Special Report: Cecil County Newspaper Ad Wars, Taxpayer $ at Stake
A Cecil Times Special Report
When is a newspaper not a newspaper? Thatâs what the Cecil County Commissioners have been trying to decide for over a year, and at stake is $152,000 a year in county funds that have been given exclusively to the Cecil Whig for legal advertising.
A Circuit Court judge, the county attorney and an independent legal consultant have all agreed that the upstart Cecil Guardian meets legal standards to carry Cecil County government legal advertising, and thus could challenge the monopoly that the Whig has held for decades by offering cheaper ad rates for the county and its taxpayers.
But, at the insistence of Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4), the county commissioners had another lengthy worksession discussion of the issue, punctuated by verbal fireworks, interruptions and some raised voices Tuesday. Yet even after all that, the issue was still not resolved, with postal officialâs documentation of qualification for second-class mail privileges still to be submitted for yet another review.
Broomell said she doesnât want the county to support what she called the âpropagandaâ of the Guardian, or face possible lawsuits over potentially legally defective ads. âThey could just basically spread their propaganda,â she said of the Guardian– which has published letters and editorials critical of her– with its largely free distribution model and limited paid subscriber base.
âIâm sitting here very embarrassed,â said County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5). He said some commissioners were âtrying to use their personal biasâ and âtrying to use their political cloutâ to intervene in an issue that was best resolved on the law and potential cost savings to taxpayers.
Ostensibly, the immediate issue is which âgeneral circulationâ newspaper should get the business of the county Treasurerâs office for publication of this yearâs long list of properties that are delinquent on their local property taxes. The Treasurer, Bill Feehley, is elected independently and the decision on where to place the ads is his, but as a courtesy he asked the county commissioners to weigh in.
After obtaining an independent legal opinion that concluded the Guardian met the legal criteria, Feehley recommended giving the advertising to the Guardian, which submitted a much cheaper proposal than the Whig for this yearâs tax sale ads.
(The Whig proposed charging $46.75 per individual property listing, plus $500 for the adâs header and footer printing, while The Guardian proposed $35 per listing with no other fees, Feehley told Cecil Times. By law, the tax sale lists must be published four separate times, so the fees would be multiplied by each publication date, and there are often well over a thousand properties listed in each ad.)
âI object to the legal opinion,â Broomell told Feehley at the worksession. âI strongly disagree with the legal opinion,â said Broomell, who is not a lawyer. She subsequently invited Ralph Bush, general manager for the Whig, to sit at the table with the commissioners to offer his views and she read at length from a letter from the Whigâs lawyer, who predictably disagreed with the county attorney, the judge, and the independent legal counsel consulted by Feehley.
County budget documents show that last yearâs tax sale list publication in the Whig cost about $75,000, but much of that cost to taxpayers was ultimately offset by fees paid by property owners paying up on their delinquent taxes or fees paid by investors who bought tax sale certificates.
But the fight before the commissioners is really about a bigger pot of moneyâsome $152,000 a yearâin legal advertising that until now has been the exclusive domain of the Whig, AKA Chesapeake Publishing, AKA American Consolidated Media/Chesapeake, reflecting the paperâs out-of-state corporate ownership. County budget data obtained by Cecil Times show that in Fiscal 2011, the Whig was paid $151,974 by the county, including costs of legal ads, public hearing notices and tax sale ads.
So far, there has been the usual Broomell-led three-commissioner majority to keep the ad money out of the Guardianâs hands, despite a legal opinion last summer by the county attorney, Norman Wilson, that the Guardian met the legal criteria. Wilson reiterated that view again on Tuesday. He pointed out that the Guardian had obtained a second-class mailing permit, a legal requirement for obtaining county ads, and in fact had mailed newspapers to the county commissioners and Bush at the Whig.
There has also been a Circuit Court ruling by a visiting judge that the Guardian met the standards for publication of other legal ads, dismissing a suit by a disgruntled bidder who challenged the legality of an ad published by another government entity.
Asked Tuesday whether a judicial ruling was the controlling legal authority, Wilson said with a laugh, âThatâs what I thought when I was growing up.â
The debate about legal ads also provides a mirror to the changing media landscape in Cecil County and the struggles of the once monolithic Whig against new challengers and new ways readers get the news.
