Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fines for unwanted papers proposed again

The Examiner is in trouble again for dumping newspapers on doorsteps and driveways against the wishes of property owners. Days after the chain reached an agreement to stop a Maryland legislator's plan to fine publishers for unwanted papers, a San Francisco official is proposing similar legislation there. San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle that half the complaints he receives about litter are about newspapers. And, as this picture from the San Francisco blog shows, the culprit is the Examiner. None of the other major papers in the city deliver to homes except the Chronicle, which only goes to subscribers.

Mirkarimi, who is one of 11 elected members of San Francisco's legislative branch, has drafted a law that reads like Maryland legislator Tanya Shewell's bill to stop unwanted Examiner deliveries in suburban Baltimore. Mirkarimi would require publishers of home-delivered free papers to include a phone number or e-mail address that homeowners could use to put their address on a do-not-deliver list. If the papers keep coming, the newspaper would face a $100 fine for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 thereafter.

Examiner Publisher John Wilcox told the Chronicle that his paper already has a number residents can call to stop delivery and that the number is printed on the plastic bags it uses. He said that the first time 25,000 such bags went out, fewer than 200 people called.

Wilcox said the Examiner will obey the new law, "but it has got to be something of course that is doable and reasonable."

The Examiner has other options. It can pay the fines and keep delivering unwanted papers -- owner Phil Anschutz, with a net worth of $7.9 billion (according to Forbes), has lost tens of millions of dollars on the Examiner chain since he went into the newspaper business four years ago. Apparently cost is no object to him.

It could also sue the city of San Francisco over the law. The risk, however, is that if Anschutz loses, the precedent will possibly create difficulties for more careful distributors who have been delivering free newspapers for years without complaints.

In Maryland, the Examiner and other free papers convinced the legislator who was proposing a similar law to shelve the legislation so that they could have another chance at solving the problem themselves. The Examiner's delivery technique is also drawing fire in Washington, D.C., where it was the subject of a scathing TV report (see item below).