By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Jul 12, 2005 at 5:36 AM

{image1} Face it, we all have things we love and hate about Milwaukee. But, complaining and focusing on the negative leads nowhere. So, in this column we highlight issues (big and small) that we think need to be addressed, discussed and solved. Every "This Sucks" feature tells you why we think something sucks, offers commentary, opinions, solutions and, of course, gives you the chance to weigh in through our exclusive talkback feature.

What sucks: The proliferation of newspaper boxes on many downtown corners and streets may seem like an easy target for online publication like It is, indeed, but it's also a simple, quality-of-life issue that deserves and demands attention and a solution.

In this edition of "This Sucks," OMC examines the downtown dilemma known as "rakblight." We also wonder, should the city charge more for all that advertising and exposure that free publications get from the hundreds of news boxes that line city streets?

Why it sucks: Placing a newspaper box on a city curb is easy and unbelievably inexpensive. Just purchase the proper permit from the City's Department of Public Works (DPW), buy a news box and fill it with your publication. Simple, easy and most of all, cheap. How cheap? $15 annually per publication.

According to the ordinance (section 115-33.5, Milwaukee Code of Ordinances), only $30 for two years (as a comparision, many City parking tickets cost $30 each). Not a bad deal for publications like Start Renting, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Onion, Shepherd Express and others, who get access to hundreds of thousands of people every year, as well as the ability to peddle products that are loaded with paid advertising.

"We feel the current fee is fair," says Jon Szpiszar, circulation manager of MKE, a free Journal Communications publication. "Freestanding boxes are not inexpensive nor are they free advertising for the publication. Freestanding boxes make it easier for the public to pick up a publication at their convenience. In return for the fee we pay, the city allows us to put boxes in select locations throughout the city of Milwaukee."

But some city planners disagree, and point out that these publications contribute to "rakblight" -- a curbside cacophony of news boxes of all shapes, sizes, weights and colors that sit on Downtown streets. Some are graffiti-filled, others are cracked, still others are shiny, new and armed with papers ready to be read by passers-by. Too many of Milwaukee's news racks and boxes are old, ugly, rusty, broken, battered, chained to city property and/or tipped over. Some block the public right-of-way, and all cloud otherwise clean city streets.

Wouldn't it look better if all the papers were accessible out of one unified rack?


"If we can't get all of these papers in one system, I'd hope that we'd at least be able to invest in a corral system (for a common look and feel)," says Beth Nicols, executive director of Milwaukee Downtown.

Even small cities like Lakewood, Colo. have strict guidelines for their newspaper vending boxes. Other cities have passed modular news rack ordinances or programs that mandate a common look and feel for outdoor newspapers. Is it time for Milwaukee to follow?

The City of Milwaukee and former Downtown Alderman Paul Henningsen introduced a draft ordinance in 1999 that would have regulated boxes more closely and placed more strict standards on placement, upkeep, weight and other design issues. But he didn't have the support of the Common Council, as well as Journal Communications, and the ordinance never became law. Currently, The Department of Public Works is working with Milwaukee Downtown, the Downtown Business Improvement District, to spearhead new research on news box clutter and density in Downtown.

"We need better organization, not just random placement," says Nicols.

Of course, newspaper companies don't like the idea, but other cities have found decent compromises. Would Milwaukee's papers support it?

"We would not support a city ordinance requiring boxes that offer multiple locations," says Szpiszar. According to the Shepherd Express' Louis Fortis, programs like this "don't work well in other cities. It's kind of a Soviet model of control." He says the Shepherd monitors its news boxes and fixes broken boxes, and he says that different boxes add to the diversity of the city.

Indianapolis passed a modular news rack program in its downtown in 1999.


In 1994, IDI (Indy's downtown group) began pursuing placement and "look" guidelines for its news boxes. Initially the group targeted one area of downtown only. They were concerned that news boxes were just popping up, with many chained to the new utility, lights, street signs and some blocking their new handicap zones. According to Fred Laughlin, Director of Management Services at Indianapolis Downtown, Inc., the group considered safety concerns and degradation to its downtown's new investments.

