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News Group Tackles Offending Newsracks in Berkeley

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 01, 2010 - 01:20:00 PM
News racks not in use were removed from the pedestal near the downtown Berkeley BART station
Riya Bhattacharjee
News racks not in use were removed from the pedestal near the downtown Berkeley BART station
The pedestal outside the Berkeley Courthouse had egg cartons and trash in the West County Times and SF Chronicle slots Tuesday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
The pedestal outside the Berkeley Courthouse had egg cartons and trash in the West County Times and SF Chronicle slots Tuesday.

Berkeley may have finally found a way to regulate offending newsracks.  

A newspaper conglomerate has stepped up to the plate and agreed to tackle the problem. Well at least some of it. 

The Bay Area News Group, the local of the Media News corporation which publishes The Oakland Tribune, The Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News among others, has been sending out a crew to dismantle old broken ped-mounts (racks which hold boxes for multiple papers), fix them up and re-install them so that they are no longer considered a “hazard” by the city. 

Michael Switzer, Single Copy Director for BANG, is the man behind this “pedestal improvement” operation in Berkeley. He plans to repair about 10 multi-unit racks judged by city inspectors to be guilty of code violations. 

BANG, whose predecessors originally set up these pedestals many years ago and which has been “informally” in charge of their maintenance., will foot the estimated $3,000 bill, Switzer said. 

“Somebody has to do it, since we are the biggest newspaper around here, we decided we’ll do it,” Switzer said Tuesday. “If we put them out we should be able to clean them up. The smaller free newspapers like Open Exchange, the East Bay Express and the Guardian don’t have the resources to do it. I want to be able to see the Oakland Tribune on these racks. We have money in these racks. If this was San Francisco, the Chronicle would have done it.” 

The city’s battle with problem newsracks has a long history, but things took a turn for the worse when it decided to go ahead and permanently pull some of the more “unsightly” ones off the streets earlier this year. 

“And I got wind of it,” Switzer said. “Nobody was stepping up. We had big conversations with all the newspapers and decided to solve the issue as a group. I understand the city is frustrated, but it’s difficult for the papers too. There’s graffiti, people break in for money. Once upon a time we had a lot of newspapers out there and made a lot more money. It’s not the same any more.” 

The Planet, which stopped publishing a print newspaper and went online only in March, was not among the newspapers contacted in March about plans to revamp the racks.  

Switzer said that the Planet’s old racks would also be restored but it would ultimately be up to its publisher to decide their fate. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who has been following the issue for a while, called the Planet when the racks started to go. He said he was happy to hear they would be reinstalled after two weeks. 

“It was scary to see all the racks disappearing suddenly,” he said. “I don’t think most newsracks are a much of a problem. In the rare case it is a problem, the city should address it without putting drastic pressure on the newspaper industry. There’s no need to be pesky about tiny things.” 

Worthington said that the city had received complaints from the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Telegraph Business Improvement District about newsracks flouting the city’s rules. 

“A lot of the newsracks people have complained about are not in that bad a shape,” he said. “The press has enough problems already. We don’t want the City of Berkeley becoming a problem. Access to information is extremely important whether or not you like the box or the color.” 

However, Switzer said that the city’s code enforcement officers had a point. 

“There are some pedestals in Berkeley that are absolutely offending,” he said. “We’ll fix them and have them look all good and put them back for the publishers who want them. But there are some which probably won’t make it back.” 

The rack in front of the Fat Apple restaurant in North Berkeley was taken down for good because it was taking up sidewalk space, another code violation, Switzer said.  

A “big giant monstrous rack” in front of the Coldwell Banker real estate office on North Shattuck Avenue had 48 spots, of which only eight were in use, Switzer said. “The other 40 had become dumpsters. It was the ugliest mess.” 

Many trade and real estate magazines went out of business during the recession, leaving behind empty racks with jagged metal, broken plastic and banged up trays. 

The rack in front of the downtown Post Office will be the next to go, he said. 

Altogether, BANG will rebuild 20 ped-mounts in Berkeley and Oakland, charging newspapers only if they wanted to replace the boxes in their entirety. 

“Normally there’s a $40 to $50 fee per newspaper for a brand new location, but we are doing the repairing for free,” Switzer said. At this point, newspapers are still responsible for their individual single box repairs.