Two of the most powerful women in the village of Delhi in central New York sat face to face in a brick building on Main Street for what would become a fight over the First Amendment.
It was the fall of 2019. Tina Molé, the top elected official in Delaware County, was demanding that Kim Shepard, the publisher of The Reporter, the local newspaper, “do something” about what Ms. Molé saw as the paper’s unfair coverage of the county government.
Ms. Shepard stood her ground. Not long after, Ms. Molé struck where it would hurt The Reporter the most: its finances. The county stripped the newspaper of a lucrative contract to print public notices, subsequently informing The Reporter that the decision was partly based on “the manner in which your paper reports county business.”
The move cost The Reporter about $13,000 a year in revenue — a significant blow to a newspaper with barely 4,000 subscribers.
In most of the country, state and local laws require public announcements — about town meetings, elections, land sales and dozens of other routine occurrences — to be published in old-fashioned, print-and-ink newspapers, as well as online, so that citizens are aware of matters of public note. The payments for publishing these notices are among the steadiest sources of revenue left for local papers.
Sometimes, though, public officials revoke the contracts in an effort to punish their hometown newspapers for aggressive coverage of local politics.
Such retaliation is not new, but it appears to be occurring more frequently now, when terms like “fake news” have become part of the popular lexicon.
In recent years, newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina, New Jersey and California, as well as New York, have been stripped of their contracts for public notices after publishing articles critical of their local governments. Some states, like Florida, are going even further, revoking the requirement that such notices have to appear in newspapers.
“It’s gotten worse over the years in terms of trying to use contracts and laws to lash out at newspapers,” said Richard Karpel, the executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a nonprofit group focused on promoting government transparency.
The trend is the latest example of how public officials and wealthy individuals are waging war on news organizations that cover them aggressively.
Many politicians, including former President Donald J. Trump, have sought to delegitimize the mainstream media. Others, like former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and former Representative Devin Nunes of California, have filed libel lawsuits that courts have dismissed. In some cases — like the New Hampshire journalist whose home was vandalized after an exposé about a local businessman — the threats have spilled into the physical realm.
Legal experts said it was unlawful for elected officials to weaponize public contracts. “Under the First Amendment, governments cannot retaliate against anyone based upon the viewpoints that they express on any issue,” said Thomas Hentoff, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly who specializes in First Amendment law.
Sometimes, it is hard to prove that a local government is revoking a contract because of its unhappiness about a newspaper’s coverage. But other times, the rationale has been more or less explicit.
Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, officials in Custer County, Colo., replaced the longtime public health director with a man whose educational credentials seemed questionable. The Wet Mountain Tribune reported that his academic degree came from an unaccredited university that didn’t hold classes or give written exams.
The county’s commissioners ended the Tribune’s contract for public notices and awarded it to a smaller competitor. One commissioner said during a public meeting that he did not want to support the Tribune because of its “witch hunt” against the public health director.
The paper’s publisher, Jordan Hedberg, sued the county in the fall for violating the paper’s First Amendment rights. A federal judge encouraged the two sides to negotiate. In December, the county agreed to reinstate The Tribune’s contract for four years and to pay the paper $50,000 in damages and lawyers’ fees.
For small newspapers, whose budgets often can cover only one or two full-time journalists and some freelancers, public-notices contracts are worth thousands of dollars a year and can be the difference between staying afloat and sinking. That is especially so since many of the papers generate meager advertising revenue.
“Savvy governments can use that as a tool to threaten you,” said Alex Shiffer, a co-founder of the Shawangunk Journal in Ellenville, N.Y., which has about 3,000 print and digital subscribers.
Last summer, the town’s school district canceled the Journal’s public-notice contract after several years of gripes about its coverage, including its articles about the district’s poor graduation rate. The public notices now appear in a newspaper 30 miles outside Ellenville.
Mr. Shiffer said the cancellation of the contract cost the Journal about $2,000 a year. “Not a huge hit to our budget by any means, but the damage in civic engagement was much more profound,” he said.
