Extra! Extra! Man Starts Newspaper
A retired editor, with the help of a famous neighbor, aims to fill the void of local news in his hometown
Like many people turning 70, veteran journalist Andy Thibault was still working, but on his own terms, teaching college journalism classes at the University of New Haven and freelancing. Then came a call from a colleague who knew someone interested in the newspaper business.
Consumer activist and four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader was looking for someone to start a local newspaper in his hometown, Winsted, Connecticut. Did Andy know of anyone who might be interested?
"I liked that it was a ludicrous if not impossible challenge."
Thibault said he did know of one guy who would be interested in starting a newspaper when so many publications were writing their own obituaries. That guy was Thibault himself. "I liked that it was a ludicrous if not impossible challenge," he recalls.
Why would someone entering his eighth decade choose to roll the dice on a shrinking business with an uncertain future, at best?
"I like the work and I can't sing or dance," he said with a shrug.
So, the Winsted Citizen debuted in February 2023 and is growing and expanding. After six months as a print-only publication, it recently went online and the September issue will be published soon.
The Ralph Nader Angle
The paper was created as a nonprofit enterprise with Nader, aged 89, giving $15,000 as the founding donor. He later contributed another $16,000 in grants for a total stake of $31,000, He also provided free logistical support in establishing the newspaper's nonprofit status.
In a radio interview, Nader that he wanted to found a print publication because he is convinced that his neighbors in Winsted, where he lives part time, miss feeling newsprint in their hands and are sick of electronics.
The Citizen covers news in Winsted, 25 miles northwest of the state capital, Hartford, and surrounding towns. It has spiced up its pages by also publishing items like a quirky poem titled "I Wish I Was My Wife So I Could Be Married to Me" and a story about taking psychedelic mushrooms for depression (it had a front-page teaser reading "Don't Shroom and Drive").
The paper strives to live up to its reader-focused motto: "If it's important to you, it's important to us."
Thibault is something of a legend in Connecticut journalism. Highlights of his long career include working as a research consultant to the HBO series "Allen V. Farrow" and covering the Boston Marathon bombing trial for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
He is also a licensed private investigator and the author of books such as "You Thought It Was More," about Louis "the Coin" Colavecchio, a notorious Rhode Island counterfeiter.
A Life of Reporting on Crime
But Thibault is proudest of writing stories that led the authorities to release Bonnie Foreshaw, a woman sentenced to 45 years in prison for committing a murder that many legal experts argued was the lesser crime of manslaughter.
He unearthed a 24-year-old document from a public defender, Jon C. Blue. In the memo, Blue, who later became a judge, criticized the lawyers who represented Foreshaw for "shocking malpractice." Based on Thibault's reporting, Foreshaw was granted a clemency hearing and released.
"Andy played a pivotal role in that case," said newspaper columnist Susan Campbell, who writes for Hearst Newspapers and CTNewsjunkie.com and also works with Thibault at the University of New Haven. "Unlike the rest of us, he kept on that story like a dog with a bone, like a yard dog on a short chain. Without him, I don't think there would have been the same outcome."
At the Winsted Citizen, Thibault sells ads, commissions stories, edits, works with the art director and even picks up copies from the printer to deliver them around town. Thibault tapped his Rolodex to put together a team that's as eclectic as the newspaper.
"I'm very excited about the people I work with," Thibault said. "We have a 16-year-old whiz kid reporter and an office manager who's a retired executive from Adobe who is training me to be an organized person."
Paying those contributors is a struggle.
"Pay has been erratic because we were grossly undercapitalized," Thibault said. "We are steadily building up revenue and have been operating since the July edition under an austerity budget."
Reporter Reynaldo Cruz is enthusiastic about working for the Citizen, even though he is essentially a volunteer. Born in Cuba, Cruz fled to Mexico in 2021 and crossed the Rio Grande alone in January, 2022. He was arrested and spent five days in detention at the border followed by 13 days in prison. He worked as a photojournalist in Cuba and is seeking asylum in the U.S.
A Reporter Is Born
Cruz met Thibault when he was a guest speaker in his journalism class.
"I was dying to do some reporting and the next thing I know, I was on a trip to Winsted and taking photos and writing a story about the American Mural Project there," Cruz said. "Then I'm on the phone with Senator (Richard) Blumenthal."
Cruz describes Winsted, population around 7,000, as a friendly town right out of the "Gilmore Girls" TV show.
Newspaper advocates say that without a disinterested source of news, idyllic small cities like Winsted are at risk of civic rot.
Why Newspapers Matter
"In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout," Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism cautioned in its report "The State of Local News 2022."
"Newspapers are continuing to vanish at a rapid rate," the report added. "An average of more than two a week are disappearing. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025. Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital or print replacement."
Melissa Bird, director of Nader's American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, sits on the board of the nonprofit paper. With many people relying on social media for news, she believes in the importance of having a fair and balanced local newspaper.
"Sometimes people are looking at national party politics and they forget we are all neighbors who work together to continue to propel our town forward. A newspaper supports all of that. It's an active fight against fake news."
"We need to save local journalism," she said. "Sometimes people are looking at national party politics and they forget we are all neighbors who work together to continue to propel our town forward. A newspaper supports all of that. It's an active fight against fake news."
In addition to Nader's support, subscriptions and ads, Thibault is seeking grants to keep the paper afloat. The Citizen prints births, obits, weddings and other milestones free of charge.
Thibault, a cancer survivor with a wife and two grown sons, has no plans to retire. He said he's having too much fun.
But will the paper survive?
"I'd bet the farm," Campbell said. "It's going against all good sense, but every town needs a newspaper. People need to know what's going on, and they're not going to attend city meetings, that's what journalists are for.
"There's not a lot of oversight anymore, no watchdogs," she continued. "Things may happen that people would not agree with. If they don't know about it, they can't react. For Andy to launch this is a beautiful thing."