GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
You’d never know by looking at it now what a wasp nest the Takoma Park Newsletter can be.
You may find out – the city council is poking a stick at it.
The newsletter stung a mayor out of office, it stung a councilmember almost as badly, it filled the city council chambers with a swarm of Peety-Beeties (PTBT = Pitchfork and Torch Bearing Townsfolk) on many occasions and it sucked up council, staff and citizen time writing and quarreling about guidelines to keep it all from happening again.
Mayor Sam Abbott got people mad at him when he used the newsletter as a bully pulpit in the early 80s. He figured it was a city publication so he should be able to use it as a mouthpiece. Other council people objected, saying taxpayer money should not be used for proselytizing. There were public hearings, new guidelines to curtail Abbott – and a whole bunch of bad feelings that turned into votes against the incumbent mayor in the next election.
About ten years later concilmember Hank Prensky criticized the newsletter editor. She was treating the newsletter like a blog – way before blogging was invented. She had a breezy irreverent touch and opinions that Prensky thought had no place in a city newsletter.
As a result, newsletter editor’s contract with the city was not renewed. She threw her avid support behind a challenger for Prensky’s Ward 3 seat, campaigning door-to-door for her. Prensky won by only about 31 votes, an unusually narrow win for an incumbent.
There were more Peety-Beeties and more contentious hearings. A Newsletter Review Committee was formed which submitted a report which led to a new set of guidelines in 1992. You can read the guidelines here below the agenda item sheet. The smell of gunpowder still clings to it.
“So what’s the problem?” you ask
Some people want the newsletter to be more like a newspaper – reporting local news and opinion pieces. Other people want it to be just a newsletter – leaf-raking schedules, meeting minutes, staff phone numbers and “employee of the month” stuff.
If you read the newsletter you know it is more the newsletter model. But, it does report news, too. As Virginia “Ginny” Myers, the newsletter editor, said, it’s a hybrid. Her position is unusual, she operates with more autonomy than most. Still, the staff reviews the newsletter’s content before publishing.
Virginia Myers, city newsletter editor, at the podium June 1.
And THAT’S the problem. How does a publication report the news objectively when it is owned and reviewed by the government? And if it stops reviewing the content for the sake of free speech, what happens when taxpayers get ticked off by a news or opinion article?
The editor and some council members are interested in having more news articles, with perhaps more autonomy. Because, according to a city survey, around 90% of the residents read the newsletter, but only 20% look at the city’s website. So, the city newsletter is seen as the most effective way to communicate with the most people. It’s a discrimination issue, too. The old, the poor, minorities and immigrants are not well represented in the 20%.
Across the line
However, others feel allowing the newsletter to cover the news crosses a line.
The dialog between Councilmember Terry Seamens and Myers explains it best.
Newsletter editor Myers said “It’s a Takoma Park paper, I’m never going to write something bad about Takoma Park”
Citiy Manager Suzanne Ludlow quipped, “there could never be anything bad.”
Councilmember Seamens said “For years I have expressed concern that [the newsletter] acts too much like a newspaper, when in fact it is paid for by the city of Takoma Park government, and as [Ms Myers] just said, it isn’t going to print something bad about the city. [Ms Ludlow] went a little further and said the city doesn’t do anything wrong and I think I could give you some examples where there have been problems [laughter].
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Seamens pushed hard for getting the newsletter out of it’s newsprint format and onto slick, higher-quality paper on which it would not be mistaken for a newspaper. He said it is misleading. “I hope the council keeps in mind how we can evolve the newsletter into something that is clearly a newsletter.”
Myers said she associated glossy city newsletters with civic boosterism. “Maybe it’s just me, but I think other people associate that kind of glossy thing with a city logo on the top as ‘This is the city word!’ It’s sort of a propaganda piece”
Said Seamens, “But that’s what it is, and that’s what I want them to know.”
As the evening wore on however, Seamens seemed more amenable to the idea of covering more news if it were more autonomous.
We wanted to knock the stick out of his hand. The wasp nest is starting to buzz.
The Voice was mentioned in a council discussion, revealing misconceptions and inaccuracies. We wish to correct the record.
Related: TALES OF TAKOMA • The news
From the first local newspaper in 1890 to recent times, residents have depended on printed newspapers for information.
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