New York City’s newspapers are under attack

BY Michelle K. Rea

It all started in August, 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg announced that the New York City Council and his administration shared the same goal in passing legislation that regulates the placement, installation and maintenance of news racks on the sidewalks of New York. The City’s Department of Transportation was delegated the responsibility for promulgating the regulations governing the placement and maintenance of news racks, and the Environmental Control Board (ECB) with enforcing the new regulations.

Although the news rack owners fought the legislation prior to its passage, pressure from well-heeled community groups (read: campaign contributors) ensured passage of the bill, sponsored by Council member Eva Moskowitz.

In the months leading up to the start of the enforcement period, news rack owners came together in an historic coalition, bringing competitors together to develop a plan to comply with the new law. The rack owners recognized that there were problems with the placement of many news racks, and were determined to demonstrate a good-faith effort to be good corporate citizens. The rack owners met regularly, and dedicated countless resources, both financial and human, toward the development of mechanisms that would enable the rack owners to comply with the new regulations. A web site was constructed where rack owners could register their rack locations, be notified of racks not in compliance, and e-mail a private vendor to conduct the necessary repairs or fix positioning. The racks owners contracted with a private company that would assist with the repair and maintenance of the racks. News rack owners pressure-washed racks, purchased new racks, registered their rack locations, provided proof of insurance, and educated one another about the new regulations.

The enforcement period began in April, 2003, and by late May, news racks throughout the City were plastered with "notices of correction." The New York Press Association (the trade association for community newspapers throughout the state) was besieged with phone calls from publishers who were exasperated by the barrage of tickets being issued by the ECB.

The publishers complained that the goal of the legislation was to ensure "the safe and orderly use of the sidewalks we all share," but the vast majority of tickets issued were for "dirty" boxes, graffiti, or no identification.

The rack owners were outraged. "We are not trashing our own racks. We are the victims of vandalism. People are plastering our racks with stickers or covering them with graffiti and we’re being fined. The perpetrators aren’t being punished – the publishers are. What is this punishment accomplishing?"

Placement and safety issues are separate. Rack owners receive a notice of correction for a placement issue, take corrective action, and later that day, or the next day, a street cleaner, store owner, or other person, moves the rack, creating a new violation for the same rack. Unfortunately, no mechanism exists to notify DOT that corrective measures have been taken.

DOT bungled the process of creating the regulations and enforcement mechanisms necessary to adequately, appropriately and fairly address the placement of news racks in the City. City employees responsible for inspecting news racks are poorly trained, resulting in the arbitrary issuance of thousands of tickets (more than 2200 to date), to which the rack owners must respond. No mechanism exists to enable rack owners to notify DOT when a correction is made or when a notice of correction is issued in error. The hearing process is a disaster. The ECB is not equipped to handle the number of notices they are issuing, and the hearing calendar, if one exists, is in total disarray.

Publishers prepare for hearings, appear with supporting documentation, paid counsel and staff, only to learn that hearings have not been scheduled, or representatives from ECB have not appeared. Hearings are almost always postponed and rescheduled – sometimes several times.

Exacerbating the problem, are the ever-vigilant community group members, marching through the tony Uptown neighborhoods, clipboards in hand, documenting the offending news racks, creating lists of complaints to send to DOT. Their mission is to save New York by removing news racks from the sidewalks. Council members who could and should focus valuable time and resources on crumbling schools, lead paint, the homeless population, and the dismal Downtown economy, are instead, working feverishly on a mission to remove the horrible blight on the landscape created by news racks.

The most egregious part of the story is the City’s response, or startling lack thereof. The bureaucratic arrogance is inexcusable. More than six months into the process, rack owners have yet to be granted an audience with anyone who can affect a change. Instead of responding responsibly, with reasonable dispatch, the silence has been deafening. Yet fines are mounting daily. More than 1800 notices of violation, with penalties ranging from $100 to $500 per violation, have been levied against the rack owners. If these fines stand, and new ones are added, it won’t be long before there are fewer newspapers to kick around.

Perhaps the community groups will be proud of their efforts when there are fewer community newspapers creating a sense of community within New York’s neighborhoods. Their well-organized and mis-guided campaign may ultimately eliminate the only vehicles that provide neighborhood news, coverage of the arts, government news, community calendars, while promoting commerce through advertising, and pushing payroll dollars into the community.

It is disingenuous at best to crusade for the demise of newspapers.

Be careful what you wish for.

Michelle K. Rea is Executive Director of the New York Press Association