Local newspapers are pulling most of their newspaper boxes from downtown Ashland in response to a new $25 annual fee per newspaper box being imposed by the city government.

Representatives from newspapers that include the Ashland Daily Tidings, Medford Mail Tribune, The Oregonian, The San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal said they are pulling most of their newspaper boxes from downtown Ashland in response to a new $25 annual fee per newspaper box being imposed by the city government.

Until this month, newspaper boxes could sit on public sidewalks for free.

With newspaper profit margins already so slim, some newspapers' distributors said it doesn't make financial sense to pay to have their boxes sprinkled around downtown. Some distributors said they will pay the $25 fee on a few boxes where newspaper sales can justify the cost, such as near the Mix dessert shop and Geppetto's Restaurant.

The city of Ashland designated one free zone for newspaper boxes where the $25 fee doesn't apply. The free space is in front of Starbucks coffee shop, which neighbors the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

A host of free publications are also being charged a $25 annual fee to occupy one shelf space inside new multi-publication racks. The racks were donated to the city of Ashland by the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune and were refurbished by the city.

Free publications can also use the one no-fee zone near Starbucks.

Free publications that are normally distributed downtown include Sneak Preview, the Christian magazine Signs of the Times, Ashland High School Rogue News, Alternatives for Cultural Creativity, Sentient Times, New Connexion Pacific Northwest Journal of Conscious Living and a host of real estate magazines.

Newspapers react

Peter Quince, local distributor of The New York Times and USA Today, said he has already pulled most of his newspaper boxes from downtown. Depending on its location, he said a newspaper box earns about $5 to $30 per month in profit.

He said people enjoyed seeing The New York Times and USA Today downtown.

"I think they make the city look like it's connected to the outside world. Visitors love seeing them. It adds character," Quince said. "I'm more concerned about the loss of the local publications, which are the best check on local government."

Quince said he believes the city's actions intrude on Americans' rights to free expression and freedom of the press.

F & S Distributing Owner Susan Dorsett, who distributes The Oregonian, The Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle locally, said it's already hard enough to make a living without the $25 per box city fee. She said she pulled 12 newspaper boxes from downtown Ashland.

"I think Ashlanders should be outraged because it's their rights that are being violated," Dorsett said.

Duane Wolfe, single copy distributor for the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune, said the two papers expect to have three newspaper boxes in downtown: one in the free zone by Starbucks, plus one each in the $25 fee areas near Mix dessert shop and Geppetto's Restaurant.

"It limits our exposure. When you do the analysis of how many papers we were selling versus the $25 fee per site per year, it was not feasible when you throw in our overhead," Wolfe said.

Wolfe said Daily Tidings and Mail Tribune newspaper sales are stronger at grocery stores and other sites beyond the downtown, so dropping a few boxes would not have a big impact on sales.

Most of the Daily Tidings and Mail Tribune newspapers distributed in Ashland are delivered directly to homes where residents have subscriptions.

The new $25 fee applies only to public sidewalks downtown.

"We are having our lawyers look into it right now and are waiting to hear back from them," said Bob Hunter, editor of the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune. "If the city were trying to impose a fee or other restrictions on us for newspaper sales on private property, that would clearly be overstepping their authority. Since it's on public right of way, it's less clear, so we're waiting to get some legal advice on it."

Deborah Mokma, publisher and managing editor of the free Sentient Times, said her paper will pay the $25 fee to go inside the new city-provided enclosed racks where multiple free publications can be displayed.

Paid newspapers like The New York Times already have weatherproof boxes, but the free Sentient Times had a limited number of weatherproof racks to protect papers from the wind and rain, Mokma said.

The new weatherproof racks provided by the city for the free publications will shield those papers, she said.

"We are going to pay the fee and take a wait-and-see look at how it plays out in the first year," Mokma said.

Curtis Hayden, owner, editor and delivery person for the free Sneak Preview magazine and "walkabout" pocket guide to Ashland, said city officials wouldn't allow him to keep a wire rack on a public sidewalk downtown.

