More than 1,000 of copies of the weekly newspaper The Commons are missing from stands in Brattleboro, the paper’s editor said.
Editor Jeff Potter said the distributor brought copies of the latest issue to vending boxes in Brattleboro Wednesday afternoon, then doubled back to the beginning of the route “and noticed that one of the vending boxes that she had stocked an hour before with a week’s worth of newspapers was completely empty.”
That wasn’t the only place the papers were taken from.
“We learned that pretty much all of the major distribution points in Brattleboro were wiped clean,” Potter said.
Even though the papers were taken in broad daylight, Potter said staff and members of the community are still trying to figure out who took them and why.
“That’s the mystery,” he said. “We have an eyewitness description from one local merchant who thought it was peculiar that the papers have just been delivered and were taken away and kind of took note of the description of the guy … and then that was corroborated by another witness.”
Potter said he wasn’t sure of the motivations of the person who took the free weekly paper of the stands, but it probably wasn’t someone trying to suppress content in this week’s issue from getting to the public.
“Never say never but I think it’s highly, highly unlikely,” he said. “That’s the first thing people say is ‘What did you write about? What are they trying to hide?’ I just don’t understand what would prompt somebody to go to that drastic measures, and why they’ve limited it to Brattleboro. We’re turned over a lot of different theories, but nothing really makes sense.”
Potter said the community has rallied behind the news organization, offering to help cover costs of a reprinting that will restock the empty newsstands and to help assemble the paper’s different sections once the printer is finished with them.
“Actually I posted this on Facebook last night and have at least four people who have offered to chip in to pay for the reprint,” he said. “I’ve got a group of people who are looking for an update for when to come to the office to assemble the papers … we also have readers who are just hovering around watching the places that haven’t been hit, paying attention.”
In terms of investigating who took the papers and why, Potter and Commons Distribution Coordinator Barry Aleshnick said Brattleboro Police aren’t convinced a crime is occurred because someone was taking free newspapers from newsstands.
“So we have a vague description of somebody, but a police force that’s somewhat skeptical that any sort of crime has actually occurred, and we’ve got 1500 papers missing and readers wondering where they can find one,” Potter said. “So it’s created an interesting twist in our work routine.”
Aleshnick said he had a nearly hour-long call with a lawyer from the New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA) Thursday morning, and there’s significant case law that indicates that this type of activity has been successfully prosecuted.
“The NENPA lawyer reaffirmed that, that if nothing else it’s free to the public but it’s not free because there are significant costs to produce it,” he said.
Because advertisers depend on the newspaper reaching the broader public, and because the Commons pays staff to produce the paper, Aleshnick said the mass removal of issues is a real problem, legally and financially.
“From a legal standpoint, these are real losses that somebody stole from us, so to speak,” he said. Those losses add up to “many thousands of dollars,” Aleshnick said.
The relatively obscure legal issues related to the removal of a free paper should be enough, he said, to get police on board.
“What’s not obscure is real costs that we’ve lost,” he said. “So you put all that together, and the police … supervisor on duty who gave me the runaround and told me to go away, he’s wrong.”
Aleshnick said Brattleboro police were helpful a few years ago in a somewhat similar (but smaller) case of stolen papers, and he’s confident they’ll come around once they get a brief being prepared by a lawyer he’s working with.
“It’s only a couple hours until they realize that they made an error,” he said early Thursday afternoon, “and no ill feelings about it.”
Beyond the costs to the paper, Aleshnick said the timing and logistics of the mystery man’s actions made it clear he intended to take from the community.
“He had an intent to do harm, and he had an intent to keep this news away from other people who had a legal right to get it,” he said.
The newspaper is available to download for free from The Commons' website.
While the paper and perhaps eventually the police try to find out who took the papers and why, the Commons staff and the volunteers Potter mentioned are working to restock the 1,500 missing papers, one sixth of the Commons’ weekly production run.
“We’ll get over it,” Aleshnick said, “and hopefully by next week we’ll be laughing about it.”