NOW YOU SEE IT: The Mercury News promised to return Metro news racks found in their scrap metal dumpster. The rack on the right, however, disappeared less than 48 hours later, and the Merc can't explain why.
Since the initial discovery, a series of contradictory and misleading statements released by the Mercury News and BANG has left many of the independent publishers—and even some public safety officials in Silicon Valley—incredulous. The media chain initially claimed it was “contacted by local authorities” in Palo Alto and “instructed to remove several news racks that were not in compliance with a local rack ordinance.” The statement went on to say that the removals of racks is “a normal practice in the industry” and the Merc notified individual publishers whose racks were removed.
But Palo Alto Weekly publisher Bill Johnson called the rack removals “every publisher’s worst nightmare” when he was notified by Metro the day following the Merc‘s statement.
“What!” exclaimed an incredulous Kevin Babeaux, owner of the Belmont-based Pink Spots LGBT publication, when informed Thursday of the confiscations. “That’s disgusting. That’s our property.”
A follow-up statement by David Rounds, vice president of circulation for BANG, said that the Merc received calls from the Palo Alto police dispatch to remove racks from two different locations in Palo Alto. Again, that claim was swiftly disputed.
“I can tell you that it’s not our policy and certainly not our standard procedure to be directing one company to remove news rack or anything like that,” said Palo Alto police Lt. Zach Perron. “That’s not even enforced by the police department. It’s done by the public works department.” He added, “I don’t know if such a call occurred, but it would surprise me if it did.”
With BANG owning almost every major daily newspaper in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco, some publishers and circulation managers have wondered if BANG has taken a systematic approach to further squash competition, aside from consolidation.
“What that says to me is that they’re completely disorganized, or else they’re really organized and it’s intentional,” says Lilledahl, who has had multiple run-ins with the Merc in the past.
In a March 2004 letter to Lilledahl from Harry Woldt, then VP of Circulation for the Mercury News, an agreement was made to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Lilledahl and CMI after two CMI racks went missing from a Coco’s Restaurant in Sunnyvale. In exchange, Woldt wrote, the Merc would “not remove any news racks or instruct any third party to remove any newsrack owned by CMI from public or private party without prior consent.”
The letter went on to say the Merc had “intended to return the news racks to CMI, but have been unable to locate the news racks as of this time.”
Mercury News officials offered no explanation for the disappearance of the fifth verified Metro rack under their watch, nor have they provided any accounting of the dates, locations and quantity of racks picked up in the past. In the last six months, more than 5 percent of Metro‘s newly designed news racks have disappeared from the streets.
After extensive coverage on television and radio newscasts, in the community press and on media industry websites, a new twist emerged when BANG publications covered the story in its low-circulation Saturday edition’s business sections. In the article, the Mercury News suggested that the recycling of competitors’ racks was a “mistake” by a single employee, and the count shrank from earlier reports.
Bob Lampkin, a circulation director of Embarcadero Media, was quoted in the article describing the news rack removals as “a totally normal situation.” It was also noted that Lampkin previously worked for the Mercury News.
BANG vice president of circulation David Rounds told his paper that “the racks the Mercury News removed were left along a fence behind the newspaper’s headquarters for pickup. However, while 17 racks were lined up by the fence, an employee mistakenly tossed seven others into a recycling bin.”
The article did not explain why the employee selected nearly-new boxes of the Daily Post and Metro for recycling while he elected not to toss a collection of rusty old racks nearby.
On Monday, Rounds maintained that the Metro rack that had been photographed on Wednesday at the bottom of the metal heap was nowhere to be found. He added in a separate email that BANG had “engaged an outside firm to conduct a thorough investigation” of the rack removals.
“If I had your news rack,” he told Metro, “I’d give it back.”