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Monday, July 24, 2006 | Serving Allied Gardens, San Carlos and other eastern San Diego neighborhoods, the Mission Times Courier delivers the scoop on the area’s City Council office like no other publication.
In November 1999, when Councilwoman Judy McCarty endorsed her then-chief of staff Jim Madaffer as her successor to the District 7 seat, the termed-out councilwoman’s blessing played out on the monthly publication’s front page.
“He knows the issues and he understands the individual needs of each community,” McCarty told the Mission Times Courier, which prominently displayed the endorsement story as its lead article in that month’s issue.
The article’s author: R. Maude Madsen. She knew her subject well – Madaffer is her son.
It’s not uncommon for local politicians to be shown grinning on the front pages of a community newspaper. But it’s not everyday that the article is written by the politician’s mother – in a newspaper owned by the politician and published by his wife.
Such is the case at the Mission Times Courier, a monthly community newspaper delivered free to lawns and driveways throughout the councilman’s eastern San Diego district.
For nearly a decade, Madaffer and his wife have owned the Mission Times Courier, which offers blurbs about the happenings of nearby schools, planning groups, youth sports leagues and new construction projects. Rarely does a story about City Hall pass without at least a passing reference to Madaffer’s efforts, if not a friendly pat on the back. The councilman can be seen smiling with police officers and girl scouts or handing checks to community leaders in the periodical’s photographs.
The paper is estimated to reach 25,000 homes and businesses from northern La Mesa to College Area, a circulation that slices right through a stretch of San Diego that includes his council district – and the county supervisor district he is rumored to be running for in 2008.
The newspaper has become a profitable enterprise. Madaffer claims a household income of between $100,000 and $1 million per year on the paper, according to the statement of economic interest he must file annually with the city.
“He’s a very savvy politician, and I say that in the most complimentary sense, and this is another example of that,” said John Dadian, a local political consultant and corporate lobbyist. “It’s a very smart deal, both for business and for politics.”
Neither Jim Madaffer nor Sally Ortega Madaffer, the newspaper’s editor, returned several calls for comment for this story.
Few other politicians are able to build up name recognition – and to sometimes plug their own causes – on such a regular basis and without having to fire off a press release, navigate a professional press corps or spend money from their office’s budget. The Mission Times Courier has served as a profitable, and often political, instrument for the councilman.
The newspapers profits are reaped from the paid advertisements of local real estate agents, dentists and retailers.
Michael Schudson, a University of California, San Diego communication professor and author of “Discovering the News,” said the phenomenon of newspaper-owning politicians was prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but is very rare today.
Schudson said papers the size of Madaffer’s are often run by chains that are out to make money, not waves in the political world.
“The connection of a newspaper career and running for public office was really close, but that’s really died,” he said.
But the phenomenon is alive and well in District 7. Aside from having his picture sprinkled throughout the paper, Madaffer also pens a “Straight from Jim” column, where he opines on city politics and the happenings within his community.
As a whole, political issues take a back seat to the paper’s normal fare, which highlights the feel-good episodes of these mostly cul-de-sac communities. The paper provides a glimpse into the small-town, familiar feel of the area – a collection of outlying suburban enclaves that help comprise the nation’s eighth largest city.
A blurb about a 67-year-old Lake Murray man (who is pictured donning a sweatshirt that reads, “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and vigor”) details his spontaneous audition for the television program “Survivor” while celebrating his birthday in Utah.
When two San Carlos homeowners were honored in a “California-friendly landscape contest,” the paper ran the story on the front page of its May issue. As Girl Scouts in the Navajo area were placing the last few stitches on a quilt they were donating to the local humane society, the accolades were printed on the regular “Neighbor Notables” spread this January.
These lighthearted endeavors soak up the bulk of the Mission Times Courier‘s newsprint, but occasionally the editorial content can veer to the political arena. Some readers have been taken aback by the sharp elbows the paper has sometimes thrown.
