San Francisco targets news racks in attempt to end sidewalk clutter

Friday, May 29, 1998

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors this week approved a plan to replace existing news racks with uniform racks throughout the city.

City officials say the effort is supported by community-improvement groups, but publishers of smaller publications say the new news rack regulations may cut into circulation and infringe on their First Amendment free-press rights.

Dan Brugmann, news rack program manager for city, said that the number of news racks and the number of publications would vary depending on location. On average, readers can expect to chose from six to 18 papers per rack, he said.

“We would group them in clusters depending on the sidewalk and spacing,” Brugmann said. “Smaller publishers are worried they'll get left, but we put in the legislation an amendment to guarantee them space. It's also content neutral [meaning] we don't care what you print. We've done our best to help dispel” any constitutionality concerns.

Press advocates who oppose the plan are vocal, Brugmann said. “If they did research and read the legislation, they'd realize this is a pretty good deal for them. It brings smaller papers [including] community papers and gay-oriented publications next to the main publications—some monthlies don't even have news racks. It consolidates everything. … We're going to make sure everything's done right, and do our best to accommodate everybody.”

John Mecklin, editor of SF Weekly, disagreed. He said that the news rack regulations are “clearly aimed at the non-mainstream press” in San Francisco.

“There's a lot of pretense claiming this is better for the community, but none of this is actually motivated by public policy,” Mecklin said. “There's money to be made; it's sort of a side benefit … largely cooked up by our Mayor Willie Brown who's been working closely with the company that wants to bill the news racks.”

An investigative report in the Weekly says that JC Decaux, the French purveyor of public toilets, bus shelters and other street furniture, is high on the mayor's list of companies that want the news rack contract.

The new news racks could be installed as early as July. According to Brugmann, San Francisco now has an estimated 15,000 free-standing news racks. “It's basically a mess—urban clutter—because there are no standard boxes,” he said.

Mecklin claims one bad effect of the legislation is that the new news racks are not designed for high-volume distribution.

Unlike the current ones, Mecklin said, the new boxes cannot hold 100 to 150 copies of all publications. “In other words, the papers will not be moving quickly. It's a direct hit on circulation,” he said.

In addition, publications have to pay the city $30 per year for use of the racks.

“In a city with 40 to 50 alternative publications that don't have much in the way of means, but are interested in” publishing papers, most won't be capable of paying the fee, Mecklin said. “Publications are scraping every dime they have to buy a couple hundred news racks. They don't have $30 to pay for every slot they need.” Only “the established weeklies will be able to survive this.”

Mecklin says city officials are responding to critics “with a bunch of made up crap about how it doesn't violate the First Amendment,” and that small papers won't get hurt. He contends that papers critical of mayor may be left out of the new racks. “There's almost nothing that they have said about this program that's actually true.”

“If a court challenge [to the news rack regulations] doesn't work,” Mecklin predicts, “It will be in every major city in five years. There's just too much money in it.”

A second vote, scheduled for Monday, is expected to also win the board's approval.

“No matter what, someone's going to feel slighted,” Brugmann said. “If people feel wronged, they can appeal it.”