Thinking Outside the Newsbox

Legislation avoided in D.C.

As city planners consider ways to make downtown and commercial districts more aesthetically pleasing to suburbanites and tourists, newspaper boxes have come under increased scrutiny.

Since the boxes can easily be moved, at least from a city planner’s point of view, showdowns between city officials and newspaper publishers are becoming more and more common.

In San Francisco, litigation that began two years ago over newspaper boxes has been in the settlement stages since last spring. And in Boston, a proposed ban on boxes by a local architectural commission recently prompted a lawsuit by publishers of several area publications.

In Washington, D.C., however, publishers have been able to address one neighborhood organization’s problems with the boxes by coming up with their own solution. Last June when the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District (BID) voiced concern over newspaper boxes in downtown Washington, several area publications, including Washington City Paper, volunteered to participate in “demonstration sites,” in which regular newspaper boxes would be replaced with experimental models. According to the agreement, the demonstration sites will last for one year.

“The Golden Triangle came to us because (their) executive director wanted to see improvement in news rack placement,” says AAN attorney Alice Neff Lucan. “So we came up with the proposal, worked back and forth with it and finally agreed to do it.”

Lucan says the Golden Triangle BID is buying all the demonstration equipment, while the newspaper publishers are taking care of placement, coordination and installation.

City Paper Circulation Manager Kris Koth says publishers are trying three techniques. One is limiting the amount of boxes and putting them in a “corral.” Another replaces news racks with all black ped-mount boxes, and another uses modular mounts with trademark boxes.

The compromise lets publishers learn which boxes work best in each specific area.

“Certain corners need certain things,” Koth says. “Some of the more popular corners are going to need more modulars, and some of the less popular corners could use a trademark box in a corral … It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.”

By working with the Golden Triangle BID, City Paper and other participating publications find they have an edge when dealing with city leaders over box-related issues.

Recently another DC-area business district proposed legislation to regulate sidewalks, and suggested limits on newspaper boxes, vendors and other “sidewalk furniture.” At an October 19 hearing before the D.C. Council Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, several publishers told council members of their voluntary agreement with the BID.

“The city council members … were very happy and very pleased to know we were responding to the city’s needs on this,” Koth says.

City Paper has been negotiating voluntary agreements with D.C. -area neighborhoods for several years, she says.

“The development of some of these wild-looking boxes that were being put out willy-nilly started to make neighborhoods say, ‘Wait a minute! What can we do about this?'” she says. “We went in as a group of publishers and said, ‘This is what we can do. What do you want? What do you need?’ Some [neighborhoods] have agreements that we can only have so many boxes to a corner, but we have not had legislation passed. We’ve avoided it.”

Keith Pandolfi, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, and Frank Lewis, managing editor of Philadelphia City Paper, contributed to this article.

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