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Wednesday, 12 December 2012 14:05

Newspaper says advertising was pulled after critical news coverage

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A side drama playing out in the downtown Franklin fracas involves an unusual public display of the tension that often exists between newspapers and the government leaders they cover.

After Macon County News wrote an in-depth story about the gripes of merchants disgruntled with the town’s Main Street Program, Main Street Director Linda Schlott, for the first time in several years, didn’t advertise the annual Winter Wonderland festival in The Macon News.

Macon County News Publisher Betsy Gooder claims Schlott pulled the advertising because she was mad about what The Macon News wrote.

“She said ‘Absolutely, as long as you are writing derogatory articles about me, I won’t be doing any advertising,’” Gooder said.

Gooder came to a town board meeting last week to openly share her own opinions on the matter: that a town-funded program operating with tax dollars shouldn’t wield advertising dollars as a carrot nor as a stick.

“That isn’t even her money. That stems from her personal feelings,” Gooder said.

The recent Winter Wonderland Festival was advertised in half a dozen newspapers in the region, including The Smoky Mountain News, The Franklin Press, Fun Things to Do in the Mountains, Mountain Laurel and the Gainesville (Ga.) Times.

Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood said the Main Street Program isn’t obligated to advertise with The Macon County News.

“There is not a requirement you parcel out money equally,” Greenwood said. “If you have one paper that is being critical of your efforts, it nullifies your desire to work with them.

But the tension between the Macon County News and the town fathers didn’t exactly materialize out of the blue. The Macon County News is one of two newspapers with an office in Franklin.

The other is The Franklin Press, a longer-running, traditional paid newspaper. The Macon News is a free weekly tabloid.

While its news coverage during its 30-year existence has oscillated between mostly human interest pieces to hard-hitting investigations, it historically has been more prone to rock the boat with its stories than its counterpart The Franklin Press. And that hasn’t always ingratiated it with government leaders.

Gooder and Schlott apparently have personal discord predating the recent conflict, based on comments leveled by Gooder at the town meeting where she spoke.

“This whole thing has gotten entirely too personal,” said Alderman Bob Scott.

Scott, a crusading newspaper reporter for The Asheville Citizen-Times for many years, sympathized with The Macon News on principal, however.

“Withholding advertising to a particular media is perfectly legal, but I question whether it is moral or even ethical to do that,” Scott said. “To me, it tells me it was an attempt to manage the news to withhold advertising money that was paid for by taxpayers.”

Scott, of course, has been on the other end of the pen and notepad and witnessed the shoot-the-messenger reaction from local government leaders who find themselves in the hot seat.

“There was a feeling that if a news article was perceived to be unflattering, it was a personal attack against the people making these policies,” Scott said. “The role of the media is not to be a cheerleader for public bodies. It is to report the news.”

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