posed the question of when it's okay to take one of the newspapers on Twitter, Chris Eigemen commented, "The answer, sadly, is never. I know I know, but still—never. Unless you know they are deceased—never. You have to hold firm—it's a gateway theft. First the NYT, next you're stuffing your bag with CDs a la Rex Reed and then..?"
In the end, you'll have to decide yourself if you want to be a well-informed thief, or an ignorant do-gooder.