Our local non-profit newspaper is having a rough month

When we last visited The Local Reporter – our “relentlessly local” non-profit newspaper with very close ties to an organization with a PAC –  they were saying farewell to their fourth editor in three years. He served just under three months in the role.

It’s been a little over a month since that shakeup, and we have a number of new things to report.

1. They have a new editor! Hooray! She lives in Florida! Huh?

Yes, The Local Reporter has a new editor. Unlike two of her editorial predecessors, she did not run for town council…in Chapel Hill. (She did, however, serve two terms on Salisbury, Maryland’s town council.) And she now lives in Florida, approximately 491.5 miles away from our college town.

That’s unusual, to say the least, for the editor of a local newspaper reporting strictly on local news. We can’t think of any other local newspaper in the country that operates in this manner.

2. Forgetting a current Chapel Hill Town Council member briefly served on their advisory board

Adam Searing was appointed to The Local Reporter’s advisory board at some point in the spring of 2021.

We pointed this out to The Local Reporter, and requested that they mention this in articles about him. (This is a basic journalism thing.) In response, they denied he had served on their advisory board. After they were presented with photographic proof – the archive.org page showing his name on their website – they said he resigned from the advisory board after deciding to run for office.

Which is different than never serving in a role at the paper.

Meanwhile….

3. They joined the NC Press Association

 

4. They published an op-ed with one byline, two days after Chapelboro published parts of the same op-ed with two bylines

The previously mentioned N&O piece which caused much consternation at The Local Reporter and CHALT did an excellent job looking into The Local Reporter’s coverage of development in Northern Chapel Hill.

We return to Northern Chapel Hill where…

Last Monday, Chapelboro published a Viewpoints op-ed about the Lullwater Park development concept. It was bylined by Gordon Whitaker and Julie McClintock, one of the founders of CHALT.

Two days later, The Local Reporter printed an op-ed about Lullwater Park. It focused on stormwater, and was bylined only by Gordon Whitaker.

But portions of the article published by The Local Reporter are identical or paraphrased with portions in the piece published by Chapelboro:

Chapelboro’s piece on the left; The Local Reporter on the right. Identical text is in red; paraphrased or shifted text is in orange.

A previous piece in The Local Reporter about the Lullwater development was bylined by both McClintock and Whitaker. Correspondence to Town Council in 2021 identifies both Whitaker and McClintock writing on behalf of CHALT about the Lullwater project.

Del Snow, the President of the board of directors of the newspaper since its launch in 2019, was listed as a spokesperson for CHALT through June of 2021. Snow wrote to town council in both 2021 and 2022 opposing the Lullwater development. In July 2020, she wrote a news article for the paper about development in Northern Chapel Hill, where this development is located. Her affiliation with the paper was not mentioned in the piece.

Snow runs the Twitter account for the paper and has access to the editor email box. Though a public records request, we learned that Snow remained (as of 2021) on the CHALT listserv where strategizing for elections takes place.

Why does this matter?

It boils down to this: we in Chapel Hill and Carrboro deserve high quality local news.  We live in a college town, where people come and go frequently. We deserve to know if a person who is on the board of the paper has also sued the town to block a development reported on by the paper. We deserve to know if Board members at the paper have access to the editorial inbox while also continuing to participate on a listserv run by an organization with a PAC. We deserve to know if sources mentioned in an article co-founded a company with a board member. We deserve to know if Board members of a paper have repeatedly petitioned the town on developments the paper then covers.

This is journalism ethics 101.

Last year, shortly before the election, the third editor of the paper – a founder of CHALT – 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 2021 election and CHALT’s endorsed candidate – the one who briefly served on the paper’s advisory board – had made it a key issue of his campaign platform. The paper covered the development project extensively.

In 2021, the paper published a piece entitled “Sticks and Stones,” written after the News and Observer covered the paper’s ties to CHALT’s PAC. It says “The essence of the accusations against TLR is that members of TLR who are affiliated with CHALT did not disclose that association. Our readers understand that people can be part of different projects and yet keep them separate.”