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Stolen Newspapers Alarm Publishers

By Zelda Bronstein, Special to the Planet
Friday December 21, 2007

Alarmed by a recent surge in newspaper theft, a coalition of Bay Area newspaper publishers is asking local authorities to help pursue thieves both on the street and at the recycling businesses where they fence the stolen goods.  

The group, which includes the San Francisco Examiner, the East Bay Express, the East Bay Daily News, Open Exchange Magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Common Ground and the Berkeley Daily Planet, has taken shape in the past few months, as the papers discovered that they were all having the same problem: losing thousands of dollars of merchandise, often within a week, to poachers. In a Dec. 17 e-mail that went to other newspapers and to Oakland officials, Open Exchange publisher Bart Brodsky wrote that “[t]he theft situation is so bad that publishers who have not had occasion to talk with each other in decades are now in regular correspondence.”  

The publishers are doing more than exchanging e-mails. For example: After complaints to the Oakland and Berkeley police failed to result in the apprehension of a man who in November was repeatedly seen stealing newspapers from racks on Telegraph and College Avenues, the East Bay Express hired a private investigator.  

On his first night out, early on Dec. 12, the private detective caught and filmed the man and an accomplice in the act. The thieves ended up in front of KMC Paper, a recycling business on Oakland’s Poplar Street, where they were met by eight police cars. The man lacked a driver’s license, and his pickup truck had no license plate. He was issued a citation, and his vehicle was impounded.  

According to East Bay Express president Hal Brody, the truck contained over 500 copies of the Express and nearly that number of Bay Guardians, as well as substantial numbers of the Daily Planet, the East Bay Daily News, Bay Area Business Woman, Classified Flea Market, El Men-sajero, El Avisador Magazine, Diablo Dealer Auto Mart, Bay Classifieds, and Jobs and Careers.  

On Dec. 17, Brody received an email from the head of the Oakland Police Department’s Theft Section, Lieutenant Michael Yoell, saying he was glad the thief was captured and sorry that the Express had to hire a private investigator. “We were unable to react in a timely manner,” Yoell wrote, due to “thin … personnel resources.”  

Brody wrote back: “Thank you for  

the response, but this problem is far  

from solved.” In the week following the arrest, the Express had reports of more missing papers. So did the Planet and The Examiner.  

Stopping the thefts, Brody told Yoell, will take far more than arresting “the punks who are stealing thousands of dollars worth of property and getting paid in pennies”; it will require the recycling businesses to stop buying massive amounts of newspapers whose fresh dates indicate that they have been stolen. To that end, Brody said, “we need the help of law enforcement. A couple of busts on this level might make a lot of difference in stemming this lucrative, illegal practice.”  

In reply, Yoell offered to meet with representatives of the newspapers “in an effort to organize a unified response to this problem,” including assigning an investigator from the Theft Section to work on the newspaper theft cases. A meeting is now planned for the near future. 

One underlying difficulty is ignorance of the law on the part of recyclers, the general public and even some police. The Express’s private investigator spent twenty minutes on the phone convincing the Oakland Police dispatcher that stealing free newspapers is a crime. It became a crime in California last January, when AB 2612 went into effect. The new law prohibits the taking of more than 25 copies of a free newspaper with the intent to recycle for cash, sell or barter the papers, deprive others of the ability to read the paper, or harm a business competitor. 

The law itself is problematic, say local publishers, because it defines the crime as petty theft and hence imposes mild penalties: for first-time offenders, a maximum $250 fine; for repeat offenders, a maximum $250 fine and/or up to ten days in county jail. Petty theft involves goods worth no more than $400. Mike Costello, vice president of circulation at The Examiner, says “there’s a strong argument” that stealing free newspapers involves values greater than $400 and thus “may be grand theft.” Hal Brody agrees, contending that the papers’ worth ought to be calculated in terms of the cost of production, not just the 6 cents a pound that they fetch at recycling businesses. 

Costello and Brody both emphasize the recycling businesses’ crucial role. Costello would like the recyclers to post a notice, printed and provided by the publishers’ coalition, at the entrance to their business. The notice would feature key sections of AB2612, the names of the publications in the newspaper coalition and a statement that the recycling center will phone publishers whenever anyone delivers 25 or more copies of their publication to that recycling center. He also proposes that publishers pay a specified amount for each phone call they receive that includes the vehicle description, license number and VIN number, as well as a description of those selling the newspapers, if the call occurs while the would-be seller is still at the center. 

The only place in Berkeley to recycle newspapers is the city’s Transfer Station, which is run by the Community Conservation Center. According to City of Berkeley Public Information Officer Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, CCC staff check the dates of all newspapers and circulars and do not accept current issues. 

The ultimate stake here is free speech. You “can connect the dots all the way to the Constitution,” says Brody, and “call it a First Amendment problem.” The Express has asked its lawyer to consider raising the issue with the federal government. “The free newspapers are essential to free speech,” says Costello. “They are the future.” 

With the price of newsprint expected to increase as much by 35 percent in the first quarter of 2008, the massive theft of free papers will put that future into jeopardy.