Earlier this week, Andy Bechtel, who teaches journalism at UNC, tweeted that The Local Reporter was looking for a new part-time editor, noting that “someone who lives in the area would be ideal.”

The non-profit local paper’s current editor — their fifth in just over four years — is based in Florida, more than 500 miles away from Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

As we’ve reported earlier, all three members of the paper’s board of directors are former leaders in CHALT, an anti-growth organization with a PAC that is active in local town politics. All three have taken an active role in the paper. They have bylined stories together about local issues CHALT has advocated for or against under the byline “staff reports.” Stories have featured other CHALT leaders without revealing those connections. In previous instances, copy from the CHALT website has appeared directly on The Local Reporter site. And Del Snow, the President of the Board of Directors, is one of the managers of the paper’s social media account.

Last month, a public records request filed with the Town of Chapel Hill revealed that members of the Board of Directors — who also have access to the paper’s email box and content management system where stories are filed — remain active on the CHALT listserv, where political strategy and tactics are discussed and planned. At least one former editor of the paper — also a cofounder of CHALT — is also on the listserv and was on during his tenure at the paper.

This becomes problematic when considering the coverage decisions the paper has made in recent months. We’ll share two recent examples:

Lullwater Park

Del Snow, the president of the Board of Directors of The Local Reporter publicly opposed a development called Lullwater Park in several emails to Town Council. In the paper’s write-up of the Town Council meeting discussion about the project, it is mentioned that “several citizens” opposed the development. We watched the meeting: “several citizens” was two, and one of the two, Julie McClintock, co-founded CHALT with Snow. This is not mentioned.

The paper published two op-eds about the project, both in opposition and both by the same people. The first quotes a news article by Snow about the project; that article does not mention that she’s the President of the Board of Directors of the paper. The second op-ed only features one byline; however, an article published days before in Chapelboro has two bylines and features overlapping identical content — the omitted byline on The Local Reporter is McClintock’s.

Zoning changes

Late in the evening on January 8, 2023, McClintock sent an email out to many neighborhood listservs warning of a “gigantic” “fast-track[ed]” “radical” upcoming “zoning change” that “few people know.” The change, which started 15 months ago with a petition from council asking staff to investigate more housing options, was one we first mentioned last September and further discussed in October.

The Local Reporter did not report on the proposed changes when it was first posted on the Town of Chapel Hill website last September, nor did they report on the Planning Commission meeting about the proposal in October 2022 or the petition that council members submitted asking staff to investigate strategies for affordable and middle housing in the Fall of 2021.

The paper’s first mention of the proposed changes came the day after the McClintock letter widely circulated on January 10.

On January 23, CHALT sent out a newsletter, outlining what they saw as problematic with the project and urging people to fill out a survey about the proposal and ask for more time. They wrote that “At a recent public information meeting on the proposed change, several people commented on the rushed schedule and noted that many neighborhoods remain unaware of what is being proposed.” (We attended the public information meeting. Some of the people who commented and noted that things felt rushed and they lacked information were members of CHALT.)

On January 24, the paper’s Florida-based editor also shared the link to the survey and noted, without attributing the information to anyone, what proponents and opponents think of the project, repeating the language that opponents “consider the process to be rushed.” The paper then published a guest column opposing the project on January 25 from one of CHALT’s current leaders, though that affiliation is not listed. The paper next published a write-up of the council meeting, also on the 25th, and a second piece from the Florida-based editor on the 26th.

This would not be an unusual publishing cadence for many local news organizations, but it is highly unusual for The Local Reporter. Over the past two years, the paper has sporadically published news, even failing to report on local election results, while consistently publishing a gardening column, a humor column, and movie reviews. The last time the paper devoted so many stories to a single topic was in 2021, when CHALT and its leaders opposed a development in Chapel Hill called Aura and the paper published eight pieces in rapid succession. That was an election year, and Aura was an election issue. For a short time that year, the candidate who CHALT later endorsed during that election cycle served on The Local Reporter’s advisory board; the news organization has since denied this, though the appointment is visible on the Internet Archive.

What this means

This is also an election year in Chapel Hill. We see CHALT using tactics that they’ve used in previous election cycles: creating false senses of urgency, using fearmongering language, encouraging people to write to council with specific language.

The fact that we are starting to see this replicated in the paper, again, is concerning — unlike the News and Observer, The Local Reporter does not sit behind a paywall and has the appearance of a newspaper. We have talked to several former writers at the paper who were provided questions to ask and sources to interview, and who said their material was heavily edited after it was turned in.

Having an editor with no ties to the region who lives 500 miles away, and an involved-in-the-newsroom Board of Directors with close overlapping ties to an organization with a PAC, should concern anyone who cares about our local news ecosystem. It paints a picture of a news organization working to advance the messages and concerns of the organization with the PAC. Because there appears to be no firewall between the Board of Directors and the newsroom, it is unclear who may be influencing what the paper covers or does not cover.

Everyone has the right to start a news organization, of course, but The Local Reporter continues to tout itself as being “unbiased” and denies that it is connected to CHALT in any way. We fail to see how a Florida-based editor with zero ties to our region could know how to cover nuanced and complicated issues that take time and on-the-ground reporting to really understand.

We once again encourage the paper to be more open about its many connections with CHALT, and encourage our community to rigorously investigate their own news sources.

And as the paper embarks on hiring its sixth editor, we’ll share what we wrote last August, when the paper was in the midst of hiring their fifth editor, in Florida: “As the paper enlists its fifth editor, we encourage them to continue to take steps towards transparency and full disclosure in their operations — and to ensure that the Board of Directors has no editorial oversight over the content of the paper.”

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Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....