Weekly paper asks Carrboro for $50,000 loan

Staff WriterMay 20, 2009 

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CORRECTION

A story on Wednesday about a weekly newspaper that obtained a $50,000 loan from the town of Carrboro did not give the newspaper's full name. It is The Carrboro Citizen.

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CARRBORO -- A 2-year-old weekly newspaper in Carrboro wants to do two things most news organizations can't or won't these days: print more copies and use public money to do it.

The town's Board of Aldermen made that possible Tuesday night, approving a $50,000 small business loan from a fund aimed at sparking local economic development. Its owners plan to use the money to expand their staff and headquarters, and nearly double their press run, from 6,000 to 10,000.

Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman said Carrboro is lucky to be home to a newspaper that's growing as many other papers shrink and cut staff.

"I'm very excited that the town is in a position to support that expansion," Coleman said. "I think it's a great thing for Carrboro and a great thing for newspapers."

The Carrboro Citizen's plans buck two trends. Across the U.S., newspapers are printing fewer copies as circulation and advertising revenues decline. At the same time, many recoil at the suggestion of government aid such as that granted to other industries.

"It is problematic that a news organization would ask a government agency for a loan," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for professional journalists. "It throws a monkey wrench into the whole watchdog role. Journalism organizations in general believe that, as bad as things are now, they would not take a public bailout. Independence is a key, core value of journalism."

Publisher Robert Dickson says The Carrboro Citizen has room to grow beyond its 160 news racks, and he bristles at any suggestion he would sacrifice integrity by accepting public money. Dickson likens it to The News & Observer and other media accepting advertising from politicians and sports teams that they cover.

"Newspapers do business with people they have to report on," he said. "It's a fact of life."

Mayor Mark Chilton said, "There's no opportunity for the town to use the relationship to get an outcome they might want in the media."

Other publishers and industry experts say accepting public money is problematic. Both Orage Quarles III, publisher of The N&O, and Rick Bean, publisher of The Herald-Sun in Durham, said they would not enter into such an agreement.

Jean Folkerts, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the relationship could raise questions.

"I am always concerned about the news business being tied to government support," she said. "While it often may seem benign, and indeed seem magnanimous, it is indeed a step down a slippery slope."

Along with increasing the press run, Dickson says, he needs more employees in editorial, design, accounting, sales and distribution, and a larger headquarters than the paper's current, 627-square-foot Weaver Street office. The paper hopes to expand further into Chapel Hill, where it already covers local issues and distributes more copies than it does in Carrboro, he said.

Dickson said his newspaper is a good community citizen, providing more than $50,000 in free advertising to groups and events such as an arts center, farmers market and festivals.

"We give as much space away as we can afford," he said.

Dickson and his wife, Victoria, who have already invested more than $200,000 into the venture, would pay 2 percent interest on the seven-year loan.

Those terms were recommended by the economic sustainability commission, an advisory group of citizens who review loan proposals. The Dicksons requested a $100,000 loan; the citizen group recommended $50,000.

In 23 years, the loan program has provided economic boosts to nearly 30 businesses, and has lost money just twice: once when a business owner died, and once when a business went bankrupt, said James Harris, Carrboro's economic and community development director.

The Citizen is a good loan candidate because it can expand the town's business profile, Harris said.

"As they grow their advertising clients, it puts the businesses out into the public," he said. "And business people won't advertise with a paper that isn't growing."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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