Overlap between an article from The Local Reporter (l) and CHALT website (r).

The Local Reporter, CHALT and the need for disclosure and transparency

Update: April 7

The Local Reporter, a non-profit news organization, launched in September 2019, touting itself as a way to plug Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s news deserts after several papers here closed over the past decade.

An interview with its first editor – there have been three, and the paper’s currently looking for a fourthrevealed:

The 20-or-so founders believed that the lack of a truly local newspaper dedicated to covering the range of issues that directly affect our community, and putting them in context, is detrimental to the area’s civic health, its sense of community and ultimately to its viability.

That is a noble goal and one worth supporting. But The Local Reporter is not the local news organization our community deserves, and it is not transparent about its many connections to a politically-influential advocacy group in Chapel Hill that makes endorsements, creates petitions, and fights vigorously for candidates and issues at the polls.

For the past two years, the paper’s founders have repeatedly said that it has no connection with the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), an “anti-development community group” that has “opposed nearly every major development proposal” in Chapel Hill since its inception in 2014/2015. They formed a PAC in 2017. The organization recruits and endorses candidates and sends out campaign mailers.

They have denied connections between the newspaper and CHALT in profiles of their organization, on social media and in an article written about the paper and CHALT’s overlapping connections in the News and Observer.

In fact, there are many overlaps between the two organizations, both in terms of personnel and the way the paper covers local issues.

The Board

The Board of Directors of Friends of Local Journalism, the 501(c)(3) organization that publishes The Local Reporter, has three people on it:

  • Del Snow, the President of FOLJ, was listed as a spokesperson for CHALT through June of 2021.
  • Fred Lampe, the Treasurer of FOLJ, was the original treasurer of CHALT’s PAC and was listed as the head of fiscal responsibility for CHALT.
  • Rudy Juliano, the Secretary of FOLJ, is a member of CHALT and has written editorials and hosted public forums for CHALT on topics ranging from tree cover to high-tech commercial development. Until earlier this year, he was the assistant treasurer of CHALT’s PAC.

In April 2021, Snow told The Daily Tar Heel that she was no longer taking an active role in CHALT. She continues to sign their petitions, as do Lampe and Juliano. They continue to write letters to town council about various development projects they oppose.

Letters to the Town of Chapel Hill Mayor and Town Council (https://councilmail.townofchapelhill.org/searchform.do)

This would not be a problem at most news organizations, because a Board of Directors is typically separate from the newsroom. This is not the case at The Local Reporter. All three Board of Directors contribute to the paper, Del continues to run the Twitter account, and at least two of them have access to the editor@thelocalreporter.press account. One reporter was asked by her editor to ask a source questions from the Board of Directors.

The Editors

Of the paper’s three editors, two were co-founders of CHALT, including the current editor, David Schwartz. The other editor with close ties to CHALT is Nancy Oates, a former elected official (endorsed by CHALT) who served as editor from March-June 2021. The paper did not mention Oates’ role at the paper until late June 2021. When Oates left the paper, she immediately began campaigning for town council candidate Adam Searing, who was appointed to the board of The Local Reporter during her tenure (and left after putting forward his candidacy.) He was then endorsed by CHALT.

There are no bios for board members, editors, or staff on the newspaper’s website.

The bulk of The Local Reporter’s original news content is focused around elections, town council, and growth/development in Chapel Hill. Schwartz told the News and Observer last year that unbylined news articles (called “Staff Reports”) are written as a group by the Board of Directors and editor. (An early ‘About Us’ page on the paper says something similar; it has since been removed.)

twitter

Last year, the week before the election, Schwartz (who was then the editor of The Local Reporter) wrote to a neighborhood listserv with an unsubstantiated rumor about town council fast-tracking approval for a development project. This was false. The development, however, was a key issue in the election and CHALT’s endorsed candidate had made it the key issue of his campaign platform. The paper covered the development project extensively. As of last Fall, Schwartz was still on the CHALT mailing list where they discuss strategy and their ongoing projects.

“They are misunderstanding what a connection is in the context of journalism – and how appropriate disclosures work.”

Both the Board and Schwartz have repeatedly said there’s no connection between the The Local Reporter and CHALT. This is true, in that the two organizations are legally separate entities.

But they are misunderstanding what a connection is in the context of journalism — and how appropriate disclosures work. In the paper, developments that board members and editors have and continue to oppose are written about without disclosing those connections. And CHALT members are repeatedly interviewed without attribution, or mentioned in passing without being ID’ed appropriately.

An appropriate disclosure looks like this: https://twitter.com/RaleighReporter/status/1455605278054002690

Here is an article written by Del Snow about the extension of a road published by The Local Reporter. She is not ID’ed as being on the board of the paper. In the article, Julie McClintock, a founder of CHALT, is ID’ed as a “local activist.” Del Snow signed a petition opposing the Elliot Road Extension on July 29, 2020.

An appropriate disclosure here might look like this: Del Snow is President of the Friends of Local Journalism. She cofounded CHALT with Julie McClintock. Julie McClintock is also a donor to The Local Reporter. Both Del and Julie signed a petition opposing the Elliot Road Extension that was sent to Town Council on July 29, 2020.

