Two of the most powerful women in the village of Delhi in central New York sat face to face in a brick building on Main Street in what would become a battle over the First Amendment.
It was the fall of 2019. Tina Moley, the top elected official in Delaware County, was demanding that Kim Shepard, the publisher of The Reporter, the local newspaper, “do something” about what Ms. Moley saw as the paper’s unfair coverage of the county government.
Ms. Shepard stood her ground. Soon, Ms. Moley hits on the spot that hurts The Reporter most: its financial condition. The county stripped the newspaper of a lucrative contract to print public notices, later informing the reporter that the decision was partly based on “the way your paper reports county business”.
The move cost the reporter about $13,000 in revenue per year—a significant blow for a newspaper with barely 4,000 subscribers.
In much of the country, state and local laws require public announcements—about town meetings, elections, land sales, and dozens of other regular events—to be made in old-fashioned, print-and-ink newspapers as well. To be published online, so that citizens are aware of matters of public note. Payments for publishing these notices are among the most stable sources of revenue remaining for local papers.
However, occasionally, public officials rescind contracts in an attempt to punish their hometown newspapers for aggressive coverage of local politics.
This kind of retaliation is nothing new, but it seems to be happening more frequently now that terms like “fake news” have become part of the popular lexicon.
In recent years, newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina, new Jersey And California, as well as New York, have been stripped of their contracts for public notice after publishing articles critical of their local governments. Some states, like Florida, are going even further, getting canceled Requirement that such notices are to be published in the newspapers.
“It’s gotten worse over the years in terms of trying to use contracts and laws to attack newspapers,” said Richard Karpele, executive director of the Public Information Resource Center, a nonprofit group focused on promoting government transparency. “
The trend is the latest example of how public officials and wealthy individuals are waging war on news organizations that aggressively cover them.
Former President Donald J. Several politicians, including Trump, have sought to outlaw the mainstream media. Others, such as former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and former Representative Devin Nunes of California, have filed defamation cases that the courts have rejected. In some cases – like the New Hampshire journalist whose home was vandalized after exposés about a local businessman – the threats have extended into the physical realm.
Legal experts said it was illegal for elected officials to weaponize public contracts. “Under the First Amendment, governments cannot retaliate against someone based on a view they express on an issue,” said Thomas Hentoff, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly who specializes in First Amendment law. .
Sometimes, it is difficult to prove that a local government is canceling a contract because it is unhappy about a newspaper’s coverage. But other times, the rationale has been more or less clear.
For example, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in Custer County, Colo., replaced the longtime public health director with one whose educational credentials seemed questionable. The Wet Mountain Tribune informed of That his academic degree came from an unrecognized university where there were neither classes nor written examination.
County commissioners terminated the Tribune’s contract for public notices and awarded it to a smaller competitor. a commissioner Said during a public meeting that he did not want to support the Tribune because of the “witch hunt” against the Director of Public Health.
The paper’s publisher, Jordan Hedberg, sued the county in the fall for violating the paper’s First Amendment rights. A federal judge encouraged both sides to negotiate. In December, the county agreed to reinstate the Tribune’s contract for four years and pay $50,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
For smaller newspapers, whose budgets can often include only one or two full-time reporters and a few freelancers, public-notice contracts are worth thousands of dollars a year and can be the difference between staying afloat and sinking. This is especially because many newspapers generate little advertising revenue.
“Wise governments can use that as a tool to bully you,” said Alex Schiffer, co-founder of the Shawangunk Journal in Ellenville, NY, which has nearly 3,000 print and digital subscribers.
Last summer, the city’s school district Cancelled Journal’s public-notice contract after many years screws About its coverage, including its articles about the district’s poor graduation rate. Public notices now appear in a newspaper 30 miles away from Ellenville.
Mr. Schiffer said that canceling the contract costs the Journal about $2,000 a year. “Not a huge hit to our budget by any means, but the loss in civic engagement was far more profound,” he said.
In 2020, The Gaston Gazette, a North Carolina paper with a print circulation of about 4,000, published an article saying that county commissioners had improperly Settled Workers’ compensation cases behind closed doors
The chairman of Gaston County’s Board of Commissioners blasted the article as “another example where the fake news media seeks to make up news rather than report facts.” The county sued the paper for libel. it later dropped the suit but Said He plans to withdraw his contract for public notice, assessment that the move would cost the Gazette up to $100,000 in revenue per year.
An attorney for the Gannett newspaper chain that owns the Gazette, Said The Charlotte Observer comments that such a move would be unconstitutional. The county has not acted on its plan to cancel the contract. A county spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.
The North Carolina Legislature is one of many to reduce or eliminate requirements for public notices to be published in physical newspapers. The state had already changed the rules for this Guilford CountyWhere public information has to be displayed only on government websites.
The battle in New York’s Delaware County dates back to 2019, when The Reporter covered a series of municipal hearings on the county’s treatment of juveniles in the juvenile justice system.
under State Law, the hearing was to be public. But reporters and other observers said at the time that they were required to sit at one end of a long room while hearing participants sat at the other end, talking quietly, without microphones or speakers to help the audience hear. . Reporter published A letter to the editor about an unusual setup.
“I absolutely dispute that he was pushed into a corner,” Ms. Mole, chair of the county’s board of supervisors, said in an interview.
In November 2019, The Reporter published an article in which a teen’s attorney claimed that county officials backdated a document in the case of his client. (County attorney Amy Merklein said the allegation was false and had not reached her office for comment before the newspaper published the article.)
One day that fall, Ms. Mole came to The Reporter’s office in downtown Delhi to meet with Ms. Sheppard. The women had known each other for decades. Their children played together. They occasionally saw each other at dinners for the Republican Party of the county, of which they are members.
According to Ms Shepard, Ms Mole complained that the county government was not being portrayed “in a positive light”. She wanted Ms. Sheppard to fire the newspaper’s editor, Lillian Brown, which Ms. Sheppard said she refused to do.
Ms. Mole said she considered some of the reporter’s coverage unfair and asked Ms. Shepard to cover the county hearing objectively.
The Reporter had been publishing the county’s public records virtually since the newspaper’s founding in 1881. Last year, however, the Board of Supervisors voted to award the contract to The Hancock Herald, a paper that covers some towns on the southeast edge of the county. , about 40 miles away, and less than half the circulation of The Reporter’s roughly 4,300.
In March, the county expressed its rationale. a letter Sent to Ms. Shepard and her husband and business partner, Randy Shepard, and signed by 38 executives.
The letter stated, “The open manipulation of facts and the way your paper reports county business was one of the reasons the Board of Supervisors chose to change the official county paper to The Hancock Herald in 2022.” (Ms. Moley said in a recent interview that the decision was really about saving the county money.)
Some county officials said they disagreed with the decision.
“They claim the reporter will publish a biased article,” said Wayne Marshfield, who sits on the board of supervisors and signed the letter, but said he only did so to support his colleagues. “I’ve always found it quite factual, but they don’t claim that, and I think they claim that the reporter won’t publish the correction, although I believe they will.”
Shepherd, who has defended Delaware County’s own coverage estimates that losing county public information costs them $13,000 in revenue per year.
So far, the paper hasn’t had to cut staff, but Sheppard is relying on money from things like printing signs, T-shirts and posters to keep The Reporter going. “As soon as we make gains in one area, it’s as if we take a hit in another area,” Ms. Shepard said. He has hired an attorney and is considering whether to sue the county.
Ms Moley denied that the fight with The Reporter was part of a wider trend by Conservatives to attack the media.
“We’re not like crazy Republicans,” she said. “It’s not really about Republicans or Democrats at this local level. It’s about being respectful and fair.