Why Ralph Nader is launching a print newspaper

This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Ralph Nader is starting a newspaper. Yes, that Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, former presidential candidate and scourge of corporate interests.

At age 88, Nader is still going strong and, beginning with his hometown in northwest Connecticut, he’s determined to do something about the “news desert” crisis in local journalism.

The Winsted Citizen is launching its inaugural edition this week, and, in some ways, it is following a familiar playbook. It is forming a 501(c)3 nonprofit, enabling it to collect tax-deductible donations in addition to subscription and advertising revenue. Nader expects each pillar of the business model to contribute about one-third of revenues once the paper gets going — a business plan not out of the ordinary among startup local news publications.

Also, like other media entrepreneurs, Nader is drawing on the pool of journalists who left traditional news outlets as job prospects fizzled. His well-connected editor and publisher, Andy Thibault, who served for decades as an editor at local publications in Connecticut, has lined up a roster of eager contributors for the Nader-backed venture. Together, Thibault and his colleagues have rallied support and laid plans for ambitious local stories befitting a highly experienced newsroom.

That’s about where the conventional part of The Winsted Citizen game plan comes to an end. No surprise to anyone familiar with Nader’s storied past, a Nader newspaper is going to do things differently, and with plenty of attitude.

For starters, the new paper will be a “paper” paper, printed and delivered by mail and carrier to subscribers, and available for single-copy sales at local advertisers. If Nader has his way, the website will be a sideshow to the printed main event, as he believes digital publications fail to engage readers because they’re too cluttered and abbreviated. Plus, he said, the “real decisionmakers” get their news in print.

After initially announcing that The Winsted Citizen would begin with a single, inaugural edition and then continue as a weekly publication only if local support materialized, a Plan B has emerged. The Citizen will publish at least 11 editions over the course of 2023, on an approximately monthly basis, which represents a compromise. This way, it won’t be one-and-done — a worst-case scenario from Thibault’s point of view — while at the same time it will be keeping expectations realistic for staffers who already know they won’t get rich from the project even if it succeeds.

Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong have written huge checks to fund their newspaper holdings. Stewart Bainum Jr., a hotel magnate and civic leader, has pledged to raise or contribute $50 million over four years to fund the Baltimore Banner, an online local news startup in Maryland. Nader, meantime, said he has chipped in $15,000 to get the first issue of The Winsted Citizen out the door.

Once he’s launched it, Nader said, the community will come through. He’s counting on it, and he’s dismissive of those who claim a newly minted print newspaper in a small, economically challenged town can’t possibly succeed without a Daddy Warbucks donor.

“Anyone who says a community anywhere in the U.S. cannot support a newspaper is unimaginative,” Nader said in an interview. “Let’s face it, most weeklies are dull and routine. They do very little investigation. There is a total lack of imagination.”

Without a content-rich local newspaper, Nader said, communities decline. “There is less voter turnout, less people turning out for town meetings. If you don’t have a newspaper, you don’t have the community connections that are almost too numerous to mention coming out of every edition. A few websites or blogs don’t cut it.”

Nader grew up in a Winsted served by a six-days-a-week paper packed with foreign, national and local news, he said. The local evening newspaper that Nader delivered as a young paperboy shut down years ago, and other Winsted-based community-news outlets also folded over the years. As of now, Nader states unequivocally, the town of 7,100 is a news desert where citizens are deprived of access to local coverage.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Definitely.”

That assertion has drawn objections from other local publications in Connecticut, which generally welcome Nader’s effort to expand news coverage while contesting the idea that local journalists have ignored his hometown.

On a recent visit to Winsted, the local Stop & Shop supermarket was stocked with seven print newspapers. That included current print editions of the Waterbury, Connecticut-based Republican-American and the Lakeville Journal of nearby Lakeville, Connecticut, as well as The Hartford Courant, USA Today and the robust daily newspapers of New York City, which is about a two-hour drive away. The Torrington Register-Citizen regularly covers Winsted as well.

In an early interview about launching The Citizen, Nader asserted that Winsted residents had no way to track the town budget without personally attending public meetings, because there was nowhere to read about it. In fact, the Republican-American reporter covering Winsted and surrounding towns wrote a string of budget-related stories, and the Torrington paper also kept tabs on Winsted’s local government.

