Nashville Publishers Unite Behind Voluntary Newsrack Plan

In separate case, Federal court in Atlanta strikes down newsrack ordinance.

When City Solutions owner and President Tom Trento approached Nashville officials about a newsrack plan for the downtown area, the city’s publishers did something rare: They agreed to unite.

Appalled by the prospect of City Solutions-installed modular newsracks littered with third-party advertising, the publishers’ agreed to voluntarily replace their individual racks with Gannett-owned modular boxes. Gannett owns the city’s only remaining daily paper, The Tennessean.

Under the terms of the voluntary agreement, a modular rack will be substituted wherever there is a cluster of 11 racks or more. In the future, the maximum number of individual racks in a knot will be reduced to eight.

“We did not feel we could prove there wasn’t ‘rack glut,'” said Bruce Dobie, Nashville Scene’s editor and publisher, explaining why the publishers agreed to the compromise.

Public relations firm McNeely, Pigott & Fox was retained three months ago by 25 Nashville publishers to help them hammer out the voluntary agreement with city officials. Mike Pigott, the group’s spokesman, said the publishers agreed to replace 260 individual racks with 27 Gannett-owned modular racks by January 2002. Newspapers will pay a fee to use space in those boxes, Dobie said.

Meanwhile, a proposed ordinance in the Bicycling, Pedestrian and Traffic Calming Advisory Committee appears to indicate that Nashville officials are quite interested in appeasing the publishers. Although the ordinance would require publishers to obtain a $50 permit to place a rack on public property in downtown Nashville, it would also prohibit advertising on newsracks, effectively shutting City Solutions out of the process. City Solutions specializes in installing modular newsracks and makes a profit on its investment by selling advertising space on the racks.

“I vow to fight [City Solutions] until I go to hell,” Dobie said. “I do not like them. I do not trust them. They’re threatening. They do not have our best interest at heart. … I am now in the position of applauding Gannett, whom I loathe.”

On the heels of its apparent setback in Nashville, City Solutions took another blow last week in Federal court in Atlanta. In the case of Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. City of Atlanta Department of Aviation, U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled that city officials violated the paper’s First Amendment rights in 1996 when it forced the paper to rent airport newsracks featuring advertising for Coca-Cola.

The order bars the city from forcing newspapers to associate with third-party advertisers and says the city can’t require publishers to pay a fee for newsracks that exceeds the administrative cost of maintaining the boxes.

Thomas R. Burke, a media attorney representing the San Francisco Bay Guardian in another newsrack case in Federal court, said Story’s opinion could have far reaching implications.

“Every case is going to be judged on its own facts, although the way the opinion is written is quite broad and it makes it very clear that you can’t profit on the backs of papers,” Burke said. “The court … finds it to be unconstitutional to have an identity [outside advertisement] forced on publishers.”

Although City Solutions sells advertising on newsracks, Trento professed that he is not the enemy. He points to his success in Indianapolis where his company installed modular newsracks after a voluntary plan among publishers collapsed. Kevin McKinney, publisher of AAN member NUVO Newsweekly, said City Solutions has done “a good job” since coming to his city last year.

Kerry Farley, development director for Yesse! Communications and former advertising director for NUVO, said he believes City Solutions has the best newsrack plan available, but adds that Trento can sometimes be too direct in pitching his proposal to cities. This can cause some newspaper publishers and editors, as well as city officials, to be put off when making decisions regarding newsrack ordinances, Farley said. “People are reacting emotionally, rather than rationally, which is dangerous.”

“The city has a right to regulate,” Trento said. “All we’re saying is, it’s inevitable. Get with the program.”

In Nashville, Trento offered publishers rent-free space in his newsracks, while Gannett is charging a fee. “We are completely dedicated to free distribution … to complete access to distribution,” Trento said. “We truly believe in our heart the solution to the newsrack issue is our program.”

Trento claimed that volunteer newsrack programs do not work. At least one member of Nashville’s Metro Council agrees with him, in part.

“There’s not a perfect system at this point,” said Councilman Phil Ponder, who is heavily involved in the proposed newsrack ordinance. “I’ll admit, if you look at what was offered by the publishers and what was offered by City Solutions, City Solutions was stronger.”

He said the City Solutions’ racks were more attractive. He added that some publications have already placed individual newsracks next to Gannett’s new modular racks, defeating its purpose.

Despite Ponder’s enthusiasm for the City Solutions plan, he admitted that “the advertising is of the greatest concern.”

Burke said he believes that advertising is driving the urban modular-newsrack movement. While city officials often cite concerns about blight and safety, their true motivation for replacing individual racks is advertising dollars, Burke said.

And while cities may be looking for a quick buck, publishers have their own agendas. “We don’t want someone controlling our circulation,” Dobie said.

Burke was impressed with the voluntary agreement in Nashville. He said the best newsrack plans develop when the publishers and city officials reach a compromise instead of dragging their differences into court.

In San Francisco, local papers sued the city to halt a contract under which a private firm had been hired to install modular newsracks festooned with advertising. The contract authorizes the city to control distribution, Burke said, making it impossible for publishers to “follow” their market. That case, viewed by some as perhaps the most important newsrack case to date, is still in the discovery stage with no set court date.

Correction In a previous version of this story, AAN reported that City Solutions offers publishers an alternative to its modular newsrack program for a distribution fee. In a August 22 letter to AAN, City Solutions President Tom Trento denied that his company ever charges a fee and emphasized that it “will never charge rental fees to publishers in any city [it is] going into. [City Solutions] will either have advertising rights, or not go into that city.”

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