Newspaper box threat abates
Jenny Brown
September 1996

Staffs of several smaller papers in town were skeptical when a City committee proposed confiscating their newsracks because a high wind might pick one up and hit someone in the head. A proposal to regulate the shape, color and material of all newspaper boxes downtown, in the student ghetto and in the Pleasant Street district drew a strong, unified negative reaction from the city's alternative papers. While proponents said that the proposed ordinance would neaten up these areas, clear congested sidewalks and prevent harm to passersby should a high wind pick up a newsrack and clobber someone, opponents were suspicious of the real motivation behind the proposed new rule.

This summer, the City of Gainesville Department of Community Redevelopment's newsrack committee made a three-page proposal for a new ordinance including rules that all newsracks be the same size, black with white lettering, metal coin box type, and contain papers in them at all times or face a $10 fine per day and removal after a week (with an extra $50 fine).

Although the proposed ordinance gives lipservice to treating various newspapers equally, many of the smaller papers that have newsracks downtown are monthlies, so the empty box rule was clearly aimed at stopping their distribution. In addition, smaller papers such as the Iguana and FACT make their own boxes out of wood to save money; having to buy metal boxes would be too expensive and would stop their distribution in these areas. Furthermore, only Moon Magazine was contacted by the newsrack committee to tell them about a hearing on the rule (Moon in turn called others).

But the Gainesville Sun was not only contacted, according to a June 26 letter unearthed by FACT, Gainesvile Sun publisher John Fitzwater "met with Linda McGurn ... to review the proposed ordinance" and "informally agreed to ... changes in the proposal." Of course, all the regulations about size, color and that they be metal racks stayed in the ordinance proposal. In an August 6 article in the Sun, Fitzwater said "...we're not for it" but in the June 26 letter, the Sun sounded positive about the ordinance if the adjustments they wanted were made. (The Sun thought the rule should only apply downtown.)

At the July 25 hearing, staff members from Moon, FACT, the Iguana, the Civic Media Center, and the Alligator attended and raised questions about the proposed ordinance, making the point that the members of the newsrack committee should not be given the power to decide what is and is not aesthetically pleasing, and asking if there was really a problem with traffic congestion in the specified areas.

In response to questioning from FACT representatives Harriet Ludwig and Mac MacEachern, newsrack committee members stated that there had been no written complaints, and could cite no specific incidents, but continued to give aesthetics, access, and safety as reasons for the proposed regulations.

That the 3-person newsrack committee should include developer Ken McGurn and College Park real estate mogul Nathan Collier is a little odd. Why would two big-time landowners be so concerned about the size, color and shape of newsracks? Is it just a beautification effort or are they perhaps a little irritated that Moon, FACT, and Iguana consistently report on and oppose their efforts to get real-estate and developer-friendly candidates elected to public office? Are they worried about newspapers flying around or is it all that information flying around which almost certainly helped get Pegeen Hanrahan and Sande Caulkins elected to the City Commission this spring despite big developer money on the opposing sides?

And are Gainesville Sun publisher John Fitzwater and Sun circulation director Jim Miller really opposed to the ordinance or do they welcome it as a way to reduce competition? The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Alligator, USA Today, Add Sheet et al would all have to paint their boxes, while such shoestring operations as FACT, the Iguana, Moon and others who build their own distribution boxes, or who have non-standard ones, would have their boxes confiscated. Is it a coincidence that those pesky newspapers that dare to criticize the powers that be all have nonstandard boxes?

The real estate interests in this town should remember, they may own a lot of property (though it's not exactly like they built it with their own hands) but they do not own this town.

The committee announced it would meet again in 30 days, but as of August 28, no meeting had been called. For more information, call Mac McEachern at 376-2353 or Ken McGurn, 372-6172.

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