Without Publications to Populate them, Newsracks Disappear

in by

In July, the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) removed about 230 mostly unused news racks from throughout the City. According to Beth Rubenstein, DPW deputy director of policy and communications, the action was in response to a swell of complaints from 311 calls, City Supervisors and others that the racks were being used to store trash, drugs, and personal items. 

About one-third of the 647 racks in the City will ultimately be taken away, leaving 60 ad-free news racks and 392 racks with ads. Bill Nagel, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, said his paper will place just 38 racks in the City.

The news racks were originally installed as part of a 2002 DPW contract with Clear Channel Outdoors to operate up to 1,000 fixed pedestal news racks, which expired this year. Clear Channel will continue to maintain news racks with ads on the back, most of which’re in the Financial District. Clear Channel previously removed racks due to complaints that they caused sidewalk clutter and were used for trash, most notably 60 in 2016.

Clear Channel markets ad space on its news racks by featuring their locations near retail intersections and Bay Area Rapid Transit stations in “key enclaves,” including the Financial District, South-of-Market, Union Square, and Market Street. According to the company, the racks have a high exposure to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, with ads seen by a “90 percent white collar employee base.” Clear Channel charges $50 a year to rent a box in a rack.

DPW will continue to eliminate news racks located in the Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and the Inner Richmond. None of the removed racks or those listed to be eradicated are in Southside San Francisco, though roughly a dozen are in the Mission. 

The Potrero View hasn’t rented Clear Channel news racks for several years.  The paper has roughly a dozen free standing racks it its readership area and distributes at The Good Life Grocery and other merchants. 

“Media outlets are able to move to other ped-mounted newsracks in their area. There are still many left. If this isn’t desirable, they can put out a free standing one,” said Rubenstein. 

Michael Durand, editor and publisher of Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon, responded to DPW’s action with a blog post sharing locations where readers could pick up his publications, at such places as libraries, coffee shops, bookstores, convenience stores. The Sunset Beacon added a rack at Great Wall Hardware, across the street from where a Clear Channel rack previously stood at the intersection of Taraval Street and 28th Avenue. 

Other publications affected by the rack removal have long since launched web-based alternatives or identified other distribution sites. The Ingleside Light has a weekly email newsletter. Marina Times has a digital page identifying locations where readers can pick it up. 

According to the San Francisco Better Streets Plan, news racks encourage economic development in commercial districts and activate space in the public right. Yet demand for racks has diminished as readers shifted to access news online, with associated disruptions of print papers’ business model.  The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau’s Service Annual Survey found that between 2002 and 2020 national newspaper revenue was cut in half, dropping from $46.2 billion to $22.1 billion. Periodical publishing, which includes magazines, declined by 41 percent, from $40.2 billion to $23.9 billion. Many communities have become “news deserts,” with local businesses and concerns receiving little or no coverage. 

According to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, loss of newspapers can result in increases in municipal borrowing costs, a jump of five to 11 basis points following a paper’s closure. The two events are linked because local newspapers hold governments accountable.

Placement and repair of news racks is governed by the San Francisco Municipal Code, which requires that racks be in good repair. DPW has a news rack advisory committee, composed of newspaper distributors and concerned citizens appointed by DPW’s director. The committee periodically meets to discuss policies and procedures and make recommendations on program needs.