TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Ask your average Nutmegger who Connecticut’s most famous living native is and you will hear some of the usual responses: George W. Bush; Seth MacFarlane; Bobby Valentine; and (dare I say) former senators and presidential candidates Chris Dodd or Joe Lieberman.

For better or worse, rarely does the name Ralph Nader come up. Nader, the legendary lawyer, consumer activist and four-time presidential candidate himself, has had a far-reaching impact, ranging from his early work in the groundbreaking book “Unsafe At Any Speed,” to his “Nader’s Raiders” investigation of the Federal Trade Commission that led to the commission’s reform, to the recent establishment in his hometown of a museum celebrating lawsuits. Even Nader’s worst enemies would have to acknowledge that he has saved many lives in his 89 years.

Now, Nader is embarking on another hometown cause: filling what he insists is a news void left by the 2017 closure of the Winsted Journal, whose publisher, the Lakeville Journal, cited a lack of community support in shuttering the then-21-year-old broadsheet.

In a story first reported by the Hartford Business Journal last week, Nader, a Winsted native, announced that he was starting a new weekly print newspaper. His premise: “When the institution itself can’t make it … then it falls on the community leaders to take up the challenge.” 

Its name, the Winsted Citizen, is presumably a nod to its namesake, the Winsted Evening Citizen, which was sold in 1982 and later merged after roughly 100 years of publication. Its successor, the Winsted Voice, closed about 20 years ago. A mostly online venture started by former Winsted Journal editor Shaw Israel Izikson, the Winsted Phoenix, was short-lived.

Nader’s announcement was especially timely, given the 2022 “State of Local News” report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism that found the United States is losing, on average, two weekly newspapers per week.

Conservatives tend to shrug at such news but they should be just as concerned about this trend as people of other political stripes – if not more. Recent studies have shown that an absence of media coverage at all levels correlates with higher government spending and rising taxes. Perhaps worst of all, corruption increases through lack of oversight. To wit, look at what happened 12 years ago in Bell, California, where no one was watching the crooks in the city council who were paying themselves $700,000 a year.

Nader told the HBJ he views the Winsted area as a “news vacuum” and that too often local residents know little about what transpires in their towns, from spending, taxation and services, to the schools their children attend.

“They don’t know what’s going on in the budget unless they go to the budget town meetings,” Nader told the HBJ on announcing the launch of the Winsted Citizen. “You can’t read about it. That’s pretty severe.”

Nader is right in principle. Citizens cannot make informed choices if they don’t have good information. And, in the absence of sufficient local coverage by television and radio, the failure of the newspaper industry threatens democracy. The problem with Nader’s assumption is that, contrary to his assertion, Winsted is not a news desert.

The Republican American of Waterbury has a correspondent in Winsted and another who covers most of the other towns the Winsted Citizen plans to cover, including New Hartford and Norfolk. The HBJ reporter who interviewed Nader is a former Rep-Am reporter and should have called Nader on his claim.

Could it be that Nader did not want to acknowledge the Republican American’s solid reporting because of its very conservative editorial page? Does Nader plan to use the Citizen as a platform for his own political views? Or is his intention to have the Citizen pursue stories that he thinks the Rep-Am is too conservative to chase? More transparency is called for here.

The answers to those questions remain to be seen. The good news is that Nader has hired an experienced journalist to guide the operation. Andy Thibault, a private investigator who teaches communications and media studies at the University of New Haven and has a passion for justice and open government, is on-board. In addition, Thibault has served as a consultant for the HBO series Allen v. Farrow.

Thibault has also worked at the Rep-Am, serving briefly as city editor a few years ago. Whether Thibault, 69, has the temperament and stamina to weather the storms of the rough-and-tumble world of Winsted politics also remains to be seen. I’m sure Nader has told him all about it, so Thibault must know what he’s getting into.

As I have chronicled elsewhere, in the last 10 years alone, Winsted’s finance director was convicted and imprisoned for embezzling millions of dollars and the state took over the town’s underfunded school system after an investigation revealed extensive mismanagement, including chronically failing to meet the state’s minimum budget requirement. Meanwhile, deferred maintenance caused the town’s infrastructure to crumble.

The infighting and disasters have seemingly been constant. Inside the Winsted post office on Main Street is a mural of men arguing and threatening each other on the street during the administration of Abraham Lincoln. Back-to-back hurricanes in 1955 brought devastating floods to downtown, wiping out retailers, uprooting slums on Main Street, and carrying tenants down the Mad River to their deaths.

At an unveiling of the project yesterday at the Torrington-Winsted Rotary Club, Nader said publication will commence in “early 2023” as a pilot, that he’s “just helping get The Winsted Citizen started” and will leave the operations to Thibault. He told the HBJ he wants reporters to take deep dives into topics – what he called “second-level reporting.” That kind of journalism is expensive.

“We want to see what the response will be,” Nader said. “The paper will have editorial independence in service of the community.”

The Citizen will operate as a nonprofit and its primary sources of revenue will be advertising, subscriptions, and donations. “We’ve got people in Norfolk who could support the whole thing themselves,” Nader told Hearst CT Media.

As for the platforms, Nader said the Citizen will have “an online presence” but its primary publishing mode will be print “because it has the potential to reach more people.” Really?

As newspapers continue to fold across the country, I hope, against all odds, that the Citizen can succeed as a print product and that the community will support it. Unfortunately, its business model appears to be based on 20th-century technology and old-fashioned philanthropy. Coupled with the Naders’ complicated relationship with the Winsted community, and you have an uphill climb.

I hope I’m wrong because more newspapers and more coverage are better than less. At this point, only one thing is certain (and I’m channeling Robert Frost’s wintery imagery here): Nader’s new raiders have miles to go and promises to keep.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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