In the April 2001 issue of the paper, Madsen began a series about “Navajo Road blight.” The article called out the homeowners of a Lake Murray neighborhood whose backyards are adjacent to Navajo Road, a major thoroughfare in the district.
“Most of the residents of Tommy Drive whose backyards abut the Navajo Road setback apparently care little about the shoddy appearance of their mish-mash fences. After all, they don’t have to look at them!” Madsen wrote in the article, which was accompanied by photos of the residents’ fences.
The article contends that these negligent acts fly in the face of the efforts of Madaffer to beautify the stretch of road by landscaping the medians and adding sidewalks along the busy street.
In the next issue, Allied Gardens resident Kathy Camper responded to the article, saying it made her feel “uncomfortable.”
“I feel that it is impolite to embarrass residents of our community in this way,” Camper wrote in a letter to the editor. She added, “Let’s not use public humiliation as a tool to clean up our neighborhoods.”
In a recent interview, Madsen said she thought the story helped spur residents into action. She also said she didn’t slant her articles to favor her son.
“I don’t think I ever consciously ever wrote anything in particular that pointed to him. In fact, I stayed away with him and politics,” said Madsen, who said she has not written anything for the paper in a year although her name still appears in the paper’s staff box. “I could have written some beautiful things about him, but I did not.”
Community papers such as the Mission Times Courier almost always cover the work of their elected representatives, but the relationship of Madaffer to the newspaper gives way to an unavoidable conflict of interest for the paper’s editorial staff. Newsrooms typically evade conflicts by recusing the reporter or, if the conflict is unavoidable, by disclosing any relationships within the article. Sally Ortega Madaffer’s role is prominently displayed in the newspaper’s staff listing. Madsen’s affiliation isn’t disclosed.
Dadian said people pick up the paper to learn about the quainter issues of the neighborhood – how the soccer team did, what the local girl scouts are doing, who is building the apartment complex down the street – than for the credible “hard news” generally associated with larger newspapers.
“When you have these types of community papers, it does take on a different ambiance,” Dadian said.
The paper also delves into the micropolitics of the neighborhoods, featuring columns by the leaders of the various civic groups – planning boards, community councils, business groups – in the area. One regular contributor accused the paper of cutting out his criticism of Madaffer.
“She’s edited my stories when I’ve dumped on him,” said John Pilch, president of the San Carlos Area Council and a frequent Madaffer critic.
The councilman’s relationship to the newspaper as a business also creates a different dynamic.
While he lists his ownership of the Mission Times Courier and his wife’s income as editor, he does not disclose the paper’s advertisers.
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director at the city’s Ethics Commission, said that officials must report any direct sources of income over $10,000 from any one source if that source is headquartered in San Diego or conducts business in the city. Calls placed to the newspaper’s offices seeking information about the paper’s advertisers were not returned.
Bob Fellmeth, executive director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law, said the omission of Madaffer’s clients present a common problem with economic disclosures: third parties. However, he said members of the public only have to open up a copy of Madaffer’s paper to see who is buying ads, whereas other third-party sources of income are less transparent in many cases.
Aside from the positive coverage the paper granted him during his bids for office, the paper has also been used in Madaffer’s campaigns.
Campaign disclosures filed with the City Clerk’s Office show that Madaffer, on behalf of the newspaper, donated thousands of dollars in advertising space to his City Council campaigns, but the exact amount was unverifiable. Also, in at least one instance, Madaffer’s campaign fund purchased ad space directly from the Mission Times Courier.
Fulhorst, who noted that the Ethics Commission has not reviewed this specific case, said that candidates in general are able to make non-monetary contributions to their campaigns and that a campaign fund can use the candidate’s business as a vendor “as long as services are truly rendered.”
But as the Hearsts and the Pulitzers unabashedly used the pages of their publications to rise to power while on their way to fortune, Madsen said the the Mission Times Courier is hardly a political instrument for her son.
“It would be wonderful if it had such influence that it could make the citizenry vote one way or the other,” she said.
Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.