To the Editor,
It was disappointing to come home from vacation last week and read that the new mayor of Johnston, Joseph Polisena Jr., had decided to spend tens of thousands of extra taxpayer dollars to run municipal notices in a newspaper few in his town were buying any more. Polisena told The Boston Globe, “I’m in this to protect the taxpayers.” Huh?
The genesis of this ridiculous overspending is that Polisena was unhappy with a few past stories in the free weekly newspaper, the Johnston Sun Rise, and so punishment of the owner, Publisher John Howell, of The Warwick Beacon, was in order.
As I see it, this is pretty clear-cut. The Sun Rise used to get about $12,000 per year for Johnston’s municipal ads. Extrapolating the Globe’s math with my own estimates, Johnston taxpayers could now pay as much at $100,000 per year for ads that few will see in The Providence Journal. As an extra kick in the pants, readers have to pay (a lot!) for the Journal to see them. I have a bit of experience with this, as I co-founded the free Valley Breeze newspaper in 1996, and purchased The Observer from the Burgess family 10 years later. When it was clear The Breeze met the legal standard to accept municipal ads, many towns rushed to use our much less expensive advertising. I didn’t get those dollars by urging politicians to “think local,” though it helped. We got the ads because using our well-read papers, at much lower prices, was simply smart business. Somehow this is escaping Johnston’s leadership.
There is one thing Mayor Polisena and I agree on. “Solicitation of Bids” ads should reach a wider Rhode Island audience beyond Johnston’s borders. He would be right to place those ads in both the Sun Rise and the Journal (or better yet, the R.I. Newspaper Group, which would put the ads in every weekly in the state. But Howell runs that, too.) As for the rest of the local ads? Do people in Newport or Attleboro care about a Johnston Zoning Board meeting? That’s where the 100,000 tax dollars go up in smoke.
Years ago, School Committee meetings had to be advertised in the paper, too. But R.I. legislators ended them “to save money.” It was a terrible decision. A few years later, a new member of the Smithfield School Committee wrote a letter to the Observer asking “Where are all the people who used to come to our meetings?” They were gone. Today in Johnston, “people are now relying on word of mouth to find out about upcoming meetings, because they don’t subscribe to the Journal,” Lynn Grissom told the Globe. One has to wonder if some politicians prefer things this way. No transparency, no busybody citizens at meetings.
There is another thing Johnston residents should remember. The Sun Rise is free, and so, it depends on advertising to get by. That includes municipal ads from Johnston. No community is “entitled” to a community newspaper. Today, as many local ad dollars quietly go to Facebook and Google, thousands of papers across the country have closed, creating “news deserts” where nobody is telling the stories, good or bad. The day could come where nobody would put the mayor’s picture in the paper at his swearing in, or with Eagle Scouts and Little Leaguers. And nobody would report on town politics. Last week, hometown newspapers in Chariho and Coventry were shut down. The Sun Rise may not be in any danger yet, but Mayor Polisena has moved them closer to the cliff. Residents should know that. I hope the mayor will do the right thing, restore the ads, and live with a bit of criticism now and then. The people in town deserve a good newspaper – and the truth.
Tom Ward, of Cumberland
Editor's Note: Tom Ward was founder, majority owner and publisher of The Valley Breeze newspapers from 1996 to 2019. He retired in 2020.
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