JOHNSTON, R.I. — As small local newspapers struggle with dwindling circulation and shrinking revenue, public officials unhappy with critical news stories are hitting where it hurts — yanking away their contracts to advertise legal notices.
It’s a problem that has been playing out for small dailies and weeklies in New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and other states — including Rhode Island. And, besides hurting the papers’ bottom lines, some experts note it could be a violation of the First Amendment.
Days after his inauguration in January, the new mayor of this suburban town bordering Providence pulled the legal ads from the Johnston Sun Rise, the local free weekly publication with a circulation of 4,500 and a single full-time editor/reporter, and switched to the Providence Journal, the statewide daily newspaper owned by Gannett.
Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. told the Globe that he wanted to use the Journal’s bigger circulation to attract a broader audience for bids — and that the move had nothing to do with the coverage in the Sun Rise.
“I made the move immediately upon taking office,” Polisena said. “It’s not like there were months of perceived negative stories, and then I made the switch.”
But Polisena was candid about his irritation with the questions coming from the Sun Rise’s editor/reporter, Rory Schuler. In an interview with the Globe, Polisena rattled off a list of stories that he thought were unfair, including some from when Polisena was vice chairman of the town council, before he was elected mayor.
Among the stories that rankled were ones about the firing of a senior center director; a state senator who runs an HVAC company getting a full-time, on-call town job paying more than $80,000 as an inspector for construction of the Amazon facility; the budget missing a deadline under the town charter; and campaign contributions that Polisena and the former mayor — his father, Joseph Polisena Sr. — received from employees of solar companies that are proposing large solar field developments and facing pushback from furious residents.
John Howell is the publisher of Beacon Communications, which includes the Johnston Sun Rise, the Warwick Beacon, and the Cranston Herald weeklies. He told the Globe that, after the younger Polisena was elected in 2022, he made it clear in private meetings with Howell that he was unhappy with Schuler’s coverage, and said he was going to switch the town’s legal ads from the Sun Rise to the Journal.
“The mayor said, ‘I’m not going to support somebody who is working against me,’ and that as long as Rory’s with the paper he’s not going to advertise,” Howell said. He has been down this road twice before: In 1970 and in 2019, Warwick mayors who were unhappy with the Warwick Beacon for various reasons pulled their legal ads.
Both the current and the previous mayor have accused Schuler of “gotcha journalism” in the past, Howell said, but the elder Polisena continued to run the town’s public notices in the Sun Rise, instead of the Journal, because the weekly is local and the ad rates are cheaper.
In an interview with the Globe, the current mayor denied telling Howell to fire Schuler or he’d lose the legal ads. Polisena said that he spoke to Howell in late 2022 about “the feel of the paper” and said that he was going to switch to advertising with the Journal. He acknowledged, however, that he was upset that Schuler had published information, after confirming it with other sources, that Polisena had also told him off the record.
In January, the new mayor made the switch. The loss of the advertising contract cut the Sun Rise’s revenue by more than $12,000 a year — a serious hit to the tiny, free weekly publication.
“They’re not happy that I pulled the advertising,” Polisena said. “I’m not in this to make a newspaper money. I’m in this to protect the taxpayers.”
But the Providence Journal, which had a daily circulation of about 27,000 in 2022, charges far more — as much as 10 times more — than the Sun Rise to print public notices and legal ads.
The Sun Rise charged $165 for liquor license renewal notices and $39 to $102 for board agendas, and the Providence Journal charged more than $600 for liquor license renewal notices and $800 to $1,300 for planning board agendas, according to receipts provided by the town. A legal notice for an April planning board meeting cost nearly $8,000 to run for two weeks in the Journal.
That has increased costs for the town, which runs notices about ordinances and requests for purchases, as well as for the petitioners, such as vendors and developers, who are required to take out the notices to inform the public about hearings on licenses, zoning, and planning. The town collects the fees from the petitioners, then pays the newspapers for the notices.
Some residents and political leaders note that the change has also affected the public. Democratic Town Councilman Robert Civetti, who has led the charge against solar array sites in the residential neighborhoods in his ward, said that advertising in the state-wide newspaper has made it difficult for people to find out about local meetings and proposed changes in Johnston.
