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Springfield newspaper becomes part of casino story

A possible casino operator has made an offer to The Republican newspaper in Springfield.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

A possible casino operator has made an offer to The Republican newspaper in Springfield.

The critical public debate over possible casino sites in Springfield will be missing one of the city’s most prominent voices, as The Republican newspaper has silenced its editorial opinions on the issue due to a conflict of interest.

The venerable Republican, long a paper of record in Western Massachusetts, is entertaining an offer from companies connected to Springfield businessman Peter Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines, who wants buy the newspaper’s property to build a casino.

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Critics warn that the pending offer, which The Republican disclosed in its pages, could undermine confidence in its coverage of the hotly contested casino sweepstakes in Springfield, where as many as four companies are vying for a license.

“To me it’s pretty clear on its face — you have a moneyed interest in something you’re covering, so how do you do that?” said Nicholas McBride, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Will favoritism seep in?”

George Arwady, publisher of the nearly 200-year-old newspaper, acknowledged in a Globe interview that “it’s awkward for a newspaper anywhere” to become involved in a story, but insists that decisions on news coverage will be insulated from the paper’s business interests.

“We have to behave on the business side pretty much like every other company in town,” he said. “The newsroom has a different job to do. I try to protect their freedom and independence to do their job.”

The newspaper announced in June that it would no longer editorialize on the casino issue, but it continues to cover the debate in its news pages.

Springfield has emerged as a coveted location for casino developers. Ameristar has bought land in Springfield for a gambling resort. MGM Resorts and Hard Rock International are also pursuing sites in the city. Penn National Gaming has confirmed it has talked to Picknelly about his proposal. A Picknelly spokesman declined to comment.

The Republican has not disclosed the price offered for its property, which includes its Main Street building and eight acres of vacant land on the Connecticut River. Picknelly’s offer is for an option to buy the real estate, the paper has reported. The newspaper, like most others nationally, has encountered financial difficulties that have led to staff cuts.

Arwady would say nothing about the offer.

But he spoke at length about steps he has taken to protect the paper’s news coverage of gambling issues in Springfield.

“When we’re directly involved like this, I just totally remove myself and the other business-side department heads from the story,” he said. “I tell the editor, in this case, executive editor Wayne Phaneuf: ‘I don’t wanna know. If I think you do a good job, I won’t say anything. If you mess up, I won’t say anything. If you spell my name wrong, I won’t say anything.’ ”

Arwady said he does not review casino stories before they run, nor comment on them to his staff after publication. The paper routinely mentions the offer for its land in news stories on casino issues.

“There are still people, of course, who are going to say the newspaper is doing this, that, or the other thing,” said Arwady. “I can’t avoid that. It comes with the territory.”

Avoiding the casino topic completely may be difficult. For instance, the paper in a recent editorial celebrated the planned renovation of the city’s Union Station, a project, according to local news reports, that includes the relocation of the Peter Pan bus depot, which in turn would make the current bus station near the Republican building available for Picknelly’s casino development.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, a casino supporter, was reluctant to comment on the Republican’s conflict of interest, but when pressed defended the paper. “Anything that has been done on this casino issue, they have covered it pro and con,” he said. His concern is ensuring that the paper stays in Springfield if it sells its land and has to relocate.

Still, the conflict has exposed the paper to pointed criticism about its objectivity.

“I don’t really see how you cannot be biased when you’re possibly involved in the deal,” said Timothy Paul Baymon, president of the Council of Churches of Greater Springfield, which opposes a casino in the city and will be seeking coverage of its anticasino efforts.

Scott Harshbarger, former Massachusetts attorney general, blasted the paper’s ongoing conflict as “a serious issue, if not an outright scandal.”

“This is a no-win situation,” said Harshbarger, a leading opponent of the state’s casino law and former head of the government accountability group Common Cause. “At best, the citizens of Springfield and of Massachusetts will believe that the public debate has been tainted by biased reporting. At worst, they will be correct.”

“The key axiom of conflict of interest principles is to follow the money,” said Harshbarger, “which in this case leads us directly to the coffers of the Springfield Republican.”

The land offer has weakened the public debate with the loss of the paper’s editorial guidance, said Karen List, director of the journalism program at UMass Amherst. “Any good local newspaper has an obligation to provide a strong editorial voice on such controversial issues, and the Republican through its involvement has abnegated that responsibility,” she said.

“What other media outlet can provide that voice in the same way?” said List. “This points up the importance of a local paper’s role and the vacuum that can be created when it’s not there, in this case because the paper has taken itself out of the game. Everybody but the paper’s owner loses.”

Arwady, in response, said the Republican’s longstanding position in favor of a downtown Springfield casino is well known. “All the philosophical positions have been staked out long, long, long before we had the tiniest clue anybody would be interested in our property,” he said.

The Republican will continue to run commentaries about casino issues, as well as letters to the editor, he said. Readers are free to share their comments on the paper’s Web page.

The publisher downplayed the absence of The Republican’s voice in the city’s casino debate.

“I don’t think there are a lot of people out there waiting with bated breath for our editorials every day,” he said. “At least I have not noticed that.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark
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