From the start, Disney's town of Celebration has been unique: a community founded and run by a private company, an experiment in which neotraditional architecture, near-at-hand technology and small-town values were meant to bring people together. If all that weren't enough, recently Celebration became fascinating for yet another reason. As resident Murphie Hogan observes, "It is amazing a town of our size that can't support a gas station, food store, video store, current merchants, drug store, bakery or kitchen store can have two newspapers."
As of a year-and-a-half ago, Celebration's fewer than 3,000 dwellers -- like most people in towns of its size -- had nothing they could call a newspaper of their own. Alex Morton, president of Celebration's Rotary Club, didn't think much about this lack. Indeed Morton, who publishes three food-service trade journals out of a cluttered office two miles from Celebration's entrance, even admits to a dislike of the economics of the newspaper business, where small ads for little money must be constantly solicited. As of February 1999, however, Morton found himself the publisher of the Celebration Independent, a monthly paper delivered free to the town's residents and available at a few area businesses. Not everyone's happy that it showed up.
Morton describes the Independent's beginnings like this: Two years ago, a group of about 20 people were sitting in his house, dismayed with, among other things, the state of the Celebration School. They had an idea: "Alex, we want to put out a paper." Despite a lack of funding, "I felt it was my duty" to start a paper, he says. He defines his mission: "The purpose of our publication is to inform the people of what local government does, and shouldn't be doing, and trying to correct the problem through information." When he points out that the "government" is Disney and that his staff isn't allowed access to things like meetings of the Stakeholders Panel, a group of merchants and citizens who make recommendations about town issues to the nonprofit Celebration Foundation, it becomes clear how odd his task is.
Things became just a little stranger in March of this year, when the Celebration News came on to the scene.
This isn't, however, a simple story of a struggle between two competing publications. The existence of two papers in one small town would be surprising in this era of corporate-controlled, no-competition media. But life in Celebration always tends to merit an explanatory footnote; in the case of these two publications, even the terminology needs defining, as Celebration spokesperson Marilyn Waters emphasizes: "Frankly, there's not two newspapers. `The News` is a newsletter."
The News, also a free monthly, informs residents of upcoming events and offers a few after-the-fact stories about events like a visit by former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, or the appointment of a new school director, or the goings-on at a town festival ("We hope you were holding on to your boots and bandanas the night of February 19th because the Spring Fling was indeed a wild ride!" ). "It's supposed to be a 'rah, rah, go team, remember to get architectural approval and please pick up after your dog' publication," says Beth Moriarty, a Celebration resident since 1998. In its first issue, the News explained its birth as a simple process: "Last year, the stakeholders group met with Town Hall and the Celebration Foundation to discuss communications. And the number one recommendation was to reformat the newsletter."
The not-a-newspaper News is published by Town Hall, which is run by Disney subsidiary The Celebration Company, which manages the town. The News is partly funded by the dues residents pay to the homeowners' association. There is, however, a twist: The publication costs are offset by advertising. This might be good for the homeowners' association, but it's a cause of suspicion for Morton.
Without a homeowners' association behind it, the Independent's costs are wholly dependent on advertising revenue. The Independent's first issue appeared in February 1999; when the News debuted a year later, Morton had to drop his ad rate of $475 for a full-page, black-and-white ad in order to match the News' $400 rate. The Independent was suddenly in the position of competing for scant advertisers with this not-a-newspaper, rah-rah publication. Patricia Wasson, the town's manager who's listed as the News' editor, did not return phone calls for this story.
Two front-page stories graced the debut issue of the Independent: One described a proposed computer chip inside a ring that would work as security access for students at the school; the other complained in its headline, "Celebration Recycling Not Up To Par."
Indeed, when it comes to the Independent's attitude toward Celebration, little is up to par, and in this town, the blame for shortcomings tends to circle around sooner or later to Disney, the Oz-like company behind the curtain.
While most newspapers report what's lacking and what's going wrong in their community, Celebration's residents took particular notice of the Independent's pervasively grumbling tone. Some applauded the introduction of a publication that wasn't afraid to criticize Disney, often harshly. Others decried a paper that seemed bent on doing nothing but criticizing Disney. "I'm not out to burn Disney," Morton protests. "Really. I'm very proud to live in Celebration."
That doesn't mean, however, that he's satisfied with the town. In the summer of 1999 Osceola County announced it was going to expand the Celebration School and build a separate high school, a far cry from the progressive, individualized educational plan that lured many parents to Celebration in the first place. A good portion of the residents were angry at what appeared to be Disney's abandonment of its promises. Through the course of the struggle, the Independent loudly championed a specific solution: the conversion of Celebration School into a charter school. Needless to say, not everyone agreed with this proposal -- or with the Independent's heavy-handed presentation.
