“Friends of the Citizen” look for a new model

By Cheney Gardner
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor

A group of Carrboro residents say they aren’t going to let their only locally owned newspaper go down without a fight.

Some of the members of the newly-formed Friends of the Citizen pose with a copy of the last issue of the paper during an Oct. 9 organizational meeting. Dedicated to re-launching a locally-owned community newspaper/website as a non-profit, the group includes, left to right, Connie Cohn, Jock Lauterer, Sally Robertson, Allen Spalt, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, Bob Saunders and Julian Serano. (Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Citizen)

After the Carrboro Citizen stopped publishing on Oct. 4, Randee Haven-O’Donnell formed the Friends of the Citizen with the goal of reviving the paper.

“The Carrboro Citizen is the heart and soul of our hometown,” says Haven-O’Donnell, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. “It’s the voice of Carrboro — and we can’t lose that.”

Haven-O’Donnell says the group first met in August when publisher Robert Dickson announced plans to sell the paper.

“We had an initial game plan the first time we met in August, but last night was when we really started to map a way forward,” she said on Wednesday.

The initial planning group includes Bob Saunders, Allen Spalt, Jock Lauterer, Connie Cohn, Sally Robertson, Julian Sereno, David Jessee and Peter Lee, said Haven-O’Donnell.

Allen Spalt, a former Board of Aldermen member who is now retired and a member of the Friends, says the group’s goals have changed since first meeting in August.

“In August we were getting together to try to save the Citizen,” he says. “But now we’re trying to revive something similar.”

At a meeting on Saturday, Oct. 13, the Friends drafted a formal statement of principle outlining their plans for the future of the Citizen. It reads as follows:

The Friends of the Citizen are dedicated to the proposition that Carrboro deserves and needs its own locally owned, independent community newspaper/website.

The Friends of the Citizen are inspired by the legacy of the Carrboro Citizen, which from 2007-2012 set the standard for relentlessly local news coverage of Carrboro and surrounding areas. The Citizen published its final issue on Oct. 4, 2012. To relaunch this publication in spring 2013, time is of the essence.

The Friends of the Citizen have taken steps to launch a community-owned nonprofit, self-sustaining, newspaper/website. We have filed for 501c(3) status to enable us to pursue community support of a newspaper that recognizes the value of relentlessly local community journalism.

The Friends anticipate 501c(3) approval by spring 2013. In the short term, the Friends seek a nonprofit fiscal sponsor to serve as an administrative umbrella that would allow the Friends to secure nonprofit funding and community support.

Peter Lee, who works in Information System Support at UNC Physicians and Associates and is member of the Friends, says the group wants the paper to operate as a nonprofit because it will allow them to look into sources of funding beyond advertising.

“Nonprofit status gives us the additional ability to raise money through grants and foundations,” he explains. “And donation has real potential.”

The group is also considering other methods of funding, including optional paid subscriptions and a community-owed model.

“The traditional route for non-profits is to rely on philanthropy—individual donors with deep pockets—and foundations who care about great journalism,” says Jock Lauterer, a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the Friends.

Lauterer added, “But I’m fascinated by the Weaver Street Market concept of a co-op owned or employee-owned news outlet.”

Lauterer says that the idea of operating as a co-op is suited for a town like Carrboro that celebrates local innovation and thinking outside the box.

“We believe that in such a creative place as Carrboro, a Carrboro-like solution is extremely possible,” says Lauterer. “What would be impossible in other communities is absolutely possible in Carrboro.”

Former publisher Robert Dickson, who plans to keep the Citizen’s archive site open, says he thinks there is potential for the Citizen to exist as a nonprofit.

“I think a nonprofit is a very reasonable idea to try,” he says. “But it’s going to be a lot of work.”

Julian Sereno, the editor and publisher of the monthly Chatham County Line and a member of the Friends, says he is interested to see if the nonprofit model could work for other papers.

“I have my own paper, but I’m getting old and starting to wonder what I’m going to do with it when I’m done,” he says. “I’m want to see what models are going to work in the future.”

The biggest obstacle in the upcoming months will be time, says Haven-O’Donnell. It usually takes six months to achieve nonprofit status.

“We need to keep the developments in the forefront so that people realize it’s a work-in-progress,” she explains. “We don’t want to the level of interest and motivation towards the Citizen to diminish.”

Haven-O’Donnell says the hiatus will also make it difficult to retain the original staff.

“We would love to be able to capture the Citizen staff before they get out to the four corners of the world,” she says.

Sereno says he agrees that time will be of the essence for the Friends.

“The longer it goes without publishing, the less it’s going to be like the old paper,” he says. “People are moving on and getting new jobs and they’ll have to find a whole new cast of characters.”

Susan Dickson, the former editor-in-chief of the Citizen, says that while she is happy to provide information and insight to the Friends, she isn’t sure how she will stay involved in the future.

“It’s nice that there’s a group of people working so hard to get the paper back, and I think that’s a really positive thing,” she says. “But this is something that will take a while so, it’s not likely that I’d be able to wait around for the possibility that it’ll come back.”

Robert Dickson says he does not plan to return as publisher, but that he would be glad to serve as a consultant.

“I would say that the Citizen was a great experience, and it’s wonderful that the community responded so positively to it,” he says. “But I do not have any plans to be a participant.”

The Friends agree they want to keep the paper in print and online but have not decided on what the paper will be called, says Lauterer.

“We couldn’t call it the Citizen without buying the naming rights,” he explains. “We would have to acquire that legally, but that would be the ideal way to go.”

The group is also in the process of finding a nonprofit sponsor to with whom to partner while they wait for their 501(c)3 application to be reviewed.

“We are seeking an appropriate fiscal sponsor that is willing to ‘adopt us’ for a period of six to nine months—or however long it takes to get our own nonprofit status,” says Spalt. “That way people can make tax-deductible contributions to that organization but the money will go to the newspaper.”

While many of the specifics are still up in the air, Haven-O’Donnell says she is certain she wants the paper to stay free.

“I think it’s glorious that it’s free,” she says. “We want to have a literate and thoughtful citizenry, and that’s done by making it free.”

Keeping the paper free also increases circulation, says Lee.

“It was clearly meeting a community need,” he says. “I’m proud of Carrboro, and I like people to know about it.”

Tim West, a Carrboro resident and Citizen reader, says he is excited about the possibility of a new Citizen.

“It was a vehicle for deepening the sense of community and the sense that we all belong to something,” he says. “There was a sense of togetherness that I hope someday soon a successor can capture.”

Lauterer says the process of reviving the paper won’t be easy, but he’s confident the Citizen isn’t done yet.

“Carrboro is just too activist and clever and progressive to let its own community newspaper simply die without a fight,” he says. “I think that whatever comes out of this is going to be very Carrboro and not like any other news outlet we’ve ever seen before.”

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