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Taxpayers Funding Fitchburg Newspaper Worth Watching Unfold

February 17, 2014

There has been talk in some circles around the nation how government might make an investment in newspapers, given the economic plight of so many papers, along with the obvious role that these papers play in our democracy.  Should helping keep a newspaper afloat be a taxpayer concern, and how would a paper retain independence from the governing arm that allows for financial stability?

It is with that as a starting point I read with great interest the recent news that a Fitchburg newspaper which ceased publication fours years ago has another chance at printing news and announcements.  The new life for the paper is thanks to the taxpayers of Fitchburg.  Under a partnership with Unified Newspaper Group, the city will spend more than $30,000 this year to mail the monthly Fitchburg Star free to all 12,600 residences and businesses in this suburb of Madison.

At first glance I naturally see both the positive side with making sure one of the foundations of our democracy survives in this small community, while also instantly wondering how editorial control of the news and perspective of the paper can be independent of the local government officials.

Newspapers have always played a role in my life.  From the days of childhood when a daily arrived in our home via the mail, to the paper I bought every day on the way to the radio station in Door County, to the ones that are thrown each morning on our front stoop.  I no longer would start my day without the paper than I would radio for the latest news.

We all understand the integral role papers play in our democracy as they have the space to devote to the large stories and investigations that provide more accountability from our government.   But one does have to ask how much lee-way, as an example, this newspaper might have if it wanted to delve into ‘driving while black’ in Fitchburg?  What would happen if the paper severely challenged the local government officials on a controversial land use matter?

It is my hope that the local government in Fitchburg will hold true to their commitment in allowing the paper to function independently.  It is also my hope that business will see the value in again having a local paper to inform their community on the events that people care about.

The reason the local government in Fitchburg should proceed forward with a hands-off position is that in the long run a strong newspaper is best for their community.  Serious fact-checkers who put stories in context, and uses a healthy dose of objectivity is the root of a good journalistic enterprise which allows for a better informed electorate.   That will only lead to a more vibrant and thriving community.

There are questions that need to be answered with this newspaper project, but I think it a journey worth taking, and one I will be watching to see how it unfolds.  The first newspaper is set for publication March 14.

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