The debate comes at a time when the Whig is desperate for revenues as it faced yet another round of editorial staff layoffs a week ago and acknowledged in a recent editorial that it is looking to unload its office building and re-locate what is left of its staff to smallerâand no doubt cheaperâreal estate. The Whig is no longer printed in Cecil County, with papers trucked from a printing plant in Easton where ads are also produced, and the Whig recently cut back from five print editions a week to three.
The Whig is owned by a Texas-based company, American Consolidated Media, that is in turn owned by a group of banks, investors and other debt-holders who took over the company from an Australian media operator that acquired the Whig and several other regional newspapers in a heavily leveraged buyout deal several years ago.
In contrast, the Cecil Guardian is owned by a local businessman and printing firm operator, Bill DeFreitas, and each weekly print edition declares that the paper is owned and operated by Cecil Countians.
Advertising and news policy are supposed to be separated by a âchurch/stateâ wall and it always was at major newspapers, such as in our days at The Baltimore Sun, when the publisher wouldnât even set foot in the newsroom for fear of perceptions of possible interference in the independence of the newsroom. But at small town papers, the lines are often not so clearly drawn.
The Whig has not reported on several past dust-ups on the legal ad issue at commissioner meetings, even though the expenditure of taxpayer funds is normally an obvious subject for reporting. The Whig also refused to report or editorialize on conflicts and controversy in this yearâs primary election season for county council and county executive contests and waited until after the election to intone in an editorial that its silence was a matter of neutrality.
(CT Commentary: We doubt that the ACM-ousted former editor of the Whig, Terry Peddicord, would have remained silent when mailers libelously accused two sitting commissioners of smoking illegal drugs, regardless of who was circulating the charges.)
The Guardianâs publisher has railed against the long drawn out battle over the legal ads in editorials in his paper. Guardian editorials and published letters to the editor have also been highly critical of Broomell for her repeated âdo-oversâ of votes and decisions on a variety of issues that did not go her way the first time.
(Since The Cecil Times is only published online, we are the only news jockey in town without a horse in this race for printed advertising from the county government.)
Bush told Cecil Times that the latest round of layoffs at the Whig a week or so ago included three editorial staffersâ a staff photographer; the head of digital news operations and former editor of the Newark (DE) Post; and an editorial assistant. The Whigâs executive editor, Mike Bullard, resigned to take a new non-news job in New England.
There have been similar staff cuts and sudden departures in the past few weeks at other Chesapeake Publishing papers in the region, including the Star-Democrat in Easton and the Kent County News in Chestertown. Nationally, the Whigâs Texas-based parent company, American Consolidated Media, has implemented cutbacks and consolidations at other small newspapers it owns, including cutting a dozen jobs in its advertising production operations for three newspapers in Minnesota and shifting adwork to Ohio, according to a report on a local TV stationâs website.
Meanwhile, Broomell has another ace to play in the local ad wars. She said she has been talking with the Rising Sun-based Herald, a weekly that focuses on community features in the western area of the county, to expand distribution to southern Cecil County. The Herald submitted an even lower ad price to Feehley, but he said he ruled the Herald out for this yearâs tax sale ads because it has limited circulation south of the C&D Canal and few county residents see it.
Broomell said she would be willing to give county ad money to the Herald since she was âassuredâ the western county paper was going to boost its visibility around the county. (In our south county travels, the only place weâve seen the Herald is on a single-copy rack at the public library in Cecilton.)
DeFreitas questioned whether the Heraldâs content was sufficiently countywide to qualify as a âgeneral circulationâ newspaper in the county.
Lisa Tome, the Heraldâs editor and chief writer who was also invited to sit at the table with Commissioners on Tuesday, shot back, âMr. DeFreitas, Iâve been covering the county commissioners since 1991âwhere were you?â
(In Cecil Timesâ several years of covering weekly county commissioner worksessions, it was the first time we saw Ms. Tome present. She left Tuesdayâs meeting after the ad discussion was over and did not stay for the remainder of the agenda items.)
As far as circulation goes, neither the Guardian nor the Whig has audited circulations as checked and verified by the independent Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry standard for reliable circulation data.
DeFreitas told Cecil Times he prints 10,000 copies of the Guardian which are distributed throughout the county. Some people purchase the paper for a dime a copy, now being raised to a quarter, while others pick it up for free at restaurants and local stores and fewer than 70 people have mail subscriptions.
Bush told Cecil Times the Whig prints about 15,000 copies of its Friday edition, with smaller press runs for the Monday and Wednesday print editions.
[See 5/18/12 follow up report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/05/cecil-county-ad-war-part-2-pats-on-back-for-broomell-and-the-guardian/