By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The chairperson of the Fairhaven Selectboard was hoping for immediate support of his motion to stop publishing the town’s legal ads in the Fairhaven Neighborhood News on 10/5, but Selectboard members refrained from seconding Daniel Freitas’ motion without first gathering more information to determine the consequences of such an action.
Beth David, Neighb News publisher and editor, presented some background on the town’s use of her free weekly newspaper to post its legal advertisements and offered some information on pricing among the community’s three printed publications. According to Ms. David, the conversation about whether to continue to publish legal ads in the Neighb News came up a few years ago. The Selectboard reviewed the three options, the pricing, and the circulation, and determined that each committee and board could decide for itself where to publish its legal ads, given that the Neighb News offered the lowest price and had a higher readership than the paid weekly newspaper.
Ms. David referred to a survey released by the Fairhaven Town Government Study Committee in 2014 showing that nearly twice the number of responders used the Neighb News as its primary source for news than the other weekly, and almost as many as those that read the region’s local daily newspaper. And although the other weekly paper’s rates are similar to the Neighb News, legal ads placed in the local daily paper would cost “three to four times the cost” of her paper, said Ms. David.
Most boards use the Neighb News not only because of price, but also because of readership, she told the board. She prints 3,200 copies while the other weekly has a documented circulation of 235. Furthermore for the last couple of years, the other weekly paper does not appear to have any editor or staff contributing to its content.
“Any way you look at it … we’ve got at least 1,000 people who read us religiously every single week,” Ms. David said, adding that state law governs how municipalities must publish legal ads and that the Neighb News complies with those laws.
“I believe that the reason this has come up is because some people have been questioning the efficacy of using the Neighb News,” she said referring to Mr. Freitas’s concern that some residents have expressed that they were not informed about upcoming public hearings, although no specific examples were presented.
Ms. David pointed out that abutters are informed directly by the town via certified mail, but hearings are advertised in the newspaper to notify all residents of the town.
“Because everybody in the community has a stake in these things, not only abutters,” said Ms. David. She offered to assist however she could, whether by increasing legal ad size, format, social media outreach, or by running the ads for longer time periods.
She admitted that if the town moves its legal ads, it will be a financial hit for the paper.
“It won’t kill us, but it’ll hurt. It’ll hurt,” she said.
She urged the board to speak with the chairpersons of the various boards to understand why they use the Neighb News.
Mr. Freitas acknowledged that he put the item on the agenda for discussion. He claimed that lately he has received calls about the “attitude” of the Neighb News.
“It’s gotten to be a little bit more gossipy,” said Mr. Freitas.
He noted that one of Ms. David’s recent editorials referred to a board meeting as a “shitshow” and he expressed concern about the first impressions of visitors to Fairhaven reading such things.
He also criticized the 10/1 issue of the Neighb News because of coverage of Fairhaven Board of Health Chairperson Peter DeTerra having hosted his daughter’s wedding on his property that may have violated the state’s COVID-19 restrictions governing private gatherings during the pandemic.
“I don’t like it when you attack the officials, but I really don’t like it when you’re attacking the officials’ children. I think that’s going a little bit low,” he said.
What was once a “nice magazine to read,” said Mr. Freitas, has turned into “something more of a gossip column” where “words get twisted to seem like it’s something else.”
He claimed that people no longer read the Neighb News because its content has become “slanted” and has turned “pretty ugly.”
He claimed the paper was not getting the same number of people reading it and it was time for a change: “I know there’s going to be a cost for us, but I don’t think we should be … getting into the gossip business.”
Selectboard member Bob Espindola said he would prefer to hear specific examples of people not being informed of a public hearing, and also the cost difference.
Mr. Freitas asked Ms. David if in a recent editorial she referred to a board meeting as a “shitshow,” and she admitted that she likely did. He then asked whether she printed an article about Mr. DeTerra’s alleged wedding party on his property, to which she replied, “I most certainly did, and there’s … going to be another one in this week.”
Mr. Freitas tried to establish that the police, upon arrival at Mr. DeTerra’s property, “found nothing,” but Ms. David countered that the police saw “30 to 40 cars” on the property, indicating that there were likely more than 50 people in attendance, beyond the state’s restrictions on that date.
“You realize he’s the Board of Health chair, right?” said Ms. David. “So that’s why this is relevant. It’s not like I just went and picked on some guy who had a wedding in his back yard. He’s the Board of Health chair who just fired somebody because of chickens in her yard, so I just felt it was necessary.”
“Like I said, your page has turned more into more of a gossip column,’ said Mr. Freitas.
“No it hasn’t,” said Ms. David. “We do more meeting coverage than anybody…. It is not a gossip sheet. There’s my little editorial on one single page where I get to have a little fun and, Mr. Freitas, you constantly tell everyone that you have a thick skin; I believe that you’re confusing a thick skin with a thin skin.”
Mr. Freitas then announced that the board was moving forward with a motion, but was interrupted by Mr. Espindola calling Mr. Freitas out for using the same language (shitshow) during a government meeting that he criticized Ms. David for using in her paper.
“Are you kidding me?” said Mr. Freitas. “You’re gonna say that because I brought up the word that she used in her thing … really? I should be censured for this? Wow. The ‘s-show,’ is that we should say?”
