A Connecticut town's local paper folded, so Ralph Nader started a new one
At age 88, Ralph Nader believes his neighbors in northwest Connecticut are tired of electronics and miss the feel of holding a newspaper to read about their town.
So at a time that local newspapers are dying at an alarming rate, the longtime activist is helping give birth to one.
Copies of the first edition of the Winsted Citizen are circulating around this old New England mill town, with stories about a newly-opened food co-op, a Methodist church closing after attendance lagged at services and the repair of a century-old bridge.
“If it works, it will be a good model for the rest of the country,” said Nader, who as a youngster delivered a long-gone Winsted daily paper in his hometown. He splits time now between Winsted and Washington, D.C.
The last locally-based weekly paper, the Winsted Journal, began in 1996 before being shut down in 2017, unable to make enough money to support itself.
A town of about 8,000, Winsted has seen better days. Locals still talk about the 1955 hurricane that wiped out much of Main Street and killed a big employer, the Gilbert Clock Co. Winsted is surrounded by several better-off smaller communities, with Litchfield County a popular second-home destination for city dwellers, and the Winsted Citizen will cover those, too.
Since the Journal shut down, people are losing touch with what's going on in local government and the news that knits a community — who's getting engaged, who's given birth — Nader said.
“After a while it all congeals and you start losing history,” he said. “Every year you don't have a newspaper, you lose that connection.”
Nader invested $15,000 and hired a veteran Connecticut journalist, Andy Thibault, to get the Citizen started. The masthead lists 17 reporters. They get paid, Thibault said, “when they write a story.”
The motto: “It's your paper. We work for you.”
The Citizen plans to publish monthly until next January, when it will become a weekly, Thibault said. He plans to sustain the newspaper through advertising, donations and subscriptions — $25 for the rest of 2023, and $95 a year after that.
Nader is full of suggestions but not intrusive, Thibault said. The consumer activist and four-time presidential candidate doesn't dictate a political stance, he said.
Thibault has used his connections to build a solid bench of contributors, including longtime Hartford Courant editorial cartoonist Bob Englehart. The first issue includes a lengthy profile of a successful local basketball coach and a story about a project to paint a five-story mural in two abandoned mill buildings.
The depiction of Winsted as a news desert has grated on some. Bruno Matarazzo Jr., a reporter for the nearby Republican-American in Waterbury, taunts Nader with tweeted reminders that the daily newspaper covers Winsted regularly. Waterbury is about 28 miles from Winsted.
“It's different coverage when a town has its own newspaper than when you have a daily coming in to cover it,” said Janet Manko, publisher and editor-in-chief of another Connecticut weekly, the Lakeville Journal, which also published the Winsted Journal before it closed. The failure wasn't because Winsted didn't deserve a paper, she said.
The Journal is among an estimated 2,500 newspapers that have closed in the United States since 2005, all but about 100 non-dailies, according to a report issued last year by the Northwestern/Medill Local News Initiative.
So Nader is clearly bucking a trend and is to be commended, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, who wrote “The State of Local News” report.
“It will turn heads because it’s Ralph Nader,” she said.
But maybe he won't be as lonely as it seems. Abernathy said she's been getting more frequent calls lately for advice from people who want to open newspapers. The cautious approach used by the Citizen — monthly issues before turning weekly — has been used by others, she said. There's a greater recognition of the need for a smart business plan, instead of just a passion project.
Given Nader's romance with print, it's somewhat odd that the lead story in the Citizen's inaugural edition talks to young Winsted residents about how they get much of their news from social media. Thibault said he plans to build an online presence.
“I like print,” said Terry Cowgill, a columnist for the CTNewsJunkie.com website. “I still like holding a print newspaper in my hand. I'm 65 years old. Most people under 50, certainly under 40, have scarcely ever held a newspaper in their hands."
He's rooting for the Citizen, though. Cowgill said he suspects the Citizen's best chance for long-term success is whether Nader can trade on his celebrity for foundation grants.
Volunteers fanned out on a frigid day last week to deliver copies of the first 12-page issue. One woman, Ruthie Ursone Napoleone, stopped a delivery car to ask for more copies. Her father's obituary was in the first issue, her nephew was quoted in another story and a third featured her workplace.
She hugged the person who gave her the extra papers.
“I wish my dad could read this,” Napoleone said.