A cash-strapped newspaper in Montpelier is hoping residents will vote to keep it afloat.
Twenty-one years after he cofounded the Bridge, editor and publisher Nat Frothingham says the twice-monthly's finances are so dire, he's seeking a $27,254 appropriation from Vermont's capital city.
Frothingham and his staff have spent the past two weeks gathering the 600-plus signatures necessary to place an article on the Town Meeting Day ballot this March asking for the money. He says the paper must gather just 55 more signatures before 5 p.m. Thursday to qualify.
But according to city officials, Montpelier can't legally appropriate money to the Bridge because it's a for-profit entity. They say that even if Frothingham gathers enough signatures, the city council can vote Thursday night against placing the article on the ballot.
"It's an unusual situation to be asked to provide a direct appropriation to a private business that's not a charity or a foundation," says city manager Bill Fraser, who consulted with city attorney Paul Giuliani and determined the request was "not appropriate."
"There are precedents for municipal governments voting appropriations to for-profit agencies like for-profit hospitals," he says, noting that the paper isn't actually making a profit. Last year, he says, he had to take out a loan just to pay the Bridge's bills.
"I'm not taking a salary," he says. "I don't think I could borrow more money from the bank, given the financial picture I would have to report to the bank. I would report no earnings."
In a recent editorial, Frothingham wrote that it's been some time since ad sales and subscription revenue were sufficient to keep the paper in business. He has since turned to readers for contributions — and to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for office space.
One citizen who has contributed financially is Montpelier Mayor John Hollar.
"The Bridge has been an important institution in Montpelier for a long time. They are a true community newspaper," he says, calling it "a labor of love" for Frothingham. "Having said that, one of my goals as mayor has been to try to minimize these kinds of petitions that go on the ballot. It's not the best way to appropriate money."
And, Hollar adds, "I think there's a general discomfort in the community about providing city funds to a for-profit entity."
Then there's the question of whether it's journalistically ethical for a newspaper that reports on the city to ask for money from the city.
Frothingham believes it is.
"I'm not seeing this as city government owning a piece of the Bridge. I'm seeing this as voter support for a spending item that would benefit the Bridge," he says.
But wouldn't it be difficult for the paper to objectively cover city councilors if its fate rested in their hands?
"I'm not vindictive," Frothingham says. "They're entitled to vote however they please. I'm not going to snap back at them on this. We've got a job to do and we'll do the job."