Monday, February 24, 2014

Newspaper Subsidies

One of Week Six’s readings, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age: The Report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities,” focused on people’s local information needs and identified three objectives, with one being, “Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to communities” (XIII).

While this report quips that “there need be no second-class citizens in the democratic communities of the digital age,” (IV) it paradoxically acknowledges that, “Some populations… are unserved or are woefully underserved” by quality, local news sources. It is quite true that some municipalities do not have good access to local news, including Fitchburg, Wisconsin.

Fitchburg’s print newspaper, The Fitchburg Star, ceased publication in 2009, but did retain an online presence. Apparently, however, this online medium did not fulfill the community’s information need, and was even recognized by the city. In February 2014, the city government announced that it would pay for copies of The Fitchburg Star to be mailed to nearly 13,000 homes and businesses—the entire city. This resurrected newspaper will only have ten issues, one for each month from March-December 2014, and will cost Fitchburg over $30,000. The hope is that this direct public funding will help launch the Star into a subscription model, that the newspaper will become self-sustaining, and that the newspaper will become a weekly publication.

For this type of public-private partnership, one may question the ability of the newspaper to be impartial, and not just a voice-piece for the city, as journalistic integrity would dictate. While Mayor Shawn Pfaff and City Administrator Tony Roach of Fitchburg maintain that the Star will have editorial control, there were two items in a Wisconsin State Journal article that make this endeavor problematic:

“In a draft memo of understanding set to be discussed Feb. 25 the City Council, the two parties would agree to meet quarterly and ‘review content, costs and supporting sales.’”

“Enstad [general manager of Unified Newspaper Group, which runs The Fitchburg Star] said the Star won’t endorse candidates but may occasionally take stands on municipal issues.”

            The above statements are troubling because it means that the content of the newspaper will be affected. If a newspaper is intentionally avoiding candidate endorsements, is only “occasionally” taking stands on municipal issues, and will be routinely meeting with the city to discuss “content,” then the corporate personhood of that publication has been irrevocably diminished. In effect, the news that Fitchburg is paying to distribute—under the guise of good-will towards the establishment of a well-informed citizenry—will seemingly always have a pro-government slant, at least as long as the city is holding the purse strings.

            Though access to information is deemed inherently good, one must have the necessary literacies to assess, analyze, and understand the underlying conditions that are embodied in that text. For the people of Fitchburg, another layer has been added to that challenge. Publicly-supported media is not new, and there are excellent exemplars like the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, but in this particular instance, the city of Fitchburg is too involved.

While this is one isolated case, more public-private newspaper partnerships may be on the horizon. A quick database search returned literature on subsidies, including a piece by Brad A. Greenberg, who at the time of writing was a J.D. Candidate at the UCLA School of Law. Greenberg believed that a mixture of direct- and indirect-subsidies by the public sector will save the newspaper industry. He writes:

“If Congress chooses to aid the press by providing subsidies to newspapers, the best manner would be a hybrid of direct funding and tax-based incentives, centered around a national public newspaper and local partnering newspapers that would be newly-converted to tax-exempts.” (Greenberg 244)

While Greenberg’s contention is an extreme theoretical model, one that would be the equivalent of a networked “Ministry of Truth” for you Orwellians, it highlights what all people, especially information professionals, need to do: assess, analyze, and understand the underlying conditions and assumptions embodied in information resources.


Erickson, Doug. “A community newspaper returns—with help from CityHall.” Wisconsin State

            Journal. 16 February 2014. Web. 24 February 2014.

Newspaper Industry.” UCLA Entertainment Law Review 19.1 (Winter 2012): 189-244. Web. 24 February 2014.  

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, "Executive
Summary" in Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age (2009). 

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