“In our government meetings, to be honest with you, I would prefer that,” said Mr. Espindola. “My opinion is there’s something else going on here and it’s not about the people who are saying that they’re not getting the message because that’s what this was supposed to be about….”
Mr. Freitas interrupted him, saying, “And that’s what I said, I did say that. I said that from the beginning. People aren’t reading it because it’s become more of a gossip column, that’s exactly what I said and you can try to twist my words…but that’s exactly what I said. You want to make it something else, Bob, and that’s not what it is.”
“So far I have not heard anybody yet call me or send me an email about this subject saying that they want us to make a change,” said Mr. Espindola. “I have heard from other people saying that they would not like us to make a change.”
Selectboard member Keith Silvia pointed out that he had used the Neighb News for advertising during his campaign earlier this year, “And everything was good, but since then I’m getting some more people saying … that it’s going one-sided … with issues inside the town hall.”
Mr. Silvia then defended Mr. DeTerra, saying that the family is “very, very religious” and that the wedding was “mostly all relatives.”
He said he saw the setup inside the wedding venue and the tables were far apart and “families stayed at their tables,” although he did not specify how he knew that information.
“The wedding in question was from a town official who has enforcement authority over COVID-related matters,” replied Ms. David. “He’s the chairperson of that board. For me not to write about that wedding would be an absolute abdication of my responsibilities as a journalist. For me to ignore that and make believe I didn’t know about that….
“What you’re doing is you’re pulling the legal ads because you don’t like the content of my news articles and you don’t like the content of my editorials, which are two separate things, and I guess that’s your right,” Ms. David continued. “The question is, do you want to simply adhere to the letter of the law by running the legal notices in any newspaper, or do you want the most people around to see it? …Because my paper’s the one they’re going to see them in and I assure you that if you pull the legal notices, my readership is not going to change.”
“I don’t want people who come from out of town to have to read some of the things that are in there,” said Mr. Freitas.
“Well, you can’t stop me from publishing,” said Ms. David. “I know you’d love to, but you can’t. People can come from out of town and they’re going to read it … whether the legal notices are in there or not, Mr. Freitas.”
Fairhaven resident and former chairperson of the Conservation Commission Andrew Jones said what he saw was the appearance of “retribution” against the paper.
“Nobody has proven any economic or readership number issue to prove that town legal notices should be removed from the [Neighb News],” said Mr. Jones, calling it “unarguably our community’s paper.”
“Freedom of the Press is the number one — it’s the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. We don’t have to agree with her.”
Mr. Jones said he was likely the unfortunate topic of a couple articles while chair of the ConCom, “But the Neighb News is our newspaper and I don’t think that you as a board have proven beyond any type of doubt that… we should be scolding the paper and removing ad revenue and… our ads….”
He also noted that the state and federal government both publish ads in the Neighb News, “So if it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for this town. So I stand with the Neighb News and I think we should retain having advertisement in that paper, as it is our community newspaper.”
Resident Diane Hahn to Mr. Freitas’s “ongoing animosity” toward the Neighb News.
“And I would like to know your really true reasons for pulling the notices of your meetings because, so far, you haven’t proven it to me,” said Ms. Hahn. “Her hundreds of readers have seen this animosity that you have…and apparently you have a very thin skin, which means to me you shouldn’t be on this board and I will do everything I can to make that happen.”
Mr. Freitas thanked Ms. Hahn and welcomed her to run against him in 2021. He is, however, not up for reelection until 2022.
Mr. Espindola requested that the board postpone a vote until the next meeting.
“How can we make a motion to make a change when we don’t even know what it’s going to cost?” Mr. Espindola asked.
Mr. Freitas made his motion and waited for it to be seconded
Mr. Silvia asked, “Does anybody know what the prices are or anything like that?”
Mr. Freitas referred to Ms. David’s information and said he could go by what she told them, to which Mr. Espindola said would prefer not to.
“If all we care about is the price and we don’t care about circulation…” said Mr. Espindola.
Interrupting Mr. Espindola, Mr. Freitas said, “I care about principle. It’s the principle of the matter. We shouldn’t have to read that.”
“We should have all the information before we make a rash decision,” said Mr. Espindola.
“I think we need to get what the circulation is,” said Mr. Silvia, “and the cost…. We need to see where we are.”
“I’ve got a motion out there,” said Mr. Freitas. “If no one seconds it, then I’m fine with it.
“I’m not going to second it,” said Mr. Espindola.
“I’d like to add to it that we have to see what … circulation is, you know?” said Mr. Silvia.
“Okay,” said Mr. Freitas.
Mr. Silvia asked Mr. Rees to gather further information for the board to review. Mr. Freitas interrupted to ask him to also try to find articles from the other two newspapers that used the ‘s-show’ word or if any of the other papers featured articles “going after anyone’s family.”
Mr. Espindola asked Mr. Rees to also speak with the chairs of other boards for their feedback, including added Mr. Freitas, the Board of Public Works.
“You can’t control the BPW,” said Ms. David.
“Bring your popcorn,” said Mr. Freitas, which is a frequent reference from Ms. David’s editorials.
“I’m sure they’ll be ready for that,” he said and chuckled.
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