If you were to search The Local Reporter for Carrboro Town Council member Eliazar Posada, you would find a brief mention that he ran for town council  in the May 17, 2022 special election to replace Damon Seils.

Posada won that election to serve out Seils’ term, as well as the November 2022 regular election.

But The Local Reporter never reported that news.

The online paper, which touts itself as Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s “relentlessly local” non-profit newspaper, seems to have a skewed way of covering political topics. It frequently covers some candidates, but not others, both in print and visual images.  Right now, it’s missing 12 candidates from its rundown of who has filed for local elected office in the 2023 election cycle.

Leadership have close ties to an organization with a PAC

The Local Reporter maintains close ties to CHALT, a local organization with a PAC that recruits and runs candidates in local elections. CHALT endorsed Adam Searing in the last election cycle, shortly after he was appointed to The Local Reporter’s advisory board. The paper quotes Searing more frequently than other council members.

Members of the Local Reporter’s board have remained active participants on the CHALT listserv. Before the paper launched, in 2019, email records show that initial meetings for the paper were attended by CHALT leadership. A Word document entitled “Your Local Paper Working Members’ Telephone Numbers” contains five people listed on the CHALT team website. Documents about the paper were circulated to the CHALT listserv for feedback before being sent to a wider audience. (CHALT shares an IP address and analytic identifiers with several other websites.)

This continues to resonate in their coverage of local issues and politics.

A recent town council meeting on housing saw twice as many supporters of duplexes as those opposed. The paper described it as “a mix of those for and against the changes.” An article about a development hearing in 2021 described “several citizens” opposed; there were two, and one was the founder of CHALT. An article about a road extension opposed by CHALT was authored by the board chair of the paper who previously served as a communications and elections lead for CHALT. That piece featured an interview with CHALT’s founder; the piece does not disclose any of these roles or relationships.

We also see this affecting their political coverage.

Last month, The Local Reporter published a full-write up of Adam Searing running for mayor of Chapel Hill, but only mention his opponent Jess Anderson in a rundown of all local electoral filings.

Anderson filed on July 19. Her announcement was covered by Chapelboro, the Daily Tar Heel, the News and Observer, and us. Since July 19, The Local Reporter has published multiple obituaries, a gardening column, and an update on the Med Deli fire.

Why is this problematic?

The Local Reporter shows up in Google News. (We do not because we are a blog.) Many people come across The Local Reporter when googling topics related to Chapel Hill. CHALT is running a slate of candidates in this election cycle. There’s a good chance, based on previous coverage, that The Local Reporter will promote CHALT-endorsed candidates more frequently and more favorably — and criticize those they dislike.

Typically, journalism organizations that tout themselves as reflecting a “wide spectrum of views on local issues” and offering “rigorous, unbiased reporting” give the same treatment to all candidates running for office in political races. If they do a story on one person running for mayor, they do stories on other people running for mayor. They don’t picture the same candidate over and over again in articles about the election. They disclose when a candidate for mayor is also a monthly donor. They also have boards that are composed of people from a variety of backgrounds and organizations.

The Local Reporter’s entire board is made up of former leaders of CHALT. They have an editor, the paper’s sixth in four years, who lists his “contract” appointment on LinkedIn. From emails we’ve reviewed, we know that members of the board have previously sent reporters questions to ask sources. Editors have sent reporters sources to interview, without mentioning those sources’ ties to CHALT. The board has had access to the paper’s editorial inbox.

The paper has struggled in basic areas of journalism: transparency, disclosure, and bias. They’ve run pieces that copied paragraphs from the CHALT website. They ran a Kickstarter promising access to journalists in exchange for cash, and accidentally mislabeled a historic Black church as “affordable housing.”

They also have ample funding. The paper’s board has repeatedly told readers it is close to shutting down, and needs their help. In December, they raised at least $10,000 through an urgent appeal. In June, they raised another $21,000, again after an urgent plea.

In their thank you note touting their success, the paper’s board said that “the plea [for funding] was a great achievement” because “we can also expand our news coverage, particularly on local elections.”

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

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....