If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not in San Leandro. A stringent city ordinance there has had the unintended consequence of forcing all newspaper racks from downtown sidewalks. The law, which mandates that freestanding racks on public downtown real estate be replaced by multiple-paper boxes, took effect last month, but the promised boxes are nowhere to be seen.
About half of all East Bay cities, and many others beyond, have adopted similar rules. By getting rid of stand-alone racks, the reasoning goes, cities will look cleaner and more beautiful. San Leandro stands out for a simple reason: The replacement racks it chose are so expensive that none of the publications can afford them.
The publishers, not surprisingly, are upset. “I’d rather see my competitors on the street than nobody,” said Bart Brodsky, publisher of Open Exchange, whose title is among those priced out of downtown San Leandro.
City officials insist they had no intention of forcing publications out. “We didn’t purposely go out and choose a Cadillac-model rack,” community development director Hanson Hom said. “The model we like the best happens to be the more expensive one.”
It all started back in 2005, when the city council passed an ordinance cracking down on newsracks throughout the city, with a special focus on a fourteen-square-block area around East 14th Street. When city staffers met to select a new rack model to replace the stand-alones in the downtown area, they were looking for something to complement the streetlights and benches also going up, according to Keith Cooke, a city engineer. “Cost wasn’t a part of the consideration,” he said. “It was the aesthetic quality of the particular unit that was the important part.”
The city didn’t weigh the cost because officials had no intention of paying for the seven new racks they anticipated installing. That burden would fall upon the publishers. And so the city chose the Sho-Rack Wide Boulevard Modular model, a steely black structure with rounded edges and a sleek metal shell on the back. Combined with a city permit fee and business-licensing fee, the per-publication price came to more than $600 per box — the shell alone accounted for $350 of the cost. At that price, only the Chronicle and ANG Newspapers, which publishes the Oakland Tribune, were willing to opt in. There wasn’t enough demand to fill even one six-publication rack.
While several publishers point to the excessive cost of the shell, the complaints haven’t stopped there. Robert Longenecker, publisher of Homes & Land Magazine of Southern Alameda, said the city’s decision to require free publications like his to pay for business licenses places it on uncertain legal ground. “If I have to buy a license to give out a free paper, is that a violation of the First Amendment?” he said. “I think it is.”
Despite the unanimity among publishers that San Leandro’s ordinance is bunk, a schism exists between newsrack absolutists and moderates. Open Exchange‘s Brodsky views any attempt to regulate racks as an impingement on free speech. “When some people see a motley bank of newsracks, they see a mess; I see democracy in practice,” he said. “I’d rather tolerate a little messiness than live in a thought-free zone.”
Most other publishers, though, see the merits of rack homogenization. Consolidated newsracks “keep the downtowns more neat and organized, rather than having boxes everywhere,” said Kevin Parvin, distribution manager for Momento, a Spanish-language directory. “I give that point to the cities.”
San Francisco is one city that has impressed publishers such as Parvin with its newsrack program. For the past five years, it has been gradually eliminating freestanding boxes and replacing them with uniform, multipublication racks. Each publisher pays an annual $30 fee per box to cover the city’s administrative costs. The city delegates the purchase, installation, and maintenance to a contractor, who, in turn, gets to sell advertising on the racks.
But even this model isn’t perfect. Competition for rack space is fierce, and the city doles it out based on which publications were on the street before the new racks went in. Newcomers are out of luck. “The Onion is moaning and groaning,” said Dan McKenna, who oversees the San Francisco program. “They’re the new guys in town. That’s the downside. Every system has a downside.”
But for publishers squeezed out of San Leandro, San Francisco’s approach seems heaven-sent. And although San Leandro can’t generate the advertising revenue to pay for what San Francisco is doing, publishers say the city could have kept newspapers downtown simply by omitting the pricey shell, as Walnut Creek, Alameda, and several other cities have done.
But that troublesome shell is codified in city law. “The shell is a shame because it’s making it prohibitive,” said Mike Switzer, who oversees distribution for ANG. “People can still get the paper,” he added, noting that the ordinance doesn’t cover private property like the downtown Safeway. “They just have to look a little harder.”