Ever since the first printing press arrived in Chicago, the city's newspapers have slugged it out for dominance. Go to the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Illinois Street near downtown and you'll see 21 news racks lined up competing for attention. The racks come in a variety of shapes and colors with choices ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to neighborhood and suburban papers, from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times to job guides.
Now a newspaper war of a different sort is raging in the Windy City. Mayor Richard Daley and the City Council have muscled through a law to replace many of the newspapers' freestanding racks with sleek new vending machines holding multiple papers. The mayor says the new machines will make downtown look more scenic. Critics argue they will leave it more sterile and rob newspapers of their First Amendment right to control their own distribution.
"It's greatly disturbing to us on a free-speech basis," says Brian Hieggelke, editor and publisher of Newcity, a weekly news and arts paper. The new machines will restrict how many copies Newcity can distribute each week, he says.
The controversial law launches a one-year program that replaces 560 freestanding newspaper racks along tourist-filled Michigan Avenue and State Street with approximately 60 of the multiple-newspaper machines. The law awards a no-bid contract to Paris-based J.C. Decaux - a company known for its bus shelters and public toilets around the world - to operate the new machines. After a year, the Daley administration will consider whether to use the machines across Chicago.
The new machines look innocent enough. The 8- by 4 foot iron boxes are green, with stately pillars on the sides. Each unit features two rows of four newspaper boxes. Decaux will install the machines for free in return for rights to sell advertisements on their backs.
The multiple-newspaper machines may appear on the streets of other US cities. San Francisco is accepting bids to place them throughout the city later this year, and Decaux is marketing the idea to officials in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, says Suzanne Davis, the company's senior vice president.
The new machines will improve the look of downtown Chicago, says Bridget Gainer, a budget analyst who is overseeing the project for the city. "The aldermen's offices and various city offices get constant complaints about the news boxes - that they're in the way and stop people from getting on buses, that they're unsightly and not well maintained," she says.
Critics suspect Daley has other motives. The city expects to replace the existing news racks by the end of May, in time to make downtown sparkle for thousands of travel agents and writers in town for a giant trade show. A good appearance for the travel show could translate into millions of tourist dollars for the city.
No matter how elegant the new machines look, Chicago's publishers object to City Hall dictating where and how their newspapers should be sold. "It's no longer going to be a business decision made by newspapers," says Mr. Hieggelke, one of many newspaper representatives testifying against the city's plan.
Smaller newspapers are protesting a clause in the law giving daily papers first dibs for spaces in the new machines. "The Des Moines Register has a higher priority in this distribution scheme than my publication," Hieggelke says. This clause will especially hurt the city's many ethnic publications, he says. "Most publications serving minority communities are not dailies," he says.
The publishers also worry that Decaux - whose newspaper experience is limited to two boxes in a San Francisco experiment last year - won't be able to handle the competing demands of Chicago's papers.
Not to worry, Ms. Gainer says. The city and Decaux promise to place enough new machines at each intersection to meet the needs of all the newspapers. "No one will be denied at least one space on every corner if they want to be there," Gainer says.
Still, Hieggelke expects many Chicagoans will miss the rough-and-tumble style of the old news racks. "I think a lot of people who appreciate the diversity of our culture appreciate them," he says.