The idea that newspapers could survive on the wings of charitable donations from those who value the importance of print media is enticing to newspaper owners at a time when print is facing sludgy revenue streams and evaporating interest. But the Washington City Paper is using donations from readers to keep itself afloat not because advertisers have lost faith and the paper is failing to make a sizable enough profit to keep printing and not because readers are defecting to news aggregators or blogs. Instead, City Paper is asking readers to help pay for the legal fees involved in defending itself against a sports owner. According to an article in the Washington Post yesterday, readers have already donated $31,000 to help the paper with the cost of litigation.
In February, Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, sued City Paper — a “tabloid paper,” according to a column he wrote in April — and its parent company Atalaya Capital Management for defamation, alleging that the paper had printed untrue statements about him in a column by Dave McKenna called “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder” that ran in November. Snyder has since refiled the case in Washington, D.C. — the suit was originally filed in New York — and, according to the Post article, is seeking $1 million in retribution in addition to an unspecified amount for punitive damages from the paper.
But City Paper is not backing down, nor is it going down easy. In addition to sticking with the facts in the column, City Paper filed a motion yesterday to dismiss Snyder’s claim. The motion is rooted in a new law that targets “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” also knows as SLAPP. These type of suits, like Snyder’s, use the threat of legal costs to force an opponent to stop criticism or public opposition, according to the Post.
And the motion is not unfounded. In a letter sent by David Donovan, Snyder’s lawyer, in November to the paper’s owner, Donovan wrote, “We presume defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment firm such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper,” according to the Post. Given that the last thing a newspaper can afford these days is to have to siphon money away from its newsroom, Snyder probably did see a golden opportunity for some easy cash: A defamation lawsuit for a weekly paper is like yanking the rug from under a puppy.
But maybe Snyder isn’t so punitive. In his April column, Snyder wrote, “Let’s be clear what this lawsuit is not about. It is not about money. I have already publicly committed to donate any financial damages I win to help the homeless.” But screw the paper.