Owner Josh Cutler says he intends to step down as publisher of the Duxbury Clipper at the end of the year and divest his interest in the weekly newspaper, as he prepares to be sworn in as state representative in January.
Cutler was elected in November as the first Democrat to represent the Sixth Plymouth District, which encompasses all of Pembroke and Hanson and four precincts in Duxbury. Cutler’s family has published the Clipper, an independent, family-run town newspaper founded by his grandparents John and Roberta “Bobbie” Cutler, since 1950.
For the past 10 years, Cutler worked as editor and more recently publisher of the Clipper and the Whitman-Hanson Express . He took a leave of absence to run for office.
“The Cutler family has published the Duxbury Clipper for 62 years and I’ve been proud to carry on that tradition for the past 12,” Cutler said. “It is one of a dying breed of independent, family-run newspapers, and I hope it remains so for the next 100 years. As I pledged during the campaign, however, I intend to be a full-time state representative and as such I will be departing the Clipper at the end of this year and divesting my interest in the business.”
Cutler said he was “putting my interests in a trust.” He declined to give specifics about the trust.
Opponents have questioned whether Cutler’s ownership of the Clipper constituted a conflict of interest, as the paper covers politics and everything else that happens in Duxbury, a town of around 15,000 residents.
“It’s a private business, so they can do whatever they want. But it’s a question, whether are people going to trust the ethics of it,” said Bill Harris, chairman of the Duxbury Republican Town Committee. The Clipper sometimes won’t run advertisements promoting GOP interests, and “they really do take some liberties” trying to influence elections to swing Democratic, said Harris, who no longer subscribes to the paper.
Cutler disagreed with Harris’s assertions that the Clipper won’t run GOP ads.
“I understand that some people will use my new role as an opportunity to score political points, but I’m proud of our family business and my decade-long tenure. If you ask any unbiased observer, I think they’d agree that I’ve always been a straight shooter who’s done what’s best for our town and lets the chips fall where they may,” he said.
In August, the Clipper published a letter to the editor written by resident Christine Hill that was critical of the paper. “Has anyone in town ever heard of anyone else in this country who has actively participated in managing and writing for a newspaper he and his family owns while also making a career out of running for office? Duxbury needs a real newspaper, not a forum for advertising that writes puffs pieces and publishes editorials from its owner/publisher, the candidate,” the letter stated.
In an interview, Hill said she is still concerned that Cutler is using the paper to promote his own interests. “He’s more involved than he admits,” she said.
But Clipper ombudsman Will Zachmann said publishing the letter shows the paper’s commitment to fairness.
“There was clearly strong resistance to publishing that letter” from staff who are loyal to Cutler, but they did it after discussing the fairness of publishing it, Zachmann said. “My feeling was it would be an issue if we didn’t.”
Media ownership is rife with potential conflicts of interest, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school located in St. Petersburg, Fla., that promotes ethical decision-making.
Cutler’s ownership of the Clipper is “a conflict of interest, but it’s a conflict of interest that could be easily managed. The simple solution is to hire an editor, or make sure the current editor is a competent qualified journalist who will put the audience first and have the independence to do what’s right for the audience,” McBride said.
“The best indicator of whether that’s possible is the past. Everybody, all media organizations, are owned, and all owners have conflicts of interest. When you get into the realm of politics, it’s so blatant people get concerned,” she said. “They should be talking to the public about this, through editors columns or social media.”
The Clipper Press Co. announced Cutler’s leave of absence as publisher in the April 25 edition of the Clipper and named as acting publisher Deborah Anderson, who is now in her position permanently, Cutler said.
Cutler first ran for public office in 2010, when he lost a close race for the Sixth Plymouth District to the incumbent, Daniel Webster, a Republican from Hanson. The district had never elected a Democrat before Cutler.
This past August, Karen Barry launched a write-in campaign to challenge Webster in the September primary. Webster won, but the five-term incumbent pulled out of the race four days later, citing personal reasons. The Massachusetts Republican Party then nominated Barry, a Hanson native who lives in Duxbury and daughter of former state representative Charles Mann, Republican of Hanson, to run against Cutler.
During the race, Barry accused Cutler of disguising himself as a moderate Democrat, though he received endorsements from union groups and other liberal organizations. Cutler, in turn, accused Barry of using radical tactics, such as a card sent to voters’ homes by the Massachusetts Republican Party insinuating that Cutler supported taxpayer-funded sex change operations for prisoners, forcing him to say he didn’t support such an operation.
Cutler’s father, David, who owned the Mariner Newspaper chain until its sale to Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in 1989, died in February 2010. GateHouse Media New England, which publishes the Patriot Ledger, now owns the Mariner papers