How Local Officials Seek Revenge on Their Hometown Newspapers

Some towns and counties are revoking newspapers' contracts to print public notices because they don't like the coverage.

How Local Officials Seek Revenge on Their Hometown Newspapers

In a brick building located on Main Street, two of the most influential women from the village of Delhi (central New York) sat in antagonizing each other over the First Amendment.

The fall of 2019 was upon us. Tina Mole was the top elected official of Delaware County. She demanded that Kim Shepard the publisher of The Reporter the local paper 'do' something about the unfair coverage the newspaper gave the county government.

Shepard was unwavering in her position. Soon after, Ms. Mole attacked The Reporter's finances. The county stripped The Reporter of a lucrative contract for printing public notices. The county informed The Reporter later that its decision was partially based on the'manner in which your newspaper reports county business'

The Reporter lost about $13,000 in revenue per year. This is a big blow for a newspaper that has only 4,000 subscribers.

State and local laws in most of the United States require that public announcements - about town meetings and elections, or land sales, for example - be printed in print and ink newspapers and online so citizens can stay informed. Local papers rely on the payments they receive for publishing notices as one of their most reliable sources of income.

Some public officials, however, revoke contracts to punish local newspapers that have aggressively covered local politics.

It is not a new phenomenon, but the occurrence of such retaliation seems to have increased since terms like "fake news" became part of our lexicon.

Newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina and New Jersey, as well New York, were stripped of contracts for public notices following the publication of articles that criticized their local governments. In some states, such as Florida, the requirement for public notices to be published in newspapers is being revoked.

Richard Karpel is the executive director of Public Notice Resource Center. The nonprofit organization focuses on government transparency.

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This is just the latest example in a long line of public officials and wealthy people waging war against news organizations who cover them aggressively.

Many politicians, such as former President Donald J. Trump have attempted to delegitimize mainstream media. Other politicians, such as former Gov. Sarah Palin, former Alaskan Representative Devin Nunes and other Californians have brought libel suits that have been dismissed by the courts. In some cases, such as the New Hampshire journalist who had his home vandalized following an exposé about a local businessman, the threats spilled over into the physical realm.

Legal experts have said that elected officials are not allowed to weaponize contracts. Thomas Hentoff is a partner in the Williams & Connolly law firm who specializes on First Amendment law.

It can be difficult to prove that the local government has revoked a contract due to its dissatisfaction with a newspaper's coverage. Sometimes, however, the reason for the revocation is more or less clear.

Custer County officials, in Colorado, replaced their long-time director of public health with a man who's educational credentials were questionable early in the Covid-19 outbreak. The Wet Mountain Tribune reported his degree was from an unaccredited institution that did not hold classes or administer written exams.

The commissioners of the county terminated the contract with Tribune for public announcements and gave it to a smaller rival. One commissioner stated during a meeting that he didn't want to support Tribune due to its witch hunt against the director of public health.

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Jordan Hedberg sued the county for violating his paper's First Amendment right in the fall. A federal judge encouraged both sides to engage in negotiations. The county reinstated The Tribune's four-year contract in December and agreed to pay $50,000 to the paper as damages and attorney's fees.

Public-notice contracts can mean thousands of dollars per year for small newspapers whose budgets can only cover one or two journalists full-time and some freelancers. They can make the difference between staying afloat or sinking. This is particularly true since many papers only generate a small amount of advertising revenue.

Alex Shiffer is a cofounder of the Shawangunk Journal, an Ellenville, N.Y. newspaper with about 3,000 subscribers to both print and digital editions.

After several years of complaining about the Journal's coverage, which included articles on the district's low graduation rate, the school district of the town canceled its contract for public notices last summer. Public notices are now published in a paper 30 miles from Ellenville.

Mr. Shiffer estimated that the Journal lost about $2,000 per year due to the cancellation of the contract. He said that the cancellation of the contract did not cost a lot to their budget, but it had a much greater impact on civic engagement.

The Gaston Gazette in North Carolina, which has a circulation of 4,000 copies, published an article in 2020 that claimed county commissioners improperly settled cases of workers' compensation behind closed doors.

Gaston County Board of Commissioners Chairman, Mr. John Gaston, slammed the article for being a 'fake news' piece that was merely a way to create news and not report facts. The county sued for libel. Later, it dropped the lawsuit but announced that it would pull the contract for public announcements. It estimated the move could cost The Gazette $100,000 in revenue per year.

In comments made to The Charlotte Observer, an attorney for The Gazette’s owner, Gannett, stated that such a step would be unconstitutional. The county has not acted upon its plan to terminate the contract. A spokeswoman for the county declined to comment on this article.

North Carolina's legislature is among those who are looking to reduce or eliminate the requirement that public notices be printed in newspapers. Guilford County has already adopted a new rule that requires public notices to only be posted on government websites.

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The battle in New York's Delaware County began in 2019, when The Reporter reported on a series municipal hearings which touched upon the county's treatment for teenagers within the juvenile justice system.

According to state law, hearings must be open. Journalists and other observers claimed that at the time, they were forced to sit in one end of the long room while hearing participants sat on the other side, speaking quietly without any microphones or speakers. The Reporter published an editorial about the strange setup.

In an interview, Ms. Mole said, 'I completely dispute that they were pushed into a corner.'

The Reporter published a story in November 2019 in which the lawyer of one of the teens claimed that county officials backdated a document pertaining to his client. Amy Merklen, county's attorney, stated that the allegation is false and that The Reporter did not contact her office before publishing the article.

The Reporter offices in Delhi's downtown were where Ms. Shepard and Ms. Mole met one day during the fall. They had been friends for many decades. The children of the women had played together. The two men occasionally met at the Republican Party dinners in their county.

Mole, according to Ms. Shepard complained that the county was not being presented 'in an optimistic light'. She asked Ms. Shepard if she would fire Lillian Browne as the editor of the newspaper, but Ms. Shepard claimed that this was something that she refused to do.

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Ms. Mole stated that she felt some of The Reporter’s coverage was unfair, and asked Ms. Shepard simply to cover the county’s hearings in an impartial manner.

The Reporter has published the county's records since its founding in 1881. The board of supervisors awarded the contract last year to The Hancock Herald. This paper covers only a few small towns in the southeast end of the county and is located nearly 40 miles from The Reporter. Its circulation is less than half of The Reporter, which has about 4,300 copies.

In March, 38 county officials signed a letter that was sent to Ms. Shepard as well as her husband, Randy Shepard.

The letter stated that 'the flagrant manipulations of facts and your paper's reporting of county business were among the reasons why the board of Supervisors decided to change the county's official paper in 2022 to The Hancock Herald. In a recent interview, Mole stated that the decision was made to save the county money.

Several county officials disagreed with this decision.

Wayne Marshfield said that he signed the letter to show his support for his colleagues. He said, 'They claim The Reporter will publish biased articles'. 'I found the articles to be very factual. But they claim otherwise, and they say that The Reporter would not publish corrections. I think they'd do so.'

The Shepards estimate that the loss of public notices from Delaware County costs them $13,000 in revenue per year.

The Reporter hasn't had to reduce staff yet, but the Shepards rely on the money they earn from printing posters, T-shirts, and signs to keep it going. Ms. Shepard stated that 'as soon as we gain in one area it seems we lose in another'. They are thinking about suing the county and have hired an attorney.

Ms. Mole denied the fight between The Reporter and her was part of an broader conservative trend attacking the media.

She said, 'We are not the crazy Republicans.' It's not really about Republicans or Democrats on this local level. Respect and fairness are important.

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