We’ll start by saying that as the bona fide press, we stand on the front lines as defenders of the First Amendment. Newspapers are baked into our democracy — while we don’t pretend to understand all the motivations of the Founding Fathers, on the press they were quite clear. Our freedom to perform the people’s business will not be abridged.
On that we stand firm.
But perhaps we should consider the difference between performing the people’s business — chasing the campaign trail, looking at balance sheets and contracts, following the money among them — and what amounts to marketing.
Last week the Winston-Salem City Council began discussing the possibility of limiting downtown newspaper boxes, which seem to have grown exponentially, like a horde of zombies, in the last two years.
There are hundreds of them in downtown Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, maybe thousands, sometimes in clusters of a dozen or more, blocking pedestrian access to sidewalks and street crossings. Cheap plastic and rusted metal mar the landscape like jet skis and junked cars in the yard. Some of them stand alone, in places where no pedestrian ever goes, functioning as free billboards in districts that would never allow posted advertisements of any other kind.
Put one on a lonely street corner, and within a couple weeks there will be three more. It’s like throwing water on a Gremlin.
Disclosure: Of these hundreds of newspaper boxes on our downtown streets, 10 of them are ours. We move no fewer than 40 papers apiece through them, about 5 percent of our print run. We find we move way more papers inside businesses as opposed to on the street. And most of our racks have a cool lightning bolt on the side.
So we act in part out of self-interest when we applaud the actions of council on this one.
Expect most newspapers to come out against this one in force — the dailies, in particular, have a history of attempting to quash even a discussion of this sort of regulation.
And our competition in the weekly-paper market will likely not give up their free square footage in prime locations without a good, hard fight.
Even more pugnacious might be the free publications that have no sort of content at all: advertisers, real estate guides and car ads that make a mockery of the intentions of the First Amendment even as their products spiral further into irrelevancy.
Advertising, they will tell you, is protected speech, though they’d be hard-pressed to find someone who looks for an apartment or a job anywhere but online or in person.
The question these publishers need to answer is this: At what point do these untouched stacks of newsprint cease being protected speech and start becoming litter?