How Local Officials Seek Revenge on Their Hometown Newspapers

Two of the most powerful women in central New York’s village of Derry sat opposite each other in a brick building on Main Street to battle over the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It was the fall of 2019. Delaware County electoral frontrunner Tina Moret told Kim Shepard, publisher of local newspaper The Reporter, about what she believed to be unfair coverage of the paper. He demanded that action be taken. county government.

Shepard stood his ground. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Moret attacked where the paper would suffer most: financially. The county stripped the paper of a lucrative publication contract and later told The Reporter that the decision was based in part on “how your paper reports on county business.”

The move brings The Reporter about $13,000 a year in revenue, a big blow for the newspaper with just 4,000 subscribers.

In most parts of the country, state and local laws require public notices of town meetings, elections, land sales, and other routine events to be posted in traditional print-and-ink newspapers and online. The public’s awareness of public attention. Payments to publish these notices are one of the most stable sources of income left for local newspapers.

In some cases, however, civil servants have canceled contracts to punish local newspapers for their active coverage of local politics.

Such retaliation is nothing new, but seems to be happening more frequently now that terms like “fake news” have become part of the general lexicon.

In recent years, a Colorado, North Carolina newspaper has new jersey and California, New York, and others were stripped of their advertising contracts for publishing articles criticizing local governments. Some states like Florida go even further. cancel A requirement that such notices must be published in newspapers.

Richard Carpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a nonprofit focused on promoting government transparency, said, “The situation in which newspapers are being attacked using contracts and laws is getting worse every year. I am doing,” he said.

The trend is the latest example of how civil servants and the wealthy are waging war against the press that actively reports on them.

Many politicians, including former President Donald J. Trump, have sought to outlaw the mainstream media. Some like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former California Congressman Devin Nunes. filed a defamation lawsuit that the court has dismissed. In some cases, the threat extended into the physical realm, such as the New Hampshire journalist whose home was vandalized after revelations about a local businessman.

Legal experts said it was illegal for elected officials to weaponize public contracts. “Under the First Amendment, the government can vote on any issue based on its expressed views,” said Thomas Hentoff, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly, who specializes in First Amendment law. We cannot retaliate against them,” he said.

In some cases, it can be difficult to prove that local governments are canceling contracts because they are dissatisfied with newspaper coverage. But sometimes the rationale is more or less clear.

For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in Custer County, Colorado, replaced a longtime public health director with a man whose educational background seemed questionable.wet mountain tribune report He says his degree was obtained at an unaccredited university that offers no classes or written exams.

The county commissioner terminated the advertising contract with the Tribune and gave the contract to a smaller competitor.1 Commissioner Said He said at a public meeting that he did not want to support the Tribune because it was a “witch hunt” against the Surgeon General.

The paper’s publisher, Jordan Hedberg, sued the county in the fall for violating the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. A federal judge encouraged both sides to negotiate. In December, the county reinstated the Tribune’s contract for four years and agreed to pay the newspaper $50,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

For smaller newspapers whose budgets can often only cover one or two full-time reporters and a handful of freelancers, advertising contracts are worth thousands of dollars a year and can be the difference between floating and sinking. There is a nature. This is especially true since many newspapers get very little advertising revenue.

“A smart government could use this as a blackmail tool,” said Alex Schiffer, co-founder of the Shawangunk Journal in Ellenville, New York. The journal has about 3,000 print and digital subscribers.

Last summer, the school district in this town cancel Multi-year journal publication agreement complain About the coverage, including an article about the district’s low graduation rate. This notice is now published in a newspaper 30 miles outside Ellenville.

Schiffer said the termination cost the journal about $2,000 a year. “It was never a big hit to the budget, but the damage to civic affairs was even worse,” he said.

In 2020, the Gaston Gazette, a North Carolina state newspaper with a circulation of about 4,000, published an article alleging that a county commissioner had acted inappropriately. Resolved A worker’s accident lawsuit in a closed room.

The Gaston County Commissioner denounced the article as “another example of the fake news media trying to make news instead of reporting the facts.” The county sued the paper for defamation. The lawsuit was later dropped, but Said was due to withdraw from the contract for public notice estimate The move could cost The Gazette up to $100,000 a year in lost revenue.

Attorney for the Gannett newspaper chain, owner of The Gazette, Said In a comment to the Charlotte Observer, he said such a move would be unconstitutional. The county has not complied with plans to terminate the contract. A county spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

The North Carolina Legislature is one of several legislatures considering relaxing or eliminating the requirement to place advertisements in physical newspapers.States have already changed the rules Guildford Countythe public notice must appear only on government websites.

The struggle in Delaware County, New York, dates back to 2019, when the newspaper covered a series of city hearings that touched on the treatment of the county’s teens in the juvenile justice system.

under State Law, the hearing had to be public. But journalists and other observers at the time had to sit at one end of the long room, while hearing participants sat at the other end, without microphones or speakers to let the audience hear them. He said he was speaking quietly.reporter published A letter to the editor about an unusual setting.

“I totally disagree that they’ve been cornered,” County Oversight Board Chairman Moret said in an interview.

In November 2019, The Reporter published an article in which the attorney for one of the teenage boys alleged that county officials had cheated. backdated document for his clients. (County attorney Amy Merklen said the allegations were false and that the newspaper did not seek comment from her office prior to publication.)

One day that fall, Ms. Moret showed up at the newspaper office in downtown Delhi to meet Ms. Shepard. The women had known each other for decades. Their children were playing together. They met occasionally at the county Republican dinners in which they were members.

Shepherd said Morey complained that the county government was not portrayed “positively.” She asked Shepard to fire the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Lillian Brown, but Shepard refused.

Moret said he considered some of The Reporter’s coverage unfair and had only asked Shepard to cover the county hearings impartially.

Since its inception in 1881, The Reporter has effectively published the county’s public records. Last year, however, the Audit Board voted to award the contract to the Hancock Herald, which covers several towns in the southeast corner of the county. , about 40 miles away, and less than half of The Reporter’s circulation of about 4,300.

In March, the county articulated its rationale: letter It was sent to Shepard and her husband and business partner, Randy Shepard, and signed by 38 officials.

“The blatant manipulation of facts and the way your paper reports on county business is one of the reasons the Board of Supervisors has chosen to change the county’s official newspaper to the Hancock Herald in 2022,” the letter said. There is.” (Mr Moret said in his recent interview that the decision was actually to save the county money.)

Some county officials said they disagreed with the decision.

“They claim The Reporter publishes biased stories,” said Wayne Marshfield, a member of the supervisory board and who signed the letter, but did so only to support his colleagues. said it was. “I always thought it was fairly factual, but The Reporter made corrections even though they claimed otherwise and I believe I would. They claim not to publish it.”

the shepherds defended They covered Delaware County and estimated that the loss of the county’s public notices would cost it $13,000 in lost revenue annually.

So far, the newspaper hasn’t had to lay off staff, but the Shepards family continues to rely on the money they make to print billboards, T-shirts and posters to keep The Reporter going. “It feels like as soon as you make a profit in one area, you’re hit in another,” Shepard said. They have hired an attorney and are considering whether to sue the county.

Moret denied the fight with reporters was part of a wider trend of conservatives attacking the media.

“We’re not some kind of mad Republican,” she said. “At this local level, it’s not really a matter of Republicans or Democrats. It’s about respect and fairness.”

Tina Moret, chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, said:credit…Joe Damone

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