A "confluence of interests"

COLUMBIA, Mo 6/16/18 (Op Ed) -- I've long thought the Columbia Daily Tribune's owners -- as distinct from its reporters -- were in the tank for the Columbia city manager and his minions. 
The print paper's recent spate of stories and editorials attacking proponents of a City Hall audit -- something city manager Mike Matthes almost certainly dreads -- is only the most recent example of tank-dwelling.

City managers Ray Beck, Bill Watkins, and Matthes have had the Trib's unquestioning support. The print paper parrots their budget projections, praises their initiatives, badmouths their critics, attempts to silence their dissenters.  It tries to shit can Council candidates who question or criticize city management, reveling in their missteps and poo-pooing their campaigns.

For years, I couldn't understand how an organization supposedly dedicated to "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" could throw so much support behind this city's unelected autocrat. 

Now, I'm starting to get it.  Appearances and a lack of disclosures suggest it's all about the money.  

City Hall spends about ten thousand five hundred ($10,500) dollars a month with our local, privately-owned dead tree (print) paper,  for a total in the past five years of $635,644.

The city spends a fraction as much with our other dead tree, the Columbia Missourian$43,363 over 5 years, or $723/month.  And nothing with the Columbia Heart Beat (which is how it will stay.)

The Heart Beat earlier reported how the Trib also makes coin on privately-funded tax and rate hike campaigns, strategizing with the city manager to convince voters that higher taxes or utilility bills are the only way out of city government's latest, often-invented dilemma.  
Documents from the Downtown CID show the print paper hauling in between ten and fifty thousand dollars per campaign, while never disclosing its involvement.
And this is just what I discovered without a formal Sunshine Law request.   
MatthesCommunity-minded, for a price
"The City of Columbia purchases space in the Tribune to publish notices, some as required by law, for a number of departments," city community relations director Steve Sapp told the Heart Beat.  "Human Resources advertises employment opportunities; City Clerk’s Office must post various meetings and public hearings; Community Development must publish various zoning related materials related to meetings; and there are occasionally other marketing pieces published in the Tribune."

"The Columbia Parks and Recreation Department has contracted with Tribune Publishing to produce the quarterly Leisure Times publication," Sapp added.
Sounds like a simple list of routine ads.  So why the high cost?  

Or aren't the Trib's publishers as community minded as they urge the rest of us to be:  you know, with all the badgering about this or that non-profit opportunity?  Serve without pay on a city commission; donate to the United Way; volunteer at the Food Bank; or if you're an artist, paint storm drains or First Ward utility boxes for free. 
"Hank the Butterfly"

It also chafes me that the print paper never says anything about its City Hall business, while making the rest of us assume the position.  
Former Trib owner/publisher Hank Waters has for decades taken up a smug perch he still occupies (talk about progress), slapping down City Hall critics.  During a single election cycle three years ago when he still owned the paper, Waters used these terms to describe citizens who dared question their city government, something I thought newspapers were supposed to do: 





"Negative Nellies."  

"Unremitting critics."

A decade ago, Waters was famously exposed as "Hank the Butterfly," working behind the scenes to convince city officials that eminent domain should take the old Bengals Bar and Grill property from the Rader family for a new state historical society museum. 

At the same time, Waters was writing Trib editorials pushing the idea.

When Missourian columnist George Kennedy accused the Trib publisher of a textbook conflict of interest over the scandal, Waters' well-known smugness emerged. 

"I like to think of it as a confluence of interests," he told Kennedy.
WatersPlaying favorites?
Given the Columbia Missourian's role in educating future journalists, the least our civic-minded, equity-driven city manager could do is throw that paper a little more scratch.  Compared to the Trib moreover, the Missourian isn't nearly as in the tank for city government. 

I like that, though can't help but wonder why.  Here's the spend for the past five years, per Mr. Sapp, on ads alone:  
City Hall spending with the Columbia Daily Tribune
2013 - $97,851.09
2014 - $115,750.28
2015 - $146,750.10
2016 - $121,901.80
2017 - $153,389.65
City Hall spending with the Columbia Missourian
2013 - $6,825.15
2014 - $7,181.75
2015 - $7,075.28
2016 - $9,547.65
2017 -​ $12,733.40
 -- Mike Martin