"After researching cities like San Antonio, Orlando, Columbus, which had recently completed major downtown redevelopments, and discussing legalities with the City, IDI championed a phased approach to improving news box guidelines based on voluntary compliance of the distributors," says Laughlin.

Initially, Indy received 100 percent support from the distributors for a new system. Says Laughlin, "In 1994, there were 19 free papers and 12 pay papers representing roughly 426 boxes in downtown. All 31 attended the initial meetings. Most were amazed that the City had never required a permit or enforced standardization and safety guidelines. One of the papers even arrived at the meeting with a checkbook to pay for five placement permits."

However, after the initial meeting, several papers convened privately and the proposal was quashed in favor of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

Today, the Indianapolis program is in operation, and it's successful. And Laughlin suggests that if Milwaukee can get a similar program in place, "make sure there is an active maintenance plan as well as a plan to re-evaluate locations on a regular, ongoing basis." Sounds like a good tip for any new program.

But new programs are never easy. Indy witnessed this, too.


"We're not trying to get rid of the news boxes," wrote IDI Director of Management Services Helen Brown in a 1999 article on the Association of Alternative Weeklies Web site. "But when you have 18 to 20 on a corner? Yuck. We are certainly for First Amendment rights, but we're also for a safe and aesthetically pleasing city. There's a balance."

In 1999, the fight over control of San Francisco's news racks got ugly when a group of six publishers, led by New Times Inc., filed suit in federal court to stop the city from enforcing its new news rack ordinance.

A San Francisco news rack ordinance -- approved in June 1998 -- authorized the city's Department of Public Works to replace all of San Francisco's 15,000 freestanding newspaper racks with up to 1,000 multi-unit communal racks, also known as modulars or pedmounts.

Today, in San Francisco, if a company wants to distribute a publication from a pedmount, it must obtain a Fixed Pedestal Permit from the Department of Public Works (DPW). If it's a paid publication, the entity is responsible for maintaining and replacing the coin mechanism and payment-related hardware of each pedmount cubicle assigned.

San Francisco has been on the forefront of this issue with language like, "The proliferation of newspaper vending machines and vendors has become a major impediment to satisfactory pedestrian flow on the sidewalk, standing space along bus stops and at street comers, and access to adjacent properties," in its downtown plan.

The plan continues, "The City should devise a systematic approach to machine placement that would begin to rationalize the space allocated to vending machines, especially in critical pedestrian flow corridors. Newspaper distributors should be encouraged to use multi-unit machines and to place these machines against a building wherever possible, especially when there are niches in the building façade."

Lawsuits have hampered progress but compromise has been reached.

In Milwaukee, the DPW knows which boxes have permits and which don't. If there's a complaint about an ugly box, Cecilla Gilbert at DPW says, "We give them 10 days to remove or take out the boxes. If not, we remove them and take them to Traser Yards. Most of the time, people remove (unlicensed boxes) themselves or apply for the license. We want them all to be in good shape."

The City does its diligence to root out ugly boxes, but there's no ordinance on the books to do an Indianapolis or San Francisco-type program. Can it happen?

"We get complaints all the time for other parts of the city, too. We just removed about 30 non-permitted boxes from Ald. (Joe) Dudzik's district. We keep on top of it and sent letters to all publications that don't have permits. But, whether or not we can raise the (ordinance) issue again, I don't know," says Gilbert.

Maybe it's not needed, as the biggest media company in town seems to do a good job of keeping their boxes clean. "Overall, the Journal is very good about replacing their boxes," says Gilbert. "When we notice a box that has been marked with graffiti, we do our best to pull the box off the street, repaint the box or replace it with a new one. Graffiti is a very expensive problem."

What you can do to make it not suck: Call or write your alderman. When you see a box that's full of graffiti, tipped over or damaged, report it. And, call the publication that owns the box and let them know, too.

Passionate about getting a law on the books that forces companies to share box space? Think $15 per year is too low for millions of dollars of free advertising? Tell your alderman and the mayor, they need to hear from you.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.