CHARLESTON, SC — Last month, a story popped up about local officials in a suburb of Madison, WI, voting to help relaunch a community newspaper with public money. The Fitchburg Star had shuttered its print run five years ago, but maintained an online presence covering Fitchburg, a town of about 25,000 people. Now the city government is kicking in $30,000 to get the printing presses rolling again and mail free monthly copies of the Star to every businesses and residence in town for the rest of 2014.
Here’s a description of the deal from a Feb. 16 write-up in The Wisconsin State Journal:
The partnership between Fitchburg City Hall and Unified Newspaper Group speaks to the value of community newspapers, city leaders say, as well as to the difficult financial realities facing the publishing industry. As part of the agreement, the city will no longer publish its advertiser-supported newsletter, so as not to compete for revenue with the newspaper.
Supporters deem the newspaper’s return a victory for the community, though one journalism expert questioned whether the publication will be able to retain its editorial independence.
You can read more details on the deal here, from the newspaper company itself.
It was an interesting story in its own right, but it stood out for a particular reason: Just a few weeks earlier another city council, this one in Winston-Salem, NC, moved to financially support a local paper in its community. That deal involved even more public money.
“On a unanimous vote, the council on Tuesday approved a $100,000 low-interest loan to the Winston-Salem Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that focuses on news in the black community,” the Winston-Salem Journal reported on Jan. 22. More from the Journal’s article:
The newspaper plans to use the new loan to increase its sales staff and improve sales and circulation. According to the letter that the newspaper’s publisher, Ernie Pitt, wrote to the city in December, the money would be used to create three to five jobs at the newspaper. The average salary would be about $30,000.
That loan is actually the second one the city has made to the paper. The prior deal came in 1984, when the Chronicle borrowed $50,000 to renovate its building. The paper paid that loan back in full. (Update: For an interesting discussion of the original loan, see this column in the Greensboro News & Record.)
A closer look shows that, despite the superficial similarities, the details of the two deals are pretty different. Some of the specific ethical questions they raise are different, too. And it’s very possible that these are isolated developments, not the start of a new trend in which local governments prop up commercial news organizations. CJR consulted several news historians and industry observers, none of whom knew of similar recent cases. (Update: though see this Boston Globe article from January, via Richard Prince, who adds some context on the particular financial challenges of black community newspapers.)
Still, the timing of the deals was striking. And with many local media outlets around the country still struggling in the wake of major disruptions to their business models, it’s worth asking: Is this going to be a thing now?
A local government seeks coverage of its community
In Wisconsin, the deal had a surprising source—it began not with a newspaper company asking for public funds, but with a local government eager to restore print coverage of its community.
Fitchburg is a diverse, rapidly changing city struggling with its identity, its mayor, Shawn Pfaff, told me. Local officials believe a regular print paper might help foster public discourse and a sense of community, and had approached Unified Newspaper Group several times since the Star ended its print run in 2009.
But at the same time, the city was publishing a product that competed for advertising dollars: a 20-page bimonthly newsletter, with ads, that was delivered to every city residence and business. The city’s offer to kill the newsletter, at least for the time being, was key to making the deal happen.
“In order for us to crack that nut to make sure that we have somebody following city hall … we had to pull back the city newsletter, take the cost that we incurred sending it out to every mailbox, turn that over to Unified Newspapers Group [and] send the advertisers to Unified Newspaper Group,” Pfaff told me. “So we’ve set up a 10-month arrangement where they’re going to print 10 monthly newspapers. After Jan. 1, 2015, they’re on their own.”
The Fitchburg City Council voted unanimously for the deal, and the mayor says the move was backed by the local Chamber of Commerce.