He said the owner of Hana Sushi restaurant downtown has agreed to have a rack for Sneak Preview and "walkabout" sit in a recessed area on private property — off the public sidewalk.

Hayden said he plans to get nice wooden racks for the restaurant location.

He said he didn't want to move Sneak Preview and "walkabout" into the multi-publication racks provided by the city because he said they would be lost among all the other publications.

Hayden said he's concerned about the impact on paid newspapers as well as free publications.

"I have already 'respectfully declined' to take part in their beautification scheme. It's not just the money but the principle of the thing. Newspaper racks for daily newspapers are not ugly. In my opinion, they're a thing of beauty because they're expressions of freedom of the press," Hayden said.

He said he has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about the issue.

ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque said it would be clearly unconstitutional if the city of Ashland charged some publications the $25 fee but didn't charge others. He said he's not sure whether the fee is unconstitutional if all the papers have to pay.

"I think we would be very interested in looking at this issue," he said.

Charles Hinkle, attorney for The Oregonian, said the city of Portland sometimes tries to restrict the number of newspaper boxes there, but always backs down when he sends them a warning letter.

Hinkle said federal courts have allowed governments to impose license or permit fees on newspaper rack owners, but only to cover administrative costs associated with issuing licenses or permits and policing First Amendment activity — not to raise revenue for the government. The administrative costs must be proven.

Hinkle said $10 annual fees have been allowed, but he's not sure whether a $25 annual fee per newspaper box can be justified.

The Oregon Supreme Court hasn't addressed the issue of government fees on newspaper boxes, he said.

Oregon's Constitution is considered by many to be more protective of First Amendment rights than the federal Constitution.

From bears to newspapers

The new $25 fee on downtown newspaper boxes has its origin in events that occurred back in 2008.

The city of Ashland cracked down on items on the sidewalk that violated city sign code and sidewalk rules, such as a giant teddy bear that sat on a bench outside the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory downtown.

After an outcry from some business owners and residents, the city appointed a Downtown Task Force in 2008 to look at sign code and sidewalk issues. Complaints arose about unsightly newspaper boxes.

In 2009, the Ashland City Council adopted a plan to have the city provide standardized newspaper boxes downtown in 2012, at which time newspaper businesses would have to abandon their own boxes and move into those provided by the city.

In the meantime, the City Council voted unanimously on Dec. 15, 2009 to adopt the new $25 fee for the use of sidewalk space by newspaper boxes. Paid newspapers were allowed to keep using their own boxes, while free publications were supposed to move into the enclosed racks provided by the city.

Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught said the city had originally proposed a $58 per box annual fee, but lowered that after meetings with newspaper distributors.

He said the $25 fee will help offset the city of Ashland's costs to process permits and maintain the boxes.

Faught said city officials worked with the distributors to identify the site near Starbucks as the free zone because distributors said newspaper sales were best there.

City Councilor Greg Lemhouse said he was surprised to hear that many newspaper distributors are pulling boxes out of the downtown area. He said he thought city officials and newspaper representatives met and came up with the $25 fee together.

"We all want the downtown to look nice. This is an effort to clean up the downtown," he said.

Councilor Carol Voisin said she is deeply concerned about the overall financial troubles of the newspaper industry, but that local distributors would have to prove to the City Council that the $25 fee really is hurting them financially. She said maybe some of the newspaper boxes should have been pulled from various sites anyway because of low sales.

"The bottom line is if these newspaper businesses are suffering so severely with the $25 per year fee, they need to present that to the council," she said.

While newspaper representatives are already complaining about the $25 fee, the cost to distribute newspapers could rise much higher in 2012.

City officials have yet to work out the details, but the city could pay $400 for a newspaper rack base that would support four standardized newspaper boxes. Each newspaper box would cost $450, and the newspaper businesses might pay for the boxes, Faught said.

Costs could be lower if the city of Ashland finds used equipment that it could refurbish, he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.