Chicago Newsrack Accord

City and Publishers Reach Truce.

In eleventh-hour negotiations, the city of Chicago and five local newspapers — including AAN members NewCity and the Chicago Reader — reached a tentative accord earlier this week that will allow the city to replace free-standing newsracks with multiple-title boxes during a six-month pilot project.

The development is the latest twist in a battle that started in April when the city council approved a plan that would have replaced 560 downtown racks with 60 uniform appliances. Officials justified the measure as a way to reduce newsrack clutter on downtown street corners.

The agreement reached on June 1 averted further litigation between the city and the papers, which had obtained a temporary restraining order on May 15 when U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo agreed with the argument that the initial plan violated the papers’ First Amendment rights. The injunction had expired just hours before the parties reached a settlement.

While lawyers from both sides are still working out the details, the proposal calls for a six-month test in two, four-block areas where all free-standing newsracks will be replaced. By contrast, the city’s original plan mandated a year-long pilot program that would have seen racks at 40 downtown intersections replaced by the multi-box appliances.

The new proposal is much better than its predecessor, according to NewCityPublisher and Editor Brian Hieggelke, who is cautiously “optimistic” about the project’s feasibility.

The latest plan is more equitable, he says, because it leaves the decision of space allocation inside the multi-boxes to the papers’ publishers, whereas the city’s plan gave “preference to publications with five or more different daily editions published each week.” Furthermore, the new accord calls for the formation of an advisory board consisting of representatives from the city, the papers and the community, as well as business officials. The papers had feared that they would not be properly represented under the original ordinance.

In testimony before the city council in March, Hieggelke denounced the ordinance, saying it was “pushed forward against the wishes and without the involvement of the newspapers.”

He now says: “A few hundred thousand dollars of legal bills later and we’re right back where we should have been in the first place.

“What we wanted in the settlement was a fair treatment of dailies and non-dailies. There needed to be the opportunity — fair and equal — where everyone was on a level playing field, and not some arbitrary system based on the frequency of publication. This is moving toward a more equitable and interactive discussion.”

Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, says issues such as rack maintenance and representation on the advisory board are still being banged out by both parties’ attorneys. She refused to speculate on the city’s intentions after the pilot program ends. However, she says the city is “pleased that the program is going forward and looks forward to listening to comments from the advisory board.”

She adds, “We will be looking at every option [when the program concludes].”

The settlement is not without its flaws. As Chicago Reader.Publisher Jane Levine points out, “This council is advisory; the city needs to listen, but isn’t required to go along [with any of its recommendations].”

Likewise, Hieggelke’s optimism is guarded. While he has heard that the multi-racks “are not good distribution vehicles,” he’s willing to reserve judgment until they’re “up and running.”

“It’s a wait-and-see situation,” he says, “but we need to give it a chance.”

According to Levine, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit will be dismissed without prejudice, meaning that the papers can refile the suit after the conclusion of the pilot program. Also, any such litigation would take place before Judge Castillo. That’s an important point, says Hieggelke, because Castillo has displayed a sensibility that bodes well for the plaintiffs.