The box rebellion

When Asheville City Council member Robin Cape piped up during a March 13 discussion on graffiti, she confronted another of the city’s aesthetic challenges: The proliferation of newspaper boxes.

Thinking inside the box: A string of newspaper stands is transformed in a demonstration with the CPG boxes, shown below by former Xpress circulation specialist Jesse Shepherd. Before photo by Jonathan Welch; After photo by Thomas Young

“We’ve got an issue about what we want our downtown to look like,” she said.

Late last year, the Mountain Xpress Distribution Department inventoried downtown’s newspaper boxes, focusing on Asheville’s free-fare bus area, which roughly corresponds with what’s commonly called the downtown business district. The researchers counted 43 different publications distributing in 53 locations, with a sum total of 271 boxes.

Such boxes, Cape complained, are often tagged with graffiti and surrounded by discarded trash.

The city is now turning its attention to the issue, planning a series of meetings in the next few months to talk with both the public and the folks who publish the area’s many papers.

Asheville’s public-information officer, Lauren Bradley, who is helping coordinate the meetings, confirmed that the city has received complaints about the boxes. There is currently no ordinance regulating the placement of newspaper boxes on Asheville sidewalks.

The city’s attention to the problem may spark controversy of its own. Case studies across the nation suggest that government regulation of newspaper boxes can raise questions of fairness and freedom of the press.

In fact, only a day after Council’s discussion, the East Bay Express in San Leandro, Calif., printed a story about that city’s attempts to clean up paper racks by requiring a specific type of stand that holds multiple publications. Some local newspapers, especially ones offered for free, could not afford the city’s desired model.

Locally, Asheville city staffers are not the only ones pondering the problem. For the past couple years, a group of free publications has taken the initiative to tackle the problem on its own.

The Community Publishers Group LLC, made up of nine local publications (including Mountain Xpress), has initiated several distribution alternatives around town. The group has installed 28 multipaper units—both inside and outside buildings—around town.

“It is on more people’s radars than the city knows,” says Xpress Distribution Manager Sammy Cox.

This industry-led effort, he said, challenges the model of newspapers jockeying for space on the sidewalk and “poaching” one another’s indoor racks.

Bradley told Xpress that the city will begin its look into the issue by meeting with “stakeholders” from local publications, followed by a community meeting, but those dates have not yet been announced.

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