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Monday, April 19, 2002

On the Rack

San Francisco’s proposed newsrack ordinance

By Betsey Culp

They’re back!

More than three years ago, Supervisor Barbara Kaufman led a rapid and successful move to establish a city-run newsrack program. The plan was for Adshel, a manufacturer of street furniture, to set up and maintain racks in designated locations in exchange for the privilege and profit of affixing ads on the backs. Newspaper publishers filed suit in protest.

This week the Finance Committee heard – and sent on to the full board for approval – the settlement of the lawsuit and its outcome, a revised ordinance and a revised contract with communications conglomerate Clear Channel Adshel.

8. 020465 [Regulation of Newsracks; Amendment of Fixed Pedestal Newsrack Program]

9. 020466 [Contract - CCSF and Clear Channel Adshel, Inc.]

10. 020464 [Settlement of Lawsuit] Ordinance authorizing settlement of the lawsuit filed by New Times, Inc., San Francisco Newspaper Printing Company, Inc., Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc., The New York Times Company, San Jose Mercury News, Inc., Los Angeles Times, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Bay Guardian Company, Inc., and United Advertising Publications, Inc. against the City and County of San Francisco…


When the original proposal was making its way through the Board of Supervisors, I wrote the following piece for the San Francisco Flier, which I append here for your amusement:

The Little Gray Newsrack

Meeting Agenda: Finance Committee, December 16, 1998.

Item 11. 982047 [Pedestal-Mounted Newsrack Agreement] Ordinance approving the pedestal-mounted newsrack agreement by and between the City and County of San Francisco and Adshel Inc. which allows for the provision, installation and maintenance of pedestal mounted newsracks on public property....

It could be a children's story, complete with lively line drawings:

Once upon a time, a little gray newsrack lived near the busy corner of McAllister and Van Ness. She was a pretty little newsrack, with a shiny black handle and a clear plastic window that glittered in the sunshine. When she looked around, she thought that she must be in the most wonderful place on earth. Just ahead, she could see the brightly painted seal of the State of California. Behind her, across the street, the dome of City Hall curved like a golden apple.

The little newsrack had many brothers and sisters, gray newsracks who lived in other parts of the city. Sometimes she missed her family, but most of the time she was content to be part of a new group of friends. 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 little newsrack loved to listen to their stories. Murders, earthquakes, fires, celebrations --- these old-timers had seen them all.

The little newsrack had three signs which announced in clean black letters: SAN FRANCISCO FLIER. She wasn't exactly sure what a SAN FRANCISCO was, but it must be something pleasant because its letters tickled like small ants marching across her side. FLIER, she knew, meant the pieces of paper that she carried in her mid-section. She was careful to stand up straight so that people could get a good look at them. Every time someone reached inside and took a copy, she tingled all over with happiness.

One of the little newsrack's friends was a man named Xander, who liked to speed toward her on his bicycle, his ponytail flying in the wind and his cutoffs flapping below his knees. Sometimes he came down the hill so fast that she wondered if he would be able to stop. Xander brought her a new stack of papers and took away any old ones that were left. But he also looked her over with great concern, gently wiping off dirt and graffiti before he hopped back on his bicycle. The little newsrack always felt especially pretty after Xander left.

Then there was The Boss. She never knew when he would come to see her, but all of a sudden he would be there, bending his long legs to peer inside. Sometimes he would bring her a new supply of papers. Sometimes he would tighten the bolt on her handle. Sometimes he would just look at her, stroking his short white beard and nodding with approval.

Across the street stood the city's Soup Kitchen. The little newsrack liked to watch the Soups and their assistants as they walked briskly by her on their way to work. Every once in a while, one of them stopped and took a FLIER. When that occurred, it was all she could do to keep her tiny gray chest from swelling with pride.

One day, the other newsracks began to mutter among themselves, something about an Ordinance, or maybe it was an Ordinary Dance. That must be it. The Kauf Man Soup (who was really a pretty lady, and not a man at all) was holding an Ordinary Dance for newsracks. But the ones on the street were too ugly to come, she said, and besides there were too many of them. Instead, she planned to invite a select group from each corner, known as the Ad-Sells.

The little newsrack looked up and down the street, wondering who the lucky rack would be. Oh my, she thought, is it the Pro Toe Type, that big green chicken coop that's been sitting in front of the Soup Kitchen for months, never saying a word to the rest of us? What a boring party that will be!

The mutterings grew louder, and soon a dark cloud hovered over the corner of McAllister and Van Ness. If you aren't part of the Ordinary Dance, the other newsracks said, you can't stay on the street. They'll haul you away and maybe --- if you're lucky --- give your papers to the Ad-Sells to hold. Or maybe they'll throw away your papers, too.

As the newsracks began to grind their hinges and shake their windows in despair, an angry collection of people walked past, on their way to the Soup Kitchen.

"Who are they?" the little newsrack asked.

"The Publishers." Or was it "The Publickers"? A gust of wind caught the answer and she was never sure which she heard.

But she saw them again and again as they marched into the Soup Kitchen, trying to save their newsracks. Month after month, they appeared before Baby Brug Man, who read them a bedtime story from The Guidelines and told them to be patient. Month after month, the Publickers walked back past the newsracks, shaking their heads sadly.

Then something happened. The little newsrack heard it from Classifieds, who heard it from Indie, who heard it from Chron, who said that all the arrangements had been made for the Ordinary Dance and that Soup Kauf Man was trying to bring the Ad-Sells' invitation before the Fine Aunts Committee without giving anyone time to protest. Papa Brug Man had raised a ruckus in the Soup Kitchen, carrying on like a cornered bear, but Baby Brug Man just smiled. He knew that as soon as the Fine Aunts approved at the Comity Tea, the Soups would as well, and then the party could begin. Without the pretty red and yellow and gray newsracks. And maybe without their papers.