Publishers in S.F. File Suit; Papers in Fort Worth and Indianapolis Wait For the Next Shoe to Drop.
The fight over control of San Francisco’s newsracks got uglier recently when a group of six publishers, led by New Times Inc., filed suit in federal court to stop the city from enforcing its new newsrack ordinance.
The lawsuit and a motion for preliminary injunction were filed Jan. 5 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The San Francisco ordinance — approved in June, 1998 — authorizes the city’s Department of Public Works to replace all of San Francisco’s 15,000 freestanding newspaper racks with up to 1,000 multi-unit communal racks, also known as modulars or pedmounts.
As the parties in San Francisco await their Feb. 23 hearing before Judge Sandra Armstrong, alternative newsweeklies in Indianapolis and Fort Worth are hoping to prevent a similar occurrence from developing in their municipalities.
Last month, a group of Fort Worth newspaper people met with representatives of City Solutions, a company in the modular newsrack business.
During the meeting, company officials passed out a thick stack of literature proselytizing for communal newsracks, citing “an almost obscene increase in the amount of newsracks on every corner, of every city, throughout America.” City Solutions even had a name for the trend — “RAKBLIGHT” — which was defined as: “hazardous affliction caused by old, ugly, nasty, rusty, broken, battered, big, smelly, stinky chained-together, falling-over, different-color, bug-infested, blocking public-right-of-way.”
FW Weekly Publisher Robert Camuto attended the meeting. Although he was amused by the company’s dramatic pitch, Camuto isn’t taking the threat of modular newsracks lightly.
“If I thought we could thumb our noses at it, that would be an option,” Camuto says. “But I think that would be an unwise decision.”
The City Solutions meeting was just the latest episode in Fort Worth’s year-old progression toward communal racks.
“Our city has a problem with rack blight,” says Todd Holzaepfel, vice president of planning and operations for an association that represents businesses in downtown Fort Worth. “We have some corners with five or six racks and others that have as many as 15 or 16. It’s gotten to the point where there needs to be some rules.”
According to Camuto, downtown property owners have been complaining about newsrack clutter since early last year, when they began pressuring their association to launch a six-month pilot project to replace freestanding racks on three downtown street corners.
The pilot project ended last summer. Camuto gives it a chilly review.
“I didn’t like it,” he says. “The boxes were plastic and gray and we weren’t allowed to advertise our name anywhere on them — except in plain white with no logo or anything else identifying the paper.”
The publishers eventually split into two groups, with the daily papers and free periodicals each going their own way. With orders from the downtown association to consolidate their racks, the free paper publishers talked about forming an association to run their own program which would employ modulars “on a limited basis,” says Camuto. They also considered contracting with a third party such as City Solutions.
The free papers have yet to develop a game plan, according to Camuto, whose paper has 50 racks in the downtown area. Their failure to adopt a voluntary program in a timely manner could be costly.
“There’s a possibility the city could pass an ordinance that forces us to start using the modular racks,” Camuto says. “However, there’s no support on the city council to pass an ordinance because they don’t want to piss off the dailies.”
Holzaepfel doesn’t necessarily agree with Camuto’s assessment of the political realities “The free publications need to get together and agree to do something before something gets done to them.
“There are 540 [individual] racks on 132 corners in the downtown area. I would say we have 132 problematic corners. The dailies met last week [the first week in January] and have re-committed themselves to the consolidation program. They will all be going into modulars sometime in the near future.
“We plan to meet with [the publishers of the free publications] at the end of January. Hopefully, by then, they’ll either have formed an association or have come up with a voluntary program of their own. If neither of those things happen, the kind of solution I see is another test program where modulars are put in at ten to 12 downtown sites — or a larger program that replaces the papers’ [freestanding] racks at 70 sites with some kind of modular.”
Camuto says he won’t sign off on a voluntary program unless it meets his standards: “In any solution where we agree to somehow use modulars, our logo and colors must be on the box somewhere,” he says. “It has to be done [so] we don’t lose the marketing of our paper. In this situation, we need to do what’s best for the paper. We need to protect our franchise.”
Passage of a newsrack ordinance looks like a foregone conclusion in Indianapolis, where the number of freestanding racks has swelled.
According to Indianapolis Downtown, Inc. [IDI] the city’s newsrack population has grown by more than 50 percent in the last three years, with 840 racks now populating the downtown area. IDI says the number of publications distributed has grown by 46 percent during the same period. IDI estimates that if the expansion goes unchecked, downtown Indianapolis will house 1,100 newsracks and have 50 distributors by 2000.
“We don’t have an ordinance yet, but we’re looking at ones in other cities as models,” says IDI Director of Management Services Helen Brown. “Right now newsracks are the only product on our sidewalks that don’t need to be registered or need permits or aren’t required to pay rental fees. It’s become a problem. We have some people putting them wherever they damn well please.”
Brown says there’s no “exact timeline” for enacting an ordinance, but she’s quick to add: “It will likely happen sometime this year.”
Indianapolis city officials, led by Mayor Steve Goldsmith, began to consider the newsrack issue about three years ago, says NUVO Newsweekly’s Advertising Director Kerry Farley.
The city’s official crackdown began last November when IDI kicked off Indianapolis’ first test program.
“IDI has turned into the mayor’s newsrack enforcement arm,” says Farley.
Several different newsrack designs — including freestanding, modular and corral, housing between eight to 18 publications — will be tested at 11 sites during the six-month pilot project. Three vendors are participating in the test, including the seemingly ever-present City Solutions. The vendors are financing their participation in the project by selling advertising on the experimental racks.
According to Brown, the project aims to “ensure the safety and aesthetics of the downtown area,” while “providing a means of distribution for publications.” Another objective, she says, is developing future newsrack regulation through the paper’s voluntary compliance.
“We’re not trying to get rid of the newsboxes,” she says. “But when you have 18 to 20 on a corner? Yuck. We are certainly for First Amendment rights, but we’re also for a safe and aesthetically-pleasing city. There’s a balance.”
When the test concludes in May, a 13-member task force — which includes newspaper representatives, business leaders and city officials — will make a recommendation to the city council.
“We could decide to continue the existing pilot or get an RFP [request for proposal from newsracks vendors],” says Brown. “But in the meantime, we’ll be getting input from lots of people — surveying visitors, vendors, publishers, business owners — on the appearance, maintenance and functionality of the test pilot newsracks.”
Sometime this summer, Farley suspects, Indianapolis will draft a newsrack ordinance. He also expects the city to sign a contract with one of the newsrack vendors.
“There are still some things we’re concerned about,” Farley says. “What if, in fact, the city contracts a vendor and the company’s projected revenue [from advertising on the racks] isn’t what they thought it would be? We don’t want the costs of a newsrack program being passed on to publishers. We want to make sure there’s a ceiling on the [administration or maintenance] fee.
“For now, we need to continue to work with IDI, because it’s in our best interest to make sure Indianapolis has a model ordinance.”