By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) has removed at least 87 “non-advertising ped-mounted newsracks” and they expect to entirely eliminate a total of 195 as part of a “consolidation effort” this month, which includes every green kiosk housing the Sunset Beacon and Richmond Review newspapers.
According to DPW, this culling of the kiosks has something to do with whether or not these news racks carried advertising.
“Before the removal began, our assessment identified a total of about 647 ped-mounted newsracks (of various sizes). Of those, approximately 255 did not have digital or paper advertising,” the department spokesperson Elizabeth Rubenstein said.
On the west side, at least six kiosks carrying the Richmond Review have been removed as well as another 10 hosting the Sunset Beacon.
“We have received mounting complaints – including from daily 311 reports, community benefit districts and commercial corridors and the Board of Supervisors – that a majority of ped-mounted newsrack boxes were being used for trash, drugs, personal items, etc. and not for newspapers.
“With this in mind, our team of inspectors did a thorough assessment of every ped-mounted newsrack in the City, looking at how each box was being used, where there were ads, which boxes were reserved for media outlets, if the media outlets were actively using the boxes, etc.”
The ped-mount stands housing the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers are filled with newspapers within the first week of each month, and then refilled again – sometimes twice – over the next several weeks, so, if there is any random trash, it is removed when the newspapers are replaced. The kiosks do, however, tend to be empty close to the end of the month.
“We worked with Clear Channel Outdoors (CCO) to identify a majority of ped-mounted newsracks that did not have ads on them (paper nor digital) and that could be removed or consolidated,” Rubenstein continued. “We took into consideration the needs of the media outlets and their ability to either use a neighborhood ped-mounted newsrack or install their own freestanding one.
“We reached an agreement with CCO and then called a meeting on May 25 of the Newsrack Advisory Committee. Every media outlet that uses the ped-mounted newsracks was invited to this meeting. At the meeting, we reviewed the plan and the locations of the upcoming removal. After the meeting we sent a notice to all media outlets and gave them a designated amount of time to respond,” she said.
And indeed, on Wednesday, May 4, they sent a mass email notice about the rescheduling of the meeting to May 25. The exact title of the email was “Newsrack Advisory Committee Meeting – Rescheduled for May 25 at 11 a.m.”
The precise wording of that email announcement said:
May 25, 2022, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Newsrack Advisory Committee Meeting Virtual Meeting via Microsoft Teams
2. Newsrack Program Updates
3. Citywide Non-Ad Newsrack Removal and Consolidation Discussion
The publisher and editor of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon, Michael Durand, explained he was busy putting out the two neighborhood newspapers at the time. So, although he did get the memo, the importance didn’t quite register.
“When I saw that they were going to consolidate, I decided not to get stuck in the weeds and I would wait until they consolidated and then find out where the new locations would be,” Durand said. “Instead of saying ‘eliminated’ they said ‘consolidated.’ If they’d said they were eliminating them, I would have paid closer attention.”
He’s not the only local newspaper publisher to get stung by this; Glenn Gullmes of the West Portal Monthly lost all of his news racks as well.
“I had a dozen newsracks along West Portal, Taraval, Ocean Avenue and at the Glen Park BART station reaching people; shoppers, people who worked on the merchant corridors and people who took public transit,” Gullmes said. “My main distribution has always been door-to-door delivery, but this was a way that people, who don’t live in the neighborhood necessarily, could get access to neighborhood news in high-trafficked areas where people could get it and they moved well. The news racks were a great way to get papers out there and a cost-effective way.”
Gullmes said he completely missed the email notice on May 4 about the May 25 meeting, even though he did receive it, as it turns out. He also thought the announcement fell short of relaying the importance of this meeting,
“In something this important, you could have put in one sentence … ‘this is your last chance to weigh in on it’ or something like that because it’s so generic,” he said. “The agenda is so generic. For some people, it really affects your distribution. There’s no warning that they are going to pull out all the ped-mount units.”
The newsrack space is not free. Each of them costs $50 annually to rent. Gullmes recalls paying $600 per year, while Durand remembers cutting a check for about $500, so the spaces were not given away.
And Gullmes’s description of them was at odds with the department’s.
“It was clean, it was maintained, compared to other ways to distribute neighborhood newspapers … and it was a lot cheaper than door-to-door delivery. Door-to-door delivery is better but it’s more expensive,” he said.
The department’s description of the ped-mounts as contributing to blight also doesn’t seem to conform with the City’s own documents, specifically in Article 5.4 of the Newsrack Code, Section 184.12, which says:
“In recent years, the proliferation of newsracks on City streets, and particularly poorly maintained or abandoned freestanding newsracks, have contributed to the congestion of public sidewalks, impeded the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, interfered with the use of streets, public sidewalks and public rights-of-way, presented hazards to persons and property, contributed to the litter problems of public sidewalks and resulted in visual blight.
“A six-month pilot program employing fixed pedestal newsracks at various locations in the City has shown that an effective way to reduce the visual clutter and hazards associated with excessive numbers of newsracks is to prohibit freestanding newsracks in congested areas, and to allow only fixed pedestal newsracks in these areas.”
Another section of that code requires that publications using their own free-standing newsrack insure them for a minimum of $100,000 as liability or property damage insurance.
The Marina Times also lost a ped-mounted news rack – at Irving Street and Ninth Avenue – and the editor of that paper, Susan Reynolds, sees it as a free-speech issue.
“My concern is the First Amendment rights of independent publications. Last week I saw a Chronicle rack in the Richmond,” Reynolds said. “So they get to be out there because they can afford racks and charge for their papers while smaller publishers who are barely getting by don’t?”
Further complicating the issue is that in the Newsrack Code there is a provision that potentially bans free-standing newsracks in zones designated for ped-mounts.
“Allowing fixed pedestal units and prohibiting freestanding newsracks and unauthorized fixed pedestal units in these zones will promote the City’s interest in promoting public safety, reducing visual blight and clutter ….
“This section is not intended to and does not ban freestanding newsracks on public sidewalks, streets and public rights-of-way throughout the City. Publications also may continue to be distributed within fixed pedestal zones created pursuant to this section by all authorized means other than freestanding newsracks.”
This raises the question of whether free-standing newsracks will now be permitted in the designated rack zones where ped-mount news racks were removed or banned entirely if this section of the Newsrack Code is enforced.