At a council meeting on March 13, Civetti asked for information about whether the ads in the Providence Journal are cost effective. In August, he told the Globe that he’s still waiting for answers.
“If they felt they are getting more bids by advertising in the Journal, then continue to do so, but I think the public meetings and things going on in town should be in the Sun Rise,” he told the Globe. “That’s where people can see them.”
The Johnston Republican Town Committee also said it would be in the town’s best interest to have the notices of town meetings in the Sun Rise.
“We are so fortunate to have this free newspaper,” committee chairwoman Sandra Taylor told the Globe. “The Sun Rise is printed every Thursday and we can count on its timing. We appreciate transparency. It makes sense to keep business local.”
People are now relying on word of mouth to find out about upcoming meetings, because they don’t subscribe to the Journal, said Lynn Grissom, a Johnston native.
But they do read the Sun Rise. “It’s where local people go for local information about the community,” she said.
Grissom defended Schuler’s reporting in the Sun Rise. “He reports it like it is,” she said. “Good for the freedom of the press that Rory is still doing his job.”
The Polisenas are both Democrats. The chairman of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, lawyer Joseph Ballirano, who is also solicitor for the town zoning board, didn’t respond to the Globe’s requests for comment.
Public notices are not only the lifeblood of small newspapers, they are one of the pillars of government transparency, said Richard Karpel, the executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a nonprofit that promotes government and corporate transparency through public notice in newspapers.
Laws in all 50 states require that notices that inform the public about town meetings, hearings, elections, probate court matters, tax sales, changes in ordinances – even something as small as when the town is considering abandoning a road – must be published in a newspaper.
Pulling contracts to publish legal notices as punishment “is happening more often,” he said. “If they have a choice to publish notices in more than one paper, they can exercise that option, but the question is, is it good for the community or not?”
Polisena said he’s willing to pay more to advertise in the Providence Journal, even if most of Johnston’s nearly 30,000 residents don’t subscribe to it and the paper has no dedicated coverage of the town. The town has gotten more responses to its requests for bids from ads in the Providence Journal than the Sun Rise, he said. Town Clerk Vincent Baccari Jr. confirmed the increase in responses.
Howell met with Polisena, and the mayor’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff in March and appealed to him to change his mind. He said he told Polisena about the importance of transparency in local government, and said more residents were likely to see the ads in the local weekly.
In response, Polisena offered to pay the Sun Rise a token $1 to publish the notices. Howell declined.
Polisena said that meant “their argument on transparency doesn’t hold up.”
The question is whether pulling the ads – and the revenue they generate for the Sun Rise – amounts to a violation of the First Amendment, which serves, among other things, to protect journalists from being punished for exercising their constitutional rights and publishing the news.
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said he sees “red flags” in the Johnston case. However, he said, it can be difficult to prove a violation of the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment only comes into play when it’s a retaliatory measure, and not for other reasons that may make sense, such as moving ads to another publication for a broader audience or better rates. That’s where it gets tricky,” Silverman said. “It’s difficult to prove without someone making an explicit threat.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has offered to review the matter.
”The local media serve as an important check on government misconduct and threats against them for doing their job should be a concern of every resident,” said ACLU executive director Steve Brown. “I’m not in a position to say that this happened, but it’s concerning to have these allegations raised by a reputable member of the media.”
Since Schuler became the Sun Rise’s editor in May 2021, he has won awards for his coverage, including the Distinguished Journalist Award from the Rhode Island Press Association.
“I like to tell both sides of the story,” he told the Globe. “My goal was to provide a solid news product in a town that was getting minimal media attention, except for maybe a sensational story that popped up.”
When asked if Schuler’s reporting was objective, Polisena paused before answering. “I think he does what he’s supposed to do, which is be a check on the administration,” he responded.
“It’s not their job to paint me in a positive or negative light. It’s the media’s job to identify the facts of the story,” Polisena added.
The mayor said he has no intentions of switching the public notices back to the Sun Rise, even if Schuler stops working there. Schuler said he has no intentions of changing the way he covers the town.
“No matter what these public officials say,” Schuler said, “they can give their opinions, but they do not get to control what the local newspaper writes.”