How one town’s government brought the local paper back to life

A year later, the Fitchburg Star gets ready to stand on its own--and cover an election

Around this time last year, a practically defunct newspaper in a suburb of Madison, WI, embarked on an experiment: With a one-year direct financial boost from city hall—about $30,000 to cover monthly postage, plus the shuttering of a city newsletter that competed for ad dollars—the paper would return to print. Then, it would see if it could stand on its own in 2015 without a government subsidy.

The situation was a little odd, and not without controversy—one area columnist likened the deal to city leaders in Fitchburg buying their own Soviet-style Pravda. We wrote about the arrangement at the time in a piece about local governments supporting local journalism with taxpayer funds.

So, a year later, how’s it working out? Pretty well, say the locals.

The Fitchburg Star is now printing a monthly edition and mailing it to the more than 12,000 residences and businesses in town. All of the paper’s revenue these days comes from advertising, though it is still getting some city support: local officials committed $16,800 in 2015 to buy a full-page ad in every issue.

The mayor, Steve Pfaff—he’s running for re-election and campaigning in part on helping bring back the local paper—says taxpayers’ role in helping the Star isn’t long-term.

“I think the paper, and us at the city, want to see what moves forward here for 2016,” he says. “They have an interest in being independent from city funding.”

For the time being, though, Star editor Jim Ferolie says he’s proud of the resurrected periodical. The paper is adding a new entry-level staff member, and earlier this month put on a candidate debate for the upcoming city elections. Covering the same government that is supporting the paper hasn’t been awkward, Ferolie insists.

“It’s just like everything else that we cover, we have a very professional setup for our government coverage,” he said. “I’m the editor of all of our publications”—the Star is part of a chain—“and government is my passion. We don’t have trouble at all.”

Katy Culver, a professor of media ethics at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Fitchburg resident, sounded skeptical when the arrangement was announced last year, calling it “absolutely a conflict of interest.”

Now, she says she hasn’t seen any evidence of that conflict influencing the paper’s reporting. And because the arrangement has been transparent, at least readers can take it into account, she notes. 

“There is coverage happening in Fitchburg that was not happening when the Star was gone,” Culver told me. “What’s been fascinating in all of this is how much the newspaper reinforced the sense of community. It is actually a town because it has a paper. It doesn’t have a high school, but it has a paper. It gives an identity to a place.”

That search for identity is a large part of what led the city to approach the Star with the deal in the first place. The paper had gone out of print—retaining only a minimal online presence—in 2009. The economic recession was in full effect, and the sense of community in Fitchburg wasn’t especially strong, says Angela Kinderman, director of the local Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re a unique community, we serve three different school districts, so communication has been a really necessary part of our growth,” Kinderman said. “Helping subsidize that paper for the first year was, I think, a really good move on the city’s part.”

She continued: “As much as we all like to say that were going digital or online … we still see a lot of interest in people wanting print and having print, and reading print, and having that kind of monthly communication. I wish we could say it was a weekly communication, but we’ll get there when we get there.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected].