The Mount Vernon City Council will not meet with new owner of the Mount Vernon News (MVN), Locality Labs CEO Brian Timpone. A proponent of cheap, computer-written news, otherwise known as “pink slime” journalism, Timpone represents Metric Media LCC, which bought the local paper from longtime owner Kay Culbertson on Aug. 1, 2020. The MVN is the first print paper to be acquired by Metric Media.
According to Councilmember Tanner Salyers, who reached out to Metric Media soon after the purchase, Timpone had been willing to speak to the Council in a private or public setting, including at a committee meeting or town hall. Salyers requested that this meeting take place on this past Monday, Sept. 14.
Timpone responded to Salyers several days later, saying he was not interested in speaking with the Council at a public committee meeting. However, after reading the Sept. 3 Collegian article, which he claimed “inadequately portrayed” him, Timpone suddenly “changed his tune” about his interest in speaking to the Council, Salyers said.
Councilmember Samantha Scoles, a former managing editor for the MVN, responded to Salyers’ request two days later on Sept. 10, stating that she would not add a committee meeting with Timpone for the agenda of the upcoming Council meeting.
“If Mr. Timpone would like to organize some kind of public forum or Zoom meeting where he addresses the community and his customers. I’m more than willing to help facilitate and promote that in any way that I can,” she wrote in an email to the Council on Sept. 10. “However, I am unwilling to invite him to Council where he is grilled and scrutinized because I DO NOT believe this is council business.”
Scoles cited three central reasons for her decision, including that a government should not be “questioning the intentions of a media outlet,” that the company had invested $1 million in their downtown property — a type of investment they don’t want to deter — and that it is “not the approach when any new business comes to town, nor it is our approach when a business changes hands.” Both Scoles and Salyers also noted that few other Council members were in favor of Salyers’ initiative.
Salyers said Scoles’ decision both disappointed and surprised him.
“My assumption … was that the one regular print publication in Mount Vernon being bought up and essentially gutted like a fish by an outside media conglomerate would be worth a 10-minute conversation by the elected representatives of the people of Mount Vernon,” Salyers said. “But silly me.”
Since Metric Media purchased the local paper in early August, Mount Vernon residents have expressed worries about the sudden change in ownership. One major concern is the change in print frequency: The paper’s print edition, previously published six days a week, is now only being published on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“Not everybody in town has easy access to the internet,” Councilmember Julia Warga told the Collegian after the news first broke. “The loss of [the print edition] can be devastating to some people because this may be their only way to get the news of the town.”
Metric Media has also decided to outsource most of its staff, and few seasoned reporters have kept their jobs since the paper changed hands.
To many, Timpone’s reputation, is also a cause for concern. The media tycoon has been embroiled in a variety of scandals over the years. Among these was a 2004 scandal in which the Chicago Tribune suspended its contract with Timpone’s now-defunct company Journatic, after it discovered that the media company was plagiarizing and using false bylines and quotations in stories. Metric Media itself is responsible for over 1,200 local news sites, for which 90 percent of stories are generated by artificial intelligence; many also have a conservative slant and are “designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data,” according to a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Scoles stated that, although she is aware that the “the vast majority of loyal readers of the Mount Vernon News are unhappy with the swift changes that took place,” she believes that a conversation between the Council and Timpone would quickly grow confrontational.
“[W]e must be a business friendly community if we want to grow and prosper financially,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Inviting business owners to a City Council meeting to be grilled about their business practices is, in my opinion and several other members of council, not the business of council.”
However, Salyers did not see how an informal conversation with Timpone could be equated to an interrogation of any kind, and he said that, although he respects his fellow Council members deeply, this was an issue on which he felt he could not stay silent.
“I wasn’t asking for much,” Salyers said. “I didn’t want to bring [Timpone] in and rake him over the coals by any means, but people were concerned.”
Salyers then noted that he sees this as a lost opportunity for Timpone as well, who will not be able to introduce himself but instead will become “that guy that owns the paper that none of us know.” He reiterated that, due to the public’s concern for the matter, he did not see how meeting with Timpone was outside the Council’s jurisdiction. He indicated this in an email addressed to Councilmember Mike Hillier.
“We have no control over the way they do business, but to suggest that it is no business of council, the elected representatives of the people, that when the only local print newspaper changes hands and gets stripped of local reporters, local control, local printing, and most importantly down to two issues a week, that’s absolutely absurd,” Salyers wrote. “This IS council business.”
Mount Vernon Council meetings take place over Zoom Mondays at 7:30 p.m.. A link to the Council’s weekly meetings can be found on their website.