Last month, we reported that The Local Reporter was looking for an editor after their 6th editor abruptly left the paper days after our deep dive into the paper’s problematic political coverage. They’ve since hired Julia Runk Jones, previously the paper’s dog columnist, to temporarily lead the organization.

But issues with the paper’s coverage persist.

First, some background: The paper maintains close ties to CHALT, Chapel Hill’s anti-development group that “has fought vigorously against nearly every major development proposal” since it formed in 2014. CHALT has a PAC that recruits and helps elect candidates in Chapel Hill.

Before the non-profit paper launched in 2019, email records show that initial meetings for the paper were attended by CHALT leadership. The entire board of directors of The Local Reporter is composed of former leaders of CHALT or its PAC. They have remained active participants on the CHALT listserv, and have taken active writing and editorial roles at the paper. (Typically, the board of directors at a non-profit news organization maintains a strict firewall with the newsroom.)

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. 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 that both they and those sources were leaders in CHALT together. The board has had access to the paper’s editorial inbox.

Let’s head over to the American Legion property

If you follow local politics, you know that the American Legion property has been a hot topic for town council for much of 2022 and 2023. In May, we learned that the dam on the Legion property is really, really dangerous. The dam either needs to be removed or repaired pretty quickly, because it’s classified as a hazard that could result in loss of human life. The estimates for removal are $580,635 and for repair, $806,900. This is a lowball estimate; the report notes that “cost estimates do not address any mitigation costs associated with future projects that would include impacts to the pond or stream beyond the immediate dam repair.”

And way back in 2022, there was a months-long community discussion around what to do with the future of the Legion property. After many long meetings, the council decided this: to set 9 acres of the town-owned land aside for affordable housing and turn the rest of the 39 acres of space from Legion property and the adjoining Ephesus Park into a world-class recreational park.

Which brings us to….this week.

Earlier this week, The Local Reporter published an update on the pond on the Legion Park property. The piece was written by Adam Powell, a freelance writer who serves as the public information officer for Rockingham County Schools in Eden, N.C. – roughly 80 minutes away. The piece details the town’s publication of an SOQ (Statement of Qualifications) for engineers to drain the pond and examine the dam for the reasons stated above. (Namely, that it could kill someone.)

Notably, this is the second piece the paper has published on the SOQ. They previously posted details about the SOQ in early August. This piece gives slightly more (but not much more) detail about the SOQ, and adds some background on the Legion property.

But that background on the property is unusual, because it makes it sound like discussions around Legion have yet to take place. An excerpt:

According to a [February] 2022 The Local Reporter feature on the former American Legion property, the Town of Chapel Hill had not taken up the issue of 1714 Legion Road in an official capacity since a work session in February 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation. 

A man-made pond of approximately 2.5 acres is located on the northwest corner of the property. The 20-foot adjacent earthen dam creates an intermittent stream that serves as a tributary to nearby Booker Creek.

On August 10, the Town of Chapel Hill sent an email to residents and concerned citizens with a series of bullet points discussing the dewatering of the Legion Road property’s pond and potential plans to either repair or remove the dam on the property.

Council restarted conversations around the Legion property in May 2022. There were many council discussions that took place from May to December 2022. This piece omits both these facts and the resolution of those discussions: that the town plans to create both a really large park and much-needed affordable housing on the property. If you read this piece, you wouldn’t know any of that. You might think that nothing had happened between the work session in February 2020 and August 10, 2023, when emails were sent to nearby residents.

Why is this important?

It is not typical for a news organization to publish multiple pieces on a town posting an SOQ or RFP. It is also unusual for a reporter to omit two years of work concerning an issue when providing background about that issue.

We note that the pond on the Legion property has been a key CHALT talking point over the past two years. It’s also been the focal point of David Adams’ campaign for Town Council. Adams, a coordinator for CHALT, has been the most vocal opponent to the town removing the pond, and has questioned the engineering experts who have examined the pond.

Shortly after the piece went live, Adams posted a link to it on his Facebook page with the headline: “FYI, the The Local Reporter has just reported an update on the draining of Legion pond.” He also shared an announcement that the “Friends of Legion Park” plan to hold an upcoming candidate meet and greet. When we searched for this group, the only reference found was on the CHALT website, and in a petition written by a CHALT coordinator.

There’s long been a circular relationship between CHALT and The Local Reporter: CHALT often points to pieces in The Local Reporter as evidence that something is newsworthy, and The Local Reporter frequently covers stories related to what CHALT is lobbying for or against, or what their candidate slate is lobbying for or against. And, as noted above, the paper sometimes lifts content straight from the CHALT website without acknowledging it.

This would be fine – if The Local Reporter acknowledged their relationship with CHALT. But they continue to state that they offer “rigorous, unbiased reporting.” How can you trust a newspaper that won’t be honest about its agenda?

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....