Columbus, Ohio USA
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By Jory Farr
September/October 2013 Issue
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Bob Fitrakis sits at a back table in a Short North cafe munching a bagel with smoked salmon. It doesn’t take long for him to answer a fundamental question.
Bob Fitrakis | Photo © Jory Farr
What compelled him to reboot The Free Press, the feisty newspaper he took over in 1992 and saved from destruction countless times by dipping into his own savings?
“Basically, the death of The Other Paper,” Fitrakis says with a wry smile. “The Dispatch bought it and killed it. I had worked for years for that paper, and we had done groundbreaking journalism. We had helped put Gov. Voinovich’s chief of staff, Paul Mifsud, in jail for falsifying public records. And the Dispatch had the gall to write an editorial saying how beneficial it would be for them to own all the media in Columbus. We got all these calls and emails over the years from readers who wanted another voice. So we’re trying to be that voice.”
The new edition of The Free Press, which debuts Sept. 4, will be 40 pages with a color cover. The print run is 20,000, and some advertisers have come on board.
Fitrakis says there will be lots of local, national and international news, with plans to fortify the publication with rich cultural coverage. Among the stories in the first issue is one that chronicles scandals, corruption and coverups at Columbus city schools. Another details the Columbus janitor’s strike, which Fitrakis says will be covered in depth by the paper in the coming weeks. And another article explains why everyone should support marijuana legalization.
“We will have a marijuana beat at the paper,” Fitrakis says, smiling. “That goes back to our roots in the 1970s calling for legalization.”
An activist, investigative reporter and dogged muckraker for more than 30 years, Fitrakis has been a gadfly to Ohio’s political charlatans, a nemesis of mainstream media coverage, a persistent critic of exploitive corporations, and, as a political science professor at CSCC and a civil liberties attorney, a champion of the 99 percent. Aside from his prodigious journalism, he’s also co-written books, with Harvey Wasserman, about voter fraud that have become the standard for deciphering how votes are stolen in national and local elections.
The newly revamped weekly will be distributed citywide. And Fitrakis will not be on the hook to bail it out should it experience financial problems. Two related non-profits are responsible for that. Meanwhile, The Free Press is being published by The Free Press Now, LLC and will be complemented by the regular online edition.
Fitrakis is a fervent believer in speaking truth to power, best embodied by an un-muzzled media.
“The quality of a democracy is based on the information the people have,” he says. “The more that becomes monopolized, the less information they have and decisions inevitably are made by a power elite. And the real power lies in them telling you what reality is. Our readers will get the other side of the news; they’ll get fact-based information. They’ll have all the news the Dispatch doesn’t see fit to present but that’s essential for real public policy debate. And readers will get a different slant on culture that wouldn’t be in a corporate entity.”
As an example, Fitrakis says the views toward fracking held by The Free Press are diametrically opposed to those held by corporate media like the Dispatch.
“We’re fact-based and anti-fracking. We see that historically as the death throes of the oil and gas industry that want to extract every last bit of profit out of the ground while poisoning the groundwater.”
Reached for comment, the Dispatch said it had “no comment.”
The Free Press, founded in 1970, has had its share of issues. For years it had visibility problems; the paper was simply impossible to find in many parts of the city. For a while, from 1996 to 1998, it was online only. And in the mid-90s, there was no money to print it. Fitrakis estimates that he and his wife spent about $150,000 of their own money bailing out the publication over a 20-year period.
“I consider it religious tithing,” Fitrakis says with a smile.
The main focus of The Free Press will, as always, be muckraking investigative reporting.
“We’ll look at who made important decisions in town and how they were made,” says Fitrakis. “There are no sacred cows. We’ll go after anyone who is not serving the public interest.”
Leading alternative publications, like New York City’s Village Voice, have been bought by big corporations in recent years and, through downsizing and corporatizing, have become tools of big business and lost sight of their investigative roots entirely. But through all its trials and tribulations, The Free Press has remained true to its radical vision.
“We were the first gay rights newspaper in Ohio,” says Fitrakis. “We knew sexuality was a human rights issue. And we were the first paper in Ohio to embrace environmentalism.”
Fitrakis was born in Highland Park, Michigan, one of eight children in a first generation Greek American family.
“My parents lived in Detroit, but they wanted me to have a prestigious birthplace, so they went to a hospital in Highland Park.” Fitrakis laughs. “Ironically, Highland Park is now one of the poorest cities in the country.”
The Fitrakis father was a baker for many years, but then transitioned into the auto industry before becoming a garbage man.
“It was a very patriarchal family,”
Fitrakis recalls. “I delivered the Detroit Shopping News for 1 cent a paper and had to give half to my parents.”
His mother was very religious and steered the family that way. They went to a born again fundamentalist church in Detroit and were trained as missionaries and martyrs, Fitrakis says.
He got the bug for muckraking journalism at Grand Valley College near Grand Rapids, where he was student body president and founded his own paper called The Insider. But he says the media model that inspired him when he took over The Free Press, then an alternative think tank-like paper, was The Appeal to Reason, a newspaper originating in Girard, Kansas, that reached its peak in 1912.
“It was a progressive, national, muckraking publication that had 750,000 readers and published work by Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair among others.”
The Free Press’ popularity will ultimately rest on an engaged populace, not one hungering for the next beer or ethnic festival. Are there enough readers with the intelligence and desire to fulfill the mandate of a democracy, keep informed and resist tyranny? Certainly, widespread feelings of despair exist locally and nationally among the working and middle classes. And the inability of government to respond to many of the basic needs of its citizens suggests that the time is ripe for a radical newspaper.
If nothing else, the gap in the market – The Free Press is an independent, anti-authoritarian voice in a virtual media monopoly town – and the quality of its vision may get more people talking about robber barons and the scandalous actions of elected official than the best place to do jello shots.
Jory Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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