In 2020, The Gaston Gazette, a North Carolina paper with a print circulation of about 4,000, published an article that said county commissioners had improperly settled workers’ compensation cases behind closed doors.
The chairman of Gaston County’s board of commissioners blasted the article as “another instance of where the fake news media seeks to make news rather than to report the facts.” The county sued the paper for libel. It later dropped the suit but said it planned to pull its contract for public notices, estimating that the move would cost The Gazette up to $100,000 a year in revenue.
A lawyer for The Gazette’s owner, the Gannett newspaper chain, said in comments to The Charlotte Observer that such a move would be unconstitutional. The county hasn’t acted on its plan to cancel the contract. A county spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.
The North Carolina Legislature is one of several looking to ease or end requirements for public notices to be published in physical newspapers. The state already changed the rule for Guilford County, where public notices have to be displayed only on government websites.
The fight in New York’s Delaware County dates to 2019, when The Reporter covered a series of municipal hearings that touched on the county’s treatment of teenagers in the juvenile justice system.
Under state law, the hearings had to be public. But journalists and other observers said at the time that they were required to sit at one end of a long room, while the hearings’ participants sat at the other end, talking quietly, without microphones or speakers to help the audience hear. The Reporter published a letter to the editor about the unusual setup.
“I totally dispute that they were shoved into a corner,” Ms. Molé, the chair of the county’s board of supervisors, said in an interview.
In November 2019, The Reporter published an article in which a lawyer for one of the teenagers claimed that county officials had backdated a document in his client’s case. (Amy Merklen, the county’s lawyer, said that the allegation was false and that the newspaper didn’t reach out to her office for comment before publishing the article.)
One day that fall, Ms. Molé showed up at The Reporter’s offices in downtown Delhi to meet with Ms. Shepard. The women had known each other for decades. Their children had played together. They occasionally saw each other at dinners for the county’s Republican Party, of which they are members.
According to Ms. Shepard, Ms. Molé complained that the county government was not being portrayed “in a positive light.” She wanted Ms. Shepard to fire the paper’s editor, Lillian Browne, which Ms. Shepard said she had refused to do.
Ms. Molé said she viewed some of The Reporter’s coverage as unfair and had simply asked Ms. Shepard to cover the county’s hearings impartially.
The Reporter had been publishing the county’s public records virtually since the newspaper’s founding in 1881. Last year, though, the board of supervisors voted to award the contract to The Hancock Herald, a paper that covers a few towns at the southeastern end of the county, nearly 40 miles away, and has less than half The Reporter’s circulation of about 4,300.
In March, the county articulated its rationale in a letter sent to Ms. Shepard and her husband and business partner, Randy Shepard, and signed by 38 officials.
“The flagrant manipulation of facts and the manner in which your paper reports county business was one of the reasons the board of supervisors opted to change the official county paper to The Hancock Herald in 2022,” the letter said. (Ms. Molé said in a recent interview that the decision was actually about saving the county money.)
Some county officials said they disagreed with the decision.
“They claim that The Reporter would publish biased articles,” said Wayne Marshfield, who sits on the board of supervisors and signed the letter, but said he had done so only to support his colleagues. “I always found it to be quite factual, but they claim not, and I guess they claim that The Reporter wouldn’t publish corrections, even though I believe they would.”
The Shepards, who have defended their coverage of Delaware County, estimate that losing the county’s public notices cost them $13,000 a year in revenue.
So far, the paper has not had to cut staff, but the Shepards are relying on money they make from things like printing signs, T-shirts and posters to keep The Reporter going. “As soon as we make a gain in one area, it seems like we take a hit in another area,” Ms. Shepard said. They have hired a lawyer and are considering whether to sue the county.
Ms. Molé denied that the fight with The Reporter was part of a broader trend of conservatives attacking the media.
“We’re not like the raving lunatic Republicans,” she said. “It’s really not about Republicans or Democrats at this local level. It’s about respect and being fair.”