Winsted is a pretty good news town. Over the past decade, its finance director was convicted of embezzling public funds, the state took over its chronically underfunded school system and a lack of maintenance led to dangerous problems with aging infrastructure, including a well-traveled bridge. None of those stories went unreported.

Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School for Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, said he applauds Nader’s efforts to expand local news in Connecticut.

“What makes this unique and worth watching — in addition to the fact it’s being founded by a well-known former presidential candidate — is Nader making print a focal point of his strategy,” said Franklin, the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and head of the Medill Local News Initiative. “Most nonprofit local news startups these days are digital. That’s in part because that’s where the bulk of the audience is, but it’s also because of the high cost of newsprint and distribution of print. As with many things throughout Mr. Nader’s career, this venture is flying against conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom isn’t always correct.”

Among other disadvantages — including the small amount of capital being invested at the outset -—The Citizen will need to overcome demographics in Winsted that make it extra tough to start up a news outlet, according to Penelope Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill who leads the school’s News Desert research. “There are quite a few successful for-profit and nonprofit business models for news outlets serving affluent communities,” she noted.

Winsted, however, has a median household income of $58,661 and a poverty rate of 17.4%, making it poorer than the U.S. average, according to Abernathy’s research. It’s part of Litchfield County, the least densely populated county in Connecticut. Yet unlike many rural hamlets, it is actively covered by traditional, competitive newspapers. It does not meet Abernathy’s definition of a “news desert.”

Still, Winsted has plenty of stories yet to be written, Thibault said. “There are a lot of interesting people you’d want to read about no matter where you live.”

As in other traditional New England mill towns, the economic base has eroded but civic pride and personality endure.

Winsted is home to the American Mural Project, an arts organization that houses what it describes as the world’s largest indoor collaborative artwork. It’s also the site of the Nader-backed American Museum of Tort Law, which celebrates the transformative power of lawsuits and displays a vintage Chevrolet Corvair, a car Nader famously pronounced “unsafe at any speed” in the 1960s.

Jennifer Almquist, a contributor to The Winsted Citizen and resident of a nearby town, said the newspaper’s launch has helped to rally a community still beaten down by the pandemic.

“To try and re-establish the community after three years of COVID is on everyone’s mind,” said Almquist, a photographer and former art gallery owner. “We lost our community, in my view.”

Winsted residents will embrace a printed newspaper, she said, in part because its physical presence inspires trust. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I want to know the truth about something.’” Coming out of the pandemic, she said, “We yearned for something more personal. It’s tangible. You can pick it up.”

For Rosemary Scanlon, a local realtor who serves as The Winsted Citizen’s circulation and advertising director, the print-centric approach has limits. At age 22, she is decades younger than most of the newspaper’s team and pushed for a website that can accept subscriptions electronically, as opposed to solely asking a new subscriber to fill out a paper form and mail in a paper check. “I don’t have paper bank checks,” she explained with a laugh.

The rate for a standard annual print subscription is $25, while “friends” are asked to pay $50 — plus $5 more if they subscribe online. The advertising rate card lists a full-page, black-and-white ad for $675, though the cost was waived for advertisers in the first edition in the hope that local merchants and other supporters will pay in the future.

Scanlon said she’s had success using Facebook and Instagram to raise awareness among advertisers. The focus on print and paper is “nostalgic,” she allowed, “But the world is online.”

Nader’s world is not online. He proudly declares that in his long life he has never used a computer, and he has no intention of starting now, given the threat of what he describes as the “Zuckerberg Metaverse madness” — a reference to Facebook parent Meta’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and its most aspirational product.

Before he launched The Winsted Citizen, Nader also backed the Capitol Hill Citizen, a new print newspaper in Washington, D.C., that similarly eschews what Nader calls the “internet gulag.” Uptake has been slow, he said, but those who read it appreciate the “nonofficial-source journalism” that he contrasts with the content of competing publications like The Hill and Politico.

Will anyone follow his lead back into print journalism in Washington or Winsted? Nader hopes so. “We all would like this to be a model of success,” he said. And, in the future, could he launch more newspapers in the mold of The Citizen?

“Why not?”