Final Blitz on Removing Downtown Chicago News Racks

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Like early summer blossoms, bright orange stickers appeared late last week on the few remaining individual newspaper racks in downtown Chicago. Remove this newspaper box within 10 days, the stickers warned, or the city will take it away and destroy it at your expense.

The ticket blitz was one of the last steps in the city’s long campaign to replace individual racks with multi-title boxes installed by its Paris-based “street furniture” contractor, JC Decaux.

In 2002, the city awarded Decaux a contract to install 2,000 bus shelters and other street furniture, including the multi-title or gang racks. Decaux sells advertising on the walls of the shelter and the street-facing side of the newsracks. At the time the contract was approved, it estimated it would earn $850 million
over 20 years.

Chicago’s dailies and many of the city’s alternative, ethnic, and niche papers objected to being forced into the gang racks, and they sued the city. As part of a negotiated settlement, the racks were limited to the central business district and the process of selecting papers for slots in the racks is overseen by a task force that include representatives of publications.

The city’s recent blitz to remove individual boxes was no surprise to newspapers, said Perry Kim, circulation coordinator for the big free-distribution alt-weekly The Reader.

“This is part of a larger program the city has been working on for about a year,” Kim said. As multi-title racks are ready for installation at a site, the owners of individual boxes are notified. “For the most part, we’ll know about a week or two before, so we can retrieve the box,” he said.

The boxes stickered with warnings dated June 2 were located within sight of City Hall and are the last individual boxes remaining. “These are the stragglers, so to speak,” Brian Steele, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation said Monday.

The final ten multi-title racks will be installed in the next days and weeks, he indicated.

Last fall, the city sent notices to all the newsrack owners it could locate that publishers were required to remove any individual racks on the public way, Steele said.

The Decaux racks, which in a few spots have fallen into disrepair, are not popular with newspaper circulation executives, who complain privately that sales are not as good from them as from individual boxes. Some papers have been reluctant to complain too publicly because they are clearly favored by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who prides himself on his extensive measures to beautify the downtown area.

As free paper, the Reader has a different concern: Its slots in the Decaux racks hold far fewer of the thick paper than its individual racks. On the other hand, Kim said, being in the Decaux racks has put the paper into locations where it previously had not placed individual boxes.

“It’s not a completely equal balance, but we keep kind of keep tabs on what we might have lost on this whole shift, and look for opportunities elsewhere,” he said. Like all other free papers, the Reader has also faced growing retailer resistance to its long-standing practice of making bulk drops at stores. “We’ve introduced a whole racking system with a variety of different sized newspaper racks for interior locations that serve our needs and [retailers’] needs,” Kim said.

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