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August 25, 2008


Killing the messenger


The future of newspapers is a much-discussed topic these days. Print papers are struggling financially. Readership is down, and so is advertising, because people have found less expensive options on the Internet.

The situation is dire, but understandable: the Internet has injected new, unforeseen elements. Ultimately, it will manage to work itself out and news-gathering will adapt to the new technology.


But newspapers also face another, perhaps more disturbing element, one that is harder to understand. “The media” in general and print papers in particular have acquired a very bad rep. People don’t trust them. People don’t like them. They don’t like the papers’ content. They don’t even like having the papers around.

Am I overreacting? Take a look at this call to arms, published by the Municipal Art Society of New York:

The streets of New York City are littered with filthy, poorly maintained and decrepit newsracks that are both eyesores and potentially hazardous to New Yorkers.

Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam don’t tolerate this scourge on their streets, and Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami Beach, Houston and San Francisco have cracked down on the newsrack blight too. But New York City continues to tolerate it, and we think this is outrageous!

So we asked for your help in ridding our streets of these nasty newsracks.

As a beginning step, the society mounted an OUTRAGE! Nasty Newsracks photo competition. It posted the winning entry on its website on November 17, 2007.

The photo was judged to be the winner because it shows multiple violations of the City’s ordinances regulating newsracks: the newsracks are less than 15 feet away from a fire hydrant and all within a bus-stop zone; the bus is forced to discharge passengers outside of the bus-stop to avoid depositing them amid the racks; and the newsracks are dirty and unkempt, with one being used as a trash receptacle, and the glass door of another having been smashed in.

The proposed solution — a proper regulatory ordinance.

I’m puzzled. The six offending newsracks — yes, six, a well-established group, not a couple of mavericks — are violating an ordinance that is already in effect. Why has New York City not cited and removed them? They are “dirty and unkempt, with one being used as a trash receptacle.” As any newspaper owner knows, graffiti and vandalism are the bane of any city paper’s existence. Yet the victims are the ones who are punished, not the perpetrators.

The prize-winning photo shows a row of brightly colored boxes, a cheerful mixture of red and yellow and orange. They could have been related to the newsracks I described in the Flier nearly ten years ago, when San Francisco first sought to eradicate the journalistic scourge that was infecting its own streets:

They were a handsome lot as they paraded down the street: there was Weekly in cheerful red, yellow-coated Chron, Ex in white, Guardian in dapper black, and many others, each in its own special color. They had been on the street for many years, and the [Flier’s] little newsrack loved to listen to their stories. Murders, earthquakes, fires, celebrations — these old-timers had seen them all.

I wonder what the members of the Municipal Art Society would say if they saw the result of our crackdown. In accord with its contract with the city, Clear Channel has provided street corner after street corner with dark green monoliths. They are generally graffiti-free. But they are also generally half-empty. The bustling array of publications that once cluttered our sidewalks has decamped, making the sponsor’s original name — Clear Channel Adshel — truly appropriate. These are simply shells for ads.

But the program is booming. According to the Department of Public Works, it’s getting ready to expand, so that the city’s outer neighborhoods may share in the cleansing that has graced the downtown area. According to the Chronicle, to take this next step, DPW is planning to hire

news-rack program managers, sidewalk inspectors and engineers — additional city personnel needed to expand the program.

And those publishers who are still in the program are going to see their annual fees doubled, from $30 to $60 per box, beginning in September in order to pay for the added city employees. John Geluardi noted recently,

The fee increase poses a significant financial hit for your ever-humble SF Weekly.

And a person doesn’t need lessons in algebra to realize that such an increase can devastate smaller papers.

My 1998 Flier column is a funny children’s story, but it ends sadly. Not, I hope, presciently. Soon, it says, the Supes Finance Committee will approve the newsrack ordinance, and then the full board will follow suit.

Then the party could begin. Without the pretty red and yellow and gray newsracks. And maybe without their papers.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008