Here is an excerpt from a more recent article (Sept. 2021) about a town council meeting in which the development Lullwater is discussed. Here’s what the paper says:

The paper mentions one of the two speakers: Robert Beasley, who recently appeared on a CHALT affordable housing panel and ran for Town Council in 2021. The other speaker was Julie McClintock, founder of CHALT.

In addition, Del Snow wrote several emails to council opposing the Lullwater project, including one written three days before the news article was published in TLR.

An appropriate disclosure here might say something like this: The editor of our news organization is a cofounder of CHALT with Julie McClintock, who spoke against this project at the meeting. In addition, our board president has publicly opposed this project. Julie McClintock is also a donor to The Local Reporter.

And so on. There are many, many examples of not disclosing connections between donors, sources, board members, local advocacy groups, political candidates, and editors.

There are also examples in which content on The Local Reporter website closely resembles material previously published by CHALT or has additional overlaps. For example:

Overlap between an article from The Local Reporter (l) and CHALT website (r).

How my interest in this developed

I started looking into the The Local Reporter after I saw a Facebook post by local journalist Kirk Ross, who wrote:

This intrigued me. I have spent much of my career in news, first in newsrooms and then as a columnist mainly writing about news. I have spoken at dozens of journalism conferences and completed a Knight-Nieman Fellowship up at Harvard looking at alternative membership models to support public media organizations. I deeply care about transparency in local news and in ensuring that we have a robust local news system to protect and strengthen democracy.

For the past decade, I have watched as local news organizations have been gutted across the country and the resulting news deserts that result. There are many smart people working to fix and expand local news, and there are model local newsrooms that have sprung up around the country, from Detroit to South Dakota to New Jersey.

All of these newsrooms are transparent about their board (if they’re non-profits and have a board) and their editors. They have bios for staff and their board on their websites. They tell you when a new editor is hired. They tell you if they have a personal stake in an issue, and sometimes even hand off editing of a story to someone else if that’s the case.

The Local Reporter, on the other hand, is different. And because their content is not behind a paywall – and the N&O’s is – their material appears frequently on social media and on neighborhood listservs where people may not know about the paper’s connections to CHALT.

I should be clear: The Local Reporter doesn’t resemble any of the pink slime journalism outlets or the advocacy orgs. that sit inside a non-profit but function as a newsroom. It’s a small operation and there aren’t political forces sweeping in from outside Chapel Hill to fund this operation. But The Local Reporter *is* the first example I’ve seen of a hyperlocal news operation that repeatedly claims to be “publishing factual, unbiased journalism” without disclosing their many connections to a local advocacy group. (And I might argue, speaks to the need for media criticism and reporting at the local level.)

For the sake of transparency, I should also state that my views on housing are much more aligned with YIMBYs: I believe that the best way to fix our housing crisis is to build infill development along public transportation lines – both to reduce congestion caused by sprawl and to improve accessibility to places people want to live and work.

I am stating that viewpoint to be transparent. It’s important to know the point of view of a publication or person who is heavily advocating for something.

If The Local Reporter were more transparent with their own connections to CHALT, I wouldn’t have any problem whatsoever with their news organization. Our community deserves to know how and why topics are covered or not covered, and how they are framed.

Concerned engaged citizens can participate in many activities without disclosure. Except newspapers. That’s different.

One of the responses that I often get from people involved with both CHALT and The Local Reporter is that concerned, engaged citizens are often involved in multiple activities in their community. This is the point they made in their piece “Sticks and Stones, published after the N&O article came out, and one they frequently make on social media.

If there’s a set of people involved in both CHALT and a community movie theater (there are) then that’s great! There’s no problem with that. There isn’t even any need for anyone to know that the same people might be involved in both groups.

BUT if one of the organizations in which these engaged community members are involved happens to be a news organization (it is) then a completely different set of standards applies.

If that news org. wants to be taken seriously, then it must follow basic principles of journalistic ethics which require that relationships between sources, staff, board members, donors, editors, and local advocacy groups be disclosed.

This builds trust and credibility with an audience, and with a community. And we should expect no less from a news organization in our community.

Updates

4/7 – The Local Reporter added bios for their Board of Directors and Editor after this piece was published. However, these remain incomplete as they do not mention that David Schwartz was also a founder of CHALT and that he also ran for Town Council. In addition, Del Snow was one of the founders of both CHALT and CURB, not just an active member. In addition, it is unclear if any members of the Board of Directors or Editor remain on the CHALT listserv where strategy for local elections is discussed. You can see the website changes that took place this week here: https://web.archive.org/web/diff/20220402043556/20220407183454/https://thelocalreporter.press/about-trl/

An email sent out today from the paper included the following email address:

As far as I know, Fred has never been the editor of The Local Reporter.

The Local Reporter has also updated its donor pages, which were previously updated in December. One donor has been removed, and the number of anonymous donors has dropped from 124 or 122 (both were mentioned on the previous version) to 84: https://web.archive.org/web/diff/20220402043519/20220408130638/https://thelocalreporter.press/list-of-donors/