Honolulu Weekly in Newsrack Battle

Lawsuit Forces City to Open Lottery for Coin-Operated Boxes.

“Why would you look for toothpaste in the cantaloupe department?”

That’s the question Honolulu Weekly Publisher Laurie Carlson asked last year when she learned that a local ordinance threatened to force readers to search for her paper in a modular newsrack that also encased coupon books and tourist pamphlets.

After the ordinance was approved by the City and County of Honolulu — to reduce “newsstand clutter” in Waikiki — the city erected dozens of enclosures, each built to house separate racks for paid and free publications; racks for the paid publications were coin-operated.

A lottery was instituted to determine rack assignments.

Carlson says the Weekly wanted slots in the coin-operated racks next to its competition — the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser. She knew the other racks would be filled with tourist guides and the like. “Paid papers are a perishable product, and the free papers are not. We wanted to be with the perishable.”

Carlson says local authorities have always assumed that all free papers are journalistically suspect. “If you go down to Kalakaua Avenue, the major street in downtown Waikiki, they actually label the [non-coin-operated] newsracks ‘tourist publications’ That’s the way they’ve done it for years.”

The Weekly entered a lottery in April 1999 to bid on the 72 spaces that were available in coin-operated racks; they won 21 slots. (Carlson planned to use the racks by disabling their vending mechanisms.) However, when the city learned what the Weekly had done, it cancelled the 21 permits and told the paper it had two choices: enter the lottery for spaces next to the free publications, or start charging a circulation fee.

In November 1999, the city announced that it would hold another lottery, and that the 21 spaces previously secured by the Weekly would be returned to inventory. The Weekly filed suit to stop the lottery and to force the city to surrender the permits it won during the original selection process.

On December 17, a Federal court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the city from holding a lottery that excluded free publications from bidding on coin-operated racks. A full trial is set for November 2000.

Meanwhile, the city held another lottery last month; this time, all free publications were eligible to bid on the coin-operated newsracks. According to Carlson, all the free papers showed up to join the Weekly in placing bids on the coin-operated racks. (The dailies had obtained all the racks they needed in the original April 1999 lottery.)

With more competition for each coin-operated box, the Weekly was able to secure only ten slots. While that’s about half the number they won in the original lottery, it’s two more spaces than they previously distributed from in Waikiki, so, for now, Carlson is happy with the outcome.

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