Ushering in broad new rules for newsstands

James Estrin/The New York Times
One of the new Cemusa newsstands was installed last week near the Queens Center mall.

Previous coverage

May 7

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday approved broad changes to rules on advertising allowed on the city’s 120 newsstands. The bill sailed past its second reading without comment, and will come up for final passage at next week’s Council session (May 14).

Long restricted to signage for newspapers, magazines and Pennsylvania Lottery products, the new rules allow for a much wider range of advertised products and companies. It will also allow for much larger signs that can be lighted, along with a band of electronically generated advertising or messaging (such as Amber Alerts or news crawls) that can wrap around all four sides of the structures.

The new guidelines will also allow for a single, 24-inch, flat-panel TV, for display within the front of the newsstand.

The bill was introduced by First District City Councilman Frank DiCicco earlier this year and was approved by the Council’s Committee on Streets and Services. It could mean significantly more income for the newsstand operators, who have been hit hard by declining newspaper sales, higher tobacco taxes (and less smokers) and a customer base that has shrunk in the wake of Center City layoffs.

“They’re hurting,” DiCicco said, after Thursday’s session. “And they’ve done a great job in getting newsstands out there that are much more aesthetically attractive.”

Newsstand Association of Philadelphia (NAP) President John Rocco told PlanPhilly that operators would be helped by the extra revenues, but that “nobody’s getting rich off of this. … It’s a very middle-income type of thing. Our profit margin is small. That’s the reason we have to be there 10 hours.”

In addition to a drop in local sales of The Daily News and The Inquirer, Rocco said that even the New York Times called to say they were cutting back on some items. “We have a relationship with them. They advertise on the back of the newsstands, but they are cutting back on their monthly appropriations.”

And with the deteriorating economy and less people queued up at the stands, “Center City isn’t what it was two or three years ago,” Rocco said.

Opponents of the bill include the Nutter administration. Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler wanted to include changes to newsstand regulations within a comprehensive street-furniture design program now being developed. It is planned for implementation in 2010, after requests-for-proposals are received later this year and a public input process has been completed.

The administration also sought to incorporate increased newsstand ad revenues to help pay for the new street-furniture program, akin to existing systems in New York and other cities.

“I went down this path before” when it comes to allocating ad revenues from various sources, DiCicco said. “And who’s to say, when and if the street-furniture proposals come out, that we’re not going to have some push-back again, because it’s going to require advertising?”

Zoning valuable real estate?
Another part of the bill is a jump in newsstand license fees – from $250 every two years to $350 for two years. Opponents say that is practically giving away valuable city space, especially since new ad revenues will go only to the operators.

An additional argument is that the newsstands are not a part of the zoning code. Now that the Zoning Code Commission is in the process of re-writing the entire code, the thinking is: why not include the stands, especially if they are to be left out of Transportation’s street-furniture plan?

“I don’t know all the legalities of that,” DiCicco said. “Maybe it should be in there (the zoning code) – I’m not saying no. … I think it’s worthy of discussion. I think it’s something we should talk about, absolutely.”

Under the amendment, the total area for the street-side ads would increase to seven feet wide by four feet high, all of which may be illuminated, presumably from within or by small exterior lighting. Ads on the sides of newsstands would be 18 inches wide and three feet high.

Newsstands would be further illuminated by electronically generated bands on all sides of the newsstands that could be six inches in height.

Distractions, attractions
That kind of bright light and increased street signage worries groups like SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight), which have been successful in battling the proliferation of billboards around the city. Mary Tracy, the group’s executive director, said newly lit-up newsstands pose a hazard to distracted drivers, among other things.

“These are going to be in a real open, very public space,” Tracy said. “And we’re not talking about just a few of them.”

“The more on this you see, the more it stays the same,” DiCicco said. “We have banners all over this city, especially in Center City. We advertise, businesses advertise, that’s the way things are done.” He cited the Flower Show, the Phillies parade, the annual Car Show and other events that are represented “on just about every light fixture and pole in Center City.”

Rocco and his fellow operators loathe being grouped into the same municipal classification as “street-furniture,” since, after all, there is at least one person inside the box, working. National ad trends show a mixed picture.

“If the old look of newsstands was that of jumbled shacks, the new look is that of a permanent structure designed to fit in with the neighborhood and other structures, such as shelters, benches and street lamps, that make up a city’s street furniture,” according to a late April article in Media Life magazine.

But an Aug. 29, 2008 article in the New York Times about a new uniform system of newsstands owned by a single company shows how complicated and acrimonious things can get. The article said that the sleek new stands are generating plenty of money for the city, but operators and users have decidedly mixed reactions to them. The New York City operators’ association sued the city in 2003 to stop a street-furniture bill, claiming that their newsstands were being taken from them with no compensation. The case was lost in 2006 in New York State Supreme Court. The new newsstands were replaced at no cost to the operators.

In the meantime, Rocco said he is scheduled to meet with Transportation Department officials next week, and has already met with the Center City District to address concerns about turn-around time for graffiti removal (newsstands and newspaper honor boxes are the biggest targets for Center City graffiti) and other issues.

“I think it’s for the betterment not only of the city but also the environment on the street,” Rocco said.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

ON THE WEB:

“Newsstands of Tomorrow Get Mixed Reviews Today,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 2008: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/30/nyregion/30newsstand.html?_r=1&sq=cemusa%20newsstand&st=cse&adxnnl=1&scp=2&pagewanted=2&adxnnlx=1241722937-fIqzaU6eOaoSp4vgqQhaQw

Media Life magazine, April 27, 2009: http://www.medialifemagazine.com/artman2/publish/Out_of_Home_19/Your_client_at_urban_newsstands.asp

Newsstand Association of Philadelphia (NAP): http://newsstandsofphilly.com

SCRUB: http://www.urbanblight.org

March 24, 2009 Committee on Streets and Services transcript: http://www.urbanblight.org/Issues/Newstands/20090324_StreetsServicesTranscript.pdf

NYC Newsstand Project (Rachel Barrett, photographer): http://www.rachelbarrett.net/

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.