The Fitchburg Star, a suburban newspaper that ceased print publication in 2009, is doing the unthinkable in this online age — returning to print.
The comeback has an unusual twist. City officials will help relaunch the newspaper in March by spending more than $30,000 of taxpayer money this year to mail the monthly publication free to all 12,600 residences and businesses in Fitchburg, a suburb just south of Madison.
The partnership between Fitchburg City Hall and Unified Newspaper Group speaks to the value of community newspapers, city leaders say, as well as to the difficult financial realities facing the publishing industry. As part of the agreement, the city will no longer publish its advertiser-supported newsletter, so as not to compete for revenue with the newspaper.
Supporters deem the newspaper’s return a victory for the community, though one journalism expert questioned whether the publication will be able to retain its editorial independence.
“I haven’t encountered anything quite like this before, and it does make me queasy,” said Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison. The arrangement triggers a host of questions, he said.
“Will the city and city officials be OK with the newspaper publishing material critical of the city?” Drechsel said. “Will the newspaper even consider publishing anything that could put the deal at risk?”
David Enstad, general manager of Unified Newspaper Group, said such worries are misplaced.
“It was understood from the get-go that we would require complete editorial independence,” he said.
Unified Newspaper Group, based in Verona, publishes three other community newspapers — the Verona Press, the Oregon Observer and the Stoughton Courier Hub. The company is not looking to replicate the government subsidy in the other communities it serves, as those papers are well-established, Enstad said.
The company already operates the news website ConnectFitchburg.com, which will continue as the online presence for the Fitchburg Star, Enstad said. Currently, articles for ConnectFitchburg.com are written by Unified staff members. While no additional employees will be hired for the print edition, the number of staff hours devoted to Fitchburg news will increase, he said.
The goal is for the newspaper to one day become a weekly publication and stand on its own through subscriptions and ad sales, Enstad said. So far, the Fitchburg City Council has committed to one year of postage costs.
As part of its 2014 budget process, the council approved spending $35,475 this year for postage for 11 publications. The figure includes money for one final city newsletter, plus 10 monthly issues of the Fitchburg Star. The city previously spent about $14,000 annually on postage for the bimonthly newsletter.
The first newspaper is set for publication March 14.
“This is another step toward Fitchburg becoming a better-connected community,” said Mayor Shawn Pfaff, who called it “absolutely essential” that the newspaper retain editorial control.
In a draft memo of understanding set to be discussed Feb. 25 by the City Council, the two parties would agree to meet quarterly and “review content, costs and supporting sales.” Enstad said he sought the language simply as a way to make sure both parties remain on the same page.
The city will submit information to the newspaper, such as community events, but “the expectation is that we take a hands-off approach and let them act like a newspaper,” said city administrator Tony Roach. Enstad said the Star won’t endorse candidates but may occasionally take stands on municipal issues.
Longtime Fitchburg resident Rich Eggleston, a former Associated Press reporter and former president of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, praised the old Fitchburg Star and said the suburb, challenged by issues of growth, needs a strong, independent voice.
He hopes the new Fitchburg Star will be that voice, but he approaches the topic with “informed skepticism,” he said, because of how difficult it can be for an editorial department to remain completely independent from the business side of the operation even under the best circumstances.
Angela Kinderman, executive director of the Fitchburg Chamber Visitor & Business Bureau, said she’s excited about the city again having a publication to promote its expanding roster of community events. She believes businesses and residents will financially support the newspaper, making the city subsidy temporary.
“I give the city credit for recognizing the need for a newspaper and helping bring it back,” she said.