“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson 1787.
A recent poll showed that more people are getting their news from electronic media than print newspapers, with 40 percent gleaned from online “newspapers.” As more newspapers close, and others fight to remain independent from advertiser or government influence to retain journalistic standards and ethics, a new wave of journalism may be sweeping the online community…public-funded online news.
When Dave Wheelan worked in communications and development at Washington College after graduating there, he learned a lot from his boss, College president Douglass Cater a brilliant critic of, as well as a member of, the media well before entering academia. A former editor of The Reporter in DC and The London Observer, and officer of the think tank Aspen Institute, Cater was also a senior aide to President Johnson and an influential author. He wrote several books on politics, the effects of media on the public and the negative effects of TV on children, as well as the book The Future of Public Broadcasting, which had a strong influence on the establishment of public television.
Cater brought distinguished journalists like Bradlee, Mudd and Cronkite to Washington College to speak to students, as he understood the power of the “ Fourth Estate” and the critical importance of journalism as part of our democracy. Cater’s 1959 book, The Fourth Branch of Government, called for more objectivity and independent investigation by the media and for it to serve as a nonpartisan watchdog for the public against government abuse of civil liberties.
Wheelan went on to work for the Nature Conservancy and other organizations throughout his long nonprofit management career, yet was ever mindful of Cater’s concepts and observant of the media’s influence wherever he lived and worked, whether Boston, his native Chicago, or on the West Coast, where he observed firsthand the importance of the media on local issues covered by the Point Reyes Light, which won two Pulitzer Prizes for its investigative journalism and reporting.
Wheelan never forgot his time spent in Chestertown, and planned a return there after living in Northern California, to create a new type of newspaper, one that would be “independent, informative and useful to the community.” He returned five years ago and started his successful online publication, the Chestertown Spy, named after the town’s first historic paper begun in 1793. He went on to create the equally popular Talbot Spy, covering in-depth news around that nearby county. Wheelan has since founded another experimental model with The Ketchum Keystone (Idaho), another online newspaper run by a local Ketchum editor he hired.
“Small communities desperately need local news… they need it to make the best local decisions with the best local information. And they also need to it to remind themselves of their special local culture, and I have some confidence that those same towns will be willing to help support these newspapers“says Wheelan, who believed in his mission so much, he donated approximately $250,000 of his own funds to cover expenses and writer payments– funding he received from an unexpected bequest.
Taking a cue from his early mentor Cater, Wheelan decided to take a visionary step in being one of the first hyperlocal newspapers to go public-non-profit, using models like PBS and NPR. “Public media seems to be more objective since it has a more diverse stream of revenue sources, i.e., the paper can’t be bought by an advertiser.”
Having applied for non-profit status, Wheelan is working through The Mid Shore Community Foundation in Easton, and writing grants for support. The Spy will continue to offer display advertising to local and regional businesses but will also provide a variety of options for individual sponsors, as does public television and radio.
Wheelan plans to establish an advisory board from the community for each paper, with local members from the areas of the arts, innovation, education, and conservation.
“I’m optimistic,” says Wheelan, “once this project takes hold, it can be replicated.”
The Community Newspaper Project plans to create other media outlets covering Queen Anne’s, Caroline, and Dorchester counties and the rest of the Delmarva Peninsula. His pioneer efforts could lay the groundwork for public supported online print media around the country.