The fifth editor of the Local Reporter, who lives in Florida, will be leaving the publication this week – and taking her place will be Carl Blankenship, who appears to have a background in journalism and will be moving to the region. This is a small, yet promising sign.
Still, it remains problematic that the entire board of The Local Reporter has close ties to CHALT, an organization with a PAC that recruits and runs candidates in local elections. Typically, journalism organizations have boards that are composed of people from a variety of backgrounds and organizations. It is unusual for a non-profit newsroom to have an active board that has, in the past, written for the news organization, had access to the email inbox, and maintained the paper’s social media. It is doubly unusual to have a board composed entirely of people who worked in the same organization with a PAC.
The paper appears to have taken some of our past critiques seriously. After we pointed out that we didn’t know who the editor was, they let us know on Twitter. That’s how we found out a former elected official who had been endorsed by CHALT was then running the paper.
After we pointed out that the paper didn’t have a masthead, they added a masthead days later. That’s how we found out that CHALT’s former communications lead was then running the paper (and remained on the CHALT internal listserv while doing so.)
And after we pointed out problems with their board maintaining editorial influence over writers, story ideas, and sources, another editor quit. (The paper’s most recent editor, of Florida, acknowledged these issues in her farewell column; there is, apparently, now a firewall in place.) Kudos to the paper for taking this initial step towards ethical journalism.
As we’ve reported before, The Local Reporter has struggled in basic areas of journalism: transparency, disclosure, and bias. They’ve run pieces that copied paragraphs from the CHALT website. Whoopsie. They ran a Kickstarter promising access to journalists in exchange for cash, and accidentally mislabeled a historic Black church as “affordable housing.” Whoopsie. They put a current council member on their advisory board and then denied he ever served in that role. (It’s on the Internet Archive.) Whoopsie. Whoopsiedoo.
But we have hope for the newest editor, who may not be aware of the paper’s lengthy overlaps with an organization with a PAC. With that in mind, we have some advice for him:
- Add a banner to every previous story, noting these ethical lapses in the past. If the paper is finally creating a firewall between the board and editorial, it should be noted that no such firewall existed for the paper’s first four years of its existence.
- Ask members of the board to step down. Having members of the board write stories, ask questions for reporters to ask sources, and maintain the organization’s inbox is problematic; cleaning house would allow a fresh start.
- Make sure that you’re covering all members of council, not just Adam Searing – who served briefly on the paper’s advisory board and was CHALT’s endorsed candidate for office. Most stories about council quote Searing at a rate far higher than other members. This, too, is problematic.
- Make sure that you’re covering issues when they first arise, not when it’s politically convenient to do so. The paper has covered issues in lockstep with the CHALT newsletter covering the same issues. For example, we started reporting on missing middle housing last October, when it was first mentioned. The Local Reporter mentioned it in January, a day after a CHALT newsletter went out. Perhaps it was coincidental – from our perspective, it looked intentional.
Best of luck to the paper’s sixth editor in four years! It’s not easy working in local news – moreso with the type of local news organization you’re joining.
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