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Life in the glass house

Robert and Vicky Dickson

Given the frenzied media response to the Town of Carrboro’s approval of The Carrboro Citizen’s application for The Loan last week, we thought it would be good for us, the people who signed the documents, to set the record straight.

There have been misquotes and accusations of bad intent, and our integrity has been seriously questioned. The mainstream media has done reasonably well, most calling the paper to get our version of the story. Several of the blog posts, however, have gone beyond the pale in their lack of factual content.

There’s one especially egregious posting by, of all people, a UNC School of Journalism professor. It’s scary how many facts this fellow gets wrong about a very simple transaction. He didn’t bother to contact us. And he’s charged with teaching future journalists.

We’ve also heard positive comments from many of you. “Congratulations” is the word we’ve heard most. We’re not sure that’s the right word to use for a loan, but the sentiment behind it is really appreciated.

So here’s the deal, straight from the folks who made it.

The Citizen has been granted a $50,000 loan from the Carrboro Revolving Loan Fund. The money will be paid out in three installments; We’ll receive the first $30,000 this year, and $10,000 in both 2010 and 2011. The interest rate is 2 percent.

The loan is secured by a lien on a condo we own at 605 West Main Street. We’re not sure what that unit is worth in this weak market, but we believe the town’s $50k is plenty safe.

The loan application was received and processed by the Small Business & Technology Development Center. It was reviewed and approved by a citizen advisory board, the Economic Sustainability Commission. The loan was approved unanimously by the Carrboro Board of Aldermen on May 19.

The Carrboro Revolving Loan Fund was created by the town in 1986 “for projects that result in the creation or retention of jobs targeted specifically to low- and moderate-income persons.” The list of past loan recipients includes such businesses as Weaver Street Market, the Music Loft, the Ink Spot, Cat’s Cradle and the Orange County Social Club.

The loan fund is sustained by principal and interest payments by the recipients, and start-up funding came from a federal Community Development Block Grant. (Thus, none of the money is from property taxes.)

We think we all ought to be proud to live in a community where our municipal government values small businesses enough to maintain a revolving loan fund to help them grow. Lip service is what small business owners usually get, but this is the real deal.

But will this loan make The Citizen beholden to the town of Carrboro, or change the way we cover town government? In a word, no.

The terms of the loan don’t allow for cancellation by the town for any reason other than nonpayment. If we make our monthly payments, Town Hall holds absolutely no power over us.

Even if that weren’t the case and we operated under a business model based on the continuance of government grants (as has been true of NPR, PBS and the UNC School of Journalism) we would never allow the source of our funding to compromise our reporting.
To do so would be a cynical slap in the face to our readers, our advertisers, the people we cover and, most of all, to the loyal, talented and under-compensated writers, editors and photographers who’ve enabled The Citizen to show up on the newsstand each week for more than two years.

No profession (OK, other than politics) is more fraught with the potential for conflict of interest than journalism. Every stakeholder in a newspaper from the subscription base to the advertisers to the people whose stories are covered has an interest in influencing that paper’s coverage. When you’ve been in the newspaper business as long as we have, you know that.

We’ve had advertisers threaten to cancel their ads because they didn’t like our coverage, subscribers cancel subscriptions, government officials (not Carrboro’s) try to limit our access to public records, friends urge us not to publish stories about their children’s brushes with the law, and we’ve carried on just trying to print the news as accurately as we can, because we know that a newspaper that compromises its integrity has lost its reason for being.

Are the big corporate dailies also walking this tightrope? Sure. Can McClatchy (owner of the News & Observer and The Chapel Hill News) report fairly on a banking industry that holds its very life in its hands? Can NPR report fairly on a government that partially funds it? We believe the answer in these cases is yes.

We make decisions on a daily basis to keep the firewall between business and editorial strong, even in our 627 square foot office. Does the loan constitute a breach of this firewall? We wouldn’t have applied for it if we thought that was a possibility. Those of you who know us, and Kirk, also know that our core values and our backgrounds prevent us from operating The Citizen any other way.
And we wouldn’t have invested two- and-a-half years of our lives and more than $200k of our savings to build anything less than an ethically strong community newspaper.

What we’ve heard for the first 114 issues of The Citizen is a resounding affirmation of our efforts. Will this loan somehow make us less than before? We believe it will make us better. Readers, though, are the final judges of this newspaper. We know we can count on you to let us know how we’re doing.

Robert and Vicky Dickson are co-owners of The Carrboro Citizen.

3 Responses

Comments (3)

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  1. candice watkins

    how strange that you must have an address. how strange that you do not see the concern and are not able to read history nor remember the story of the road to…paved with good intentions. lord knows there are enough accounts of newspapers (big ones,too, la times being one) serving only one master and it isn’t journalism (which i believe is indeed doa)or the people. good luck but please no righteous indignation like there is no possible reason for alarm. either thous dost protest too much or your head is really in the sand.

  2. John Kramer PE

    Candace, you are wrong. There is no way this loan will impact the reporting of the Carrboro Citizen on the Town.


  3. Mary Jane Baker

    It’s hard to take candice watkins comments about journalism seriously. She doesn’t have time to capitalize and punctuate?