WOLCOTT, Conn. (AP) — The community newspaper that State Rep. Gale L. Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, paid to run her campaign advertisements in 2018 is now owned by her and her husband, Angelo.
They purchased the monthly newspaper after one of its longtime owners, Julie Moore, died last March. Mastrofrancesco named herself editor and publisher and has been calling the shots since September.
Many readers of the Wolcott Community News, which has a circulation of more than 7,000, won’t notice any changes. Mastrofrancesco has tweaked the page layouts, streamlined the website and started a Facebook page, but the content is the same – front-page baby pictures and all.
“When I took it over, people probably thought, ‘Oh no, she’s a state representative, what’s going to happen?'” Mastrofrancesco said. “But it’s a non-political newspaper and my intent is to keep it that way when it comes to content.”
In the 1800s, it was common for partisan groups to control newspapers as a means to advance their cause. In modern times, however, mainstream newspapers generally keep the views of their owners confined to the editorial pages.
“Such (partisan) arrangements were fairly common decades ago, but it’s not something you see much of these days, and that’s a good thing,” said Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
The consensus among experts interviewed for this story was that the concept of a state lawmaker owning a newspaper raises concerns, but maintaining local ownership is probably in the best interests of the community.
“The fact that somebody wants to buy a newspaper to serve a local community is meaningful, and is actually part of a service-minded person,” said Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University.
Mastrofrancesco said she sees the newspaper as a way of keeping the community connected in a way that social media can’t accomplish. In March’s edition, there are stories about the town’s economic development initiative and list of Saint Patrick’s Day events.
Mastrofrancesco employs a part-time page designer and a part-time photographer, Roger P. Picard, who is a member of the Town Council. Most of the content is submitted by people who receive no compensation. Mastrofrancesco and her counterpart in the state Senate, Rob Sampson, R-16th District, have monthly columns along with Mayor Thomas G. Dunn, Superintendent of Schools Anthony Gasper and Town Clerk Karen Mowad.
The potential for abusing the power of the press to advance political ambitions still exists, Hanley said, but he believes that risk can be mitigated by being transparent about conflicts and balancing opinions with dissenting points of view.
“It’s complicated ethically because it is possible for the owner to turn a newspaper into a campaign pamphlet without meaning to,” Hanley said. “We’re all prisoners of our biases and opinions, and if you own a newspaper there is a chance that your political perspectives will seep into daily news decisions without it necessarily being purposeful.”
Mastrofrancesco said her goal is to avoid politics, instead focusing on common interests. The newspaper does not have an editorial page.
“I’m not going to do anything differently than I’d do if I didn’t own the paper,” she said. “I’m not going to take advantage of it.”
The Wolcott Community News, which is distributed for free, relies on advertising revenue to cover its costs, Mastrofrancesco said. She plans to run political campaign advertisements from all sides, but said she needs to check with the State Elections Enforcement Commission to find out how to comply with public financing laws during her expected 2020 reelection bid.
“It needs to be vetted openly and everyone needs to know what the arrangement is,” Hanley said.
A spokesman for the SEEC, Joshua Foley, said if she doesn’t participate in the Citizen’s Election Program and opts not to receive public financing, she could pay herself for services she provides her own campaign. For example, a candidate could rent a room to their campaign, but it would have to be at the fair market value, Foley explained.
If a candidate does receive public funding, as Mastrofrancesco has done in the past, regulations prohibit the use of campaign funds to pay a family member, and there is a provision that “payments to any entity are prohibited in which the participating candidate or participating candidate’s family has a 5% or greater ownership interest, Foley said.
Mastrofrancesco worked for 20 years in advertising for AT&T and for an assisted living facility before running for state representative in 2018. While she said serving in the General Assembly feels like a full-time job, especially during the legislative session, running the newspaper allows her to continue working in business.
“It’s something I’ve always been interested in,” she said.