Now here’s a bad idea. The Commons, a monthly, non-profit newspaper that covers the Brattleboro, Vt., area, recently applied for — and received — a $25,000 loan from the town government in order to relaunch as a weekly and refurbish its website.
As Bill Densmore observes at the New England News Forum, Brattleboro is something of a hotbed for citizen journalism, as it is the home of the pioneering DIY news site iBrattleboro. The town is also covered by the Brattleboro Reformer, owned by Dean Singleton’s financially ailing MediaNews Group.
According to this story by Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio, Jeff Potter, The Commons’ executive editor, says his paper is an example of a news organization that is “more of a public utility and less of a commercial enterprise.” Select Board chairman Dick DeGray sees no problem with the town’s funding a newspaper, saying:
We viewed it as a small business loan. It didn’t have any bearing that it was a newspaper. Since I’ve been on the board we’ve given money to a local brewery we’ve given money to a bagel start up. So as long as they meet the criteria, which they did.
DeGray adds that the loan does not come with any strings attached with respect to how The Commons covers Brattleboro.
Well, then. First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t a simple question. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Densmore reminded me that many for-profit community newspapers are heavily dependent on legal ads placed by the local government. And as we struggle toward new models for sustaining journalism, conflicts will inevitably arise.
For instance, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site that I follow closely, has come under criticism for allegedly favoring a Latino parents group that receives funding from the same foundation that also pays the Independent to cover education reform.
Last year, you may recall, the Bay State Banner, a for-profit paper that covers Boston’s African-American community, staved off a crisis with the help of a $200,000 loan arranged by Mayor Tom Menino. As Adam Reilly reported in the Boston Phoenix, the Banner quickly morphed from a harsh Menino critic into Sergeant Schultz.
Journalism is rife with conflicts, starting with the daily conflict of not wanting to offend advertisers. And I’m sure the folks in Brattleboro are earnest and well-intentioned — we are talking about Vermont, after all. But it still seems to me that rule number one is you can’t take money directly from the very government you are supposed to be keeping an eye on.