Every now and then, the City Council surprises us all and makes an intelligent move. Its recent decision to hold back in enforcing new regulations that would affect Philadelphia’s many newspaper boxes is one of them, and every one of us who reads a newspaper has a stake in this.
The regulations, partially drafted by Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. (PNI), owner of both the Inquirer and the Daily News, will require newspaper boxes to be in city-approved “corrals” on street corners, operated by the non-profit Center City District. Importantly, space in these corrals is restricted to weekly & daily publications. Newspapers that print on a less-frequent basis, such as the alt-monthly Philadelphia Independent and various ethnic and religious would be exiled to the middle of city blocks.
What is being called for is no less than government approval of publications.
The fact that the choice of publications will be made by the Center City District does not change anything. Specific regulations are being made upon those who have a right to distribute their newspaper on public property, and this privilege is being given away based purely on finances.
Publishing a newspaper or magazine costs money. Money that many of the threatened newspapers do not have. To use one example, several of the small newspapers serving ethnic communities publish bi-weekly or monthly because of the costs of low-circulation publishing. The Inquirer, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal don’t face these worries with their high sales. Yet the newspapers serving Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are going to be the ones punished by these regulations.
These small newspapers garner a significant amount of their readership from Center City boxes. The Italian Newspaper’s boxes in Center City sell out just as much as their South Philly boxes. The Hispanic bi-weeklies and monthlies do just as well on Walnut Street as they do under the El. PNI’s concession of allowing newspaper boxes in the middle of the street would not work, and both PNI and the publications in question know that.
Simple math: Newspaper boxes plus middle of the block equals bad news. Factor in bike accidents, congested sidewalks and whatever else you care to nameand you have an equation for disaster. Newspaper boxes have had a home on Center City corners for decades, and only the most careless pedestrian or biker takes no notice of them. But strangely, these regulations would be enacted in the name of safety.
According to bill supporters such as Council member Frank DiCiccio, the purpose of these new regulations is primarily for pedestrians to be able to “move about in a safe way.” There are no statistics, or even any anecdotal evidence, to support the idea that corner news boxes are causing accidents. Using that idea to support city regulations that would dampen free speech is insulting to Philadelphia voters.
City Council’s decision to delay these regulations is a victory for all of Philadelphia. Let us hope that City Council goes all the way and repeals them altogether.