Alex's ex-wife Marlena puts it succinctly: "With the school controversy, that's when they got really ticked off." Marlena Morton, until recently the Independent's editor and now an editorial consultant, notes, "People walked up to me on the street and said, 'You're dividing this town, you're going to lose your advertisers.' It took us by surprise."
They did lose at least one advertiser. A letter printed in the October 1999 issue, signed by Keith R. Kropp of Main Street Realtors, said his company was canceling its ads because the Independent's content was "too one-sided and too negative."
While it would seem that the Independent was brave to print such a criticism of itself, the letter caused Kropp only more annoyance: He never intended it to be published and was surprised to see it in print, although it prompted several supportive phone calls. Where did Kropp turn instead for his advertising needs? "We committed to a full page for a year in the Celebration News," he says.
Some residents, too, were rubbed the wrong way by the Independent, which has published a story about an alleged rape on the golf course, has listed crime statistics and recently included a piece about a proposal to allow more hotels in the town. ("I have a struggle every month getting the `crime` report from the `Osceola` sheriff's office," sighs Marlena Morton.) While none of this is unusual editorial content, the Independent also does things like make a point to print small stories about people moving out of the town. In the April 2000 issue, former resident Margo Schwartz is quoted as saying, "I am so sad to be leaving all the wonderful people I have met here, however, the original vision that I moved here for has been altered beyond recognition," while in a separate piece on the same page Pam Morris says, "The vision of the school is what we had been searching for, and the irrevocable loss of that vision is what prompted us to leave."
"The Independent was little more than a poorly constructed scandal sheet," says Osceola County school-bus driver Ken Baker, a Celebration resident since 1998, "with the main idea that Disney was out to injure the residents of Celebration intentionally or as a result of the profit motive." For Baker, the Independent's editors and writers came off as careless of "truth, fairness or objective analysis," although he sees an improvement: "Lately, however, the Independent has had a much better product, combining hard news with a more balanced view of the community." Baker speculates on the possible reasons for this change: "the departure of many of their sources, a backlash by detractors or perhaps the entry of the Celebration News."
Marlena Morton readily admits the Independent has changed. "We became extra careful about our coverage," she says, adding, with a touch of remorse about the new tone, "I think it's dry." Still, "It made us more professional. I have a good sense of what the community will tolerate."
Fast on the heels of the school controversy came the September 1999 story about the alleged rape on the town's golf course, told in a narrative style ("On this particular night two old friends, one a man, one a woman, decided to meet for a drink" ). The story also includes a complaint that Celebration's promotional literature touts the golf course as "an open space" and "a place to walk," yet Disney "does not provide night time lights, signage posting hours of use or night time security for the 'park.'"
"The reporter got criticized for being too titillating," notes Marlena Morton when asked about the reaction to the story. Alleged victim Kellie Carlisle -- whose name was not used in the Independent's story but who has since gone public -- also was the object of complaints. "People came up to me and said, 'You're going to affect our property values. You've brought crime to Celebration,'" she says. People would ask her whether she was upset by the Independent's story. "Not really," she'd tell them. "Now people might be more careful."
For Marlena Morton, the controversy over whether the incident should have been publicized was healthy: "People were debating the role of the newspaper."
When asked if he thinks the Independent serves a purpose in the community, resident Max Davies doesn't hesitate: "I certainly do. It's the only dissenting voice that our town has. It's a controversial newspaper," he notes, "but it's a controversial town."
Still, Beth Moriarty -- whose battle against her house's construction firm is chronicled in each of two books about Celebration that were published last year -- dismisses the Independent for not getting things right: People not living or working in the town "don't ... grasp how 'off' the Independent was." She's pleased with the News, seeing it in its very limited role as a corporate newsletter. "Have you seen the stack of crap we used to get in the mail as our 'homeowner's newsletter'?" she asks. The News, she says, is just a more useful format for delivering that information. "The News is competition for the Independent only in that neither of them actually offer real news, and `they` compete for the same ad dollars." Moriarty sees that last part -- the bit about advertising -- as perfectly acceptable: "If ads help pay for it, great -- less money out of my pocket."
Not everyone feels that way. The idea that the town's management (what in most cases would be called "government" ) is publishing an informational newsletter that nonetheless financially competes with a private enterprise irks some people, like Davies. That such a newsletter is also partially funded by his homeowner's dues is an outrage: "I object to my money being used to oppose a newspaper I value," says Davies. "You could hate the editorial view `of the Independent`, but you should appreciate the independent view. Everybody should oppose the potential suppression of that voice. It's a First Amendment issue."
When asked how the Independent is holding up financially, Alex Morton says, "I'm now starting to turn the corner on breaking even." The hubbub over his newspaper hasn't dampened his desire to continue publishing, and he finds this little community a hot news town. Does he ever struggle to find subject matter for stories? Not at all. If you're looking for things to write about in Celebration, says Morton, "You can have a field day."