Boxed out

The city wants these news racks off of K Street.

The city wants these news racks off of K Street.

The bright red newspaper boxes of SN&R may soon be a thing of the past in Sacramento, starting on K Street.

The city is cooking up an ordinance to get rid of the newspaper boxes and racks owned by independent newspaper publishers, and replace them with city-owned and operated modular racks. The new law is headed for final approval by the City Council on May 19.

The argument is that too many news racks cause clutter and can be an obstacle to pedestrians—both major no-nos in the city’s $4 million “streetscape” plan for K Street. They also just don’t fit in with the whole faux hawk and mojito vibe the city is trying to create along the strip.

From the city’s staff report on the rampant news rack problem: “The desire to beautify K Street and protect the public’s health safety and welfare must be balanced with the publisher’s First Amendment right to distribute newspapers and periodicals.”

So, a little less freedom of the press, a little more homogeneity. Come to think of it, the city’s never been shy about “balancing” other folk’s constitutional rights with the beautification of K Street. Lots of people have been balanced right out of business down there.

Mike Billingsley was the distribution manager for the alternative weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, which actually sued to stop a similar—but larger scale—ordinance from going into effect in the late 1990s. Eventually S.F. City Hall got a limited version of the law put into place in high-foot-traffic areas.

“We fought to keep those things out of San Francisco for five years. But that’s not going to happen here,” said Billingsley, who now works as the distribution manager for SN&R.

“I figured the writing was on the wall when the meeting turned out to be at Bee headquarters,” he explained.

Denise Malvetti, with the city’s Downtown Development division, told SN&R that there will be space for all of the publications that currently have racks on K Street. Malvetti also said that the modular design will allow the city to increase or decrease the number of boxes as needed.

Under the city’s proposed rule, a sort of weighted lottery will determine who gets first pick for space in the new towers. Daily newspapers get to draw first, then weeklies, then semi weeklies and monthlies.

The new ordinance will likely impose some barrier to new publications looking to distribute on K Street. Just as importantly, the city is stripping publishers of one of their most powerful marketing tools: the brand ID associated with the look of each publication’s box.

In the case of SN&R, readers won’t be able to find the big red box that they are used to. For the Bee, it’s its characteristic blue box, the Capitol Weekly has its green box, and so on.

“I feel like it’s a way to control speech,” Billingsley said. “The city is going to control where news is available to people.”

And he worries that the new city boxes will be even bigger targets for graffiti and vandalism.

On the other hand, Tim Redmond, executive editor at the Bay Guardian, said that in retrospect turning over repair responsibility to the city has saved the paper some money.

His paper has learned to adapt. “The key is to make sure that the city only mandates [city-owned boxes] in certain areas,” Redmond warned Bites.

But no sooner had the new law cleared the city council’s Law and Legislation committee last week, than council member Lauren Hammond was asking, “Is there an opportunity to do this in other parts of the city?” And away we go.