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Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

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