The Local Reporter has once again removed a piece from its website without explanation.

Here’s what happened: Yesterday afternoon, they published a piece by Adam Powell, the public information officer for the North Carolina Cyber Academy, about President Biden’s recommendation to include $138.3 million in the federal budget for Chapel Hill’s planned North-South Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Powell’s piece had a few quotes from an FTA press release, some quotes from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (also from the press release), and some basic information about the BRT.

The piece was feted in the paper’s weekly newsletter, which stated “Chapel Hill is celebrating getting FTA funding.” (It’s not. It’s a recommended budget item, but needs to go through several more steps before funding is approved by Congress.) Around 10:20 last night, the piece was pulled and replaced with this text: This article is being rewritten and will be reposted at a later date.  No reason was given why. (The original piece contained a number of errors, notably that the funding is currently proposed, and Chapel Hill hasn’t received any funding yet.)

This goes against the news org’s stated corrections policy, which states “If the error is substantive, we’ll make the change and annotate the article to describe the change and its purpose.” It’s also happened several times in recent months.

First, some background

The Local Reporter describes itself as “your relentlessly local non-profit newsroom.” It maintains close ties to the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), a political advocacy group in Chapel Hill with a PAC that recruits and helps elect candidates for local elected office. (In the last election cycle, the CHALT PAC raised $42,905 from individuals and bought signs, digital ads, and mailers for their candidate slate.)

All three board members at The Local Reporter, which has no full-time employees, have been leaders in CHALT or CHALT’s PAC. Until 2022, the Secretary of the Board also served as the assistant treasurer to CHALT’s PAC; the President of the Board was listed as a spokesperson for CHALT through June of 2021. (The paper launched in May 2019.) The paper has published paragraphs of content directly lifted from the CHALT website. The then-editor told the News and Observer in 2021 that unbylined news articles (called “Staff Reports”) were written as a group by the Board of Directors and editor. (An early ‘About Us’ page on the paper says something similar; it has since been removed.)

Through public records requests, we know that members of the Local Reporter’s board have remained active participants on CHALT’s private listserv where political strategy and the framing of civic issues are discussed.  Unlike most non-profit newsrooms, the board participates actively in newsroom activities. They have bylined pieces, regularly recruit writers on NextDoor, have run the paper’s social media accounts, and have churned through eight editors, including  two former political candidates who had formerly been endorsed by CHALT. In a recent 990 filing, each board member was listed as devoting 20 hours to the publication. This is highly unusual for a non-profit news organization. We looked at over 50 non-profit news orgs. – board members devote 1 or maybe 2 hours a week. No one has a board working half of a normal work week.

Each board member is listed as working 20 hours a week.

Last spring, the paper only wrote about mayoral candidate Adam Searing until we pointed out that they hadn’t covered his opponent, Jess Anderson, entering the race. In response, The Local Reporter’s sixth editor issued an apology, and then left his post just a couple of days later. Their after-election story, which Anderson won in a landslide, focused on the one precinct where Searing picked up more votes (8) than Anderson.

And before that, the paper’s current editor Michelle Cassell wrote to Searing through his public Town of Chapel Hill email address. “Adam, OFF THE RECORD, I am very interested in writing about the development in Chapel Hill and the proposed LUMO amendments. Our paper has had to be cautious of appearances of leaning towards CHALT, but in the process has left some of these issues underreported…..When and if you have anything you deem of interest to the public, I am most happy to investigate and write about.” (Emphasis ours. Cassell did not write to any other council members – we checked.)

Back to the piece: This is not the first time The Local Reporter has pulled a piece abruptly without giving any reason why. In December, they substantially reworked a piece after a person quoted in the piece asked them to. We contacted the reporter who wrote the original piece and asked why the piece had been reworked. She said that the quoted subject was “good friends with the editor” and asked to have the piece reworked. (The reporter then quit writing for the paper.) Another reporter, who also left the paper, told us that her then-editor provided a list of sources to contact without mentioning their CHALT connections, sent along questions to ask them, and then heavily edited the piece copy after it was turned in.

“When I submitted my piece for editing, he cut large amounts of what I had written, leaving it lopsided,” the reporter wrote.

Del Snow, the president of the Board of Directors of Friends of Local Journalism, touts this arrangement in posts for writers on NextDoor:


Powell has had issues with his reporting for The Local Reporter before. Notably, he skipped about two years of context in a piece about the American Legion pond, the focal point of David Adams’ campaign for Town Council.

Last night’s removal of his piece came shortly after CHALT published a lengthy unbylined list of reasons why they’re skeptical about the BRT on social media.

Transparency and bias

Everyone has the right to start a news organization, of course, but The Local Reporter continues to tout itself as being “fair and unbiased” in public statements to readers and denies that it is connected to CHALT in any way. (They have denied connections between the newspaper and CHALT in profiles of their organization, on social media and in an article written about the paper and CHALT’s overlapping connections in the News and Observer.)

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 that goes for funding as well.

Over the past year, The Local Reporter has reached out to their readers three times and said that they would go under without immediate donations. Their most recent 990 says that they raised $59,880 in 2022-23. They list dozens of donors on their donation page, but we reached out to over 20 of them who said they donated just once, before the paper launched as a gesture of good will, and haven’t given any money since. The only public donation record we have is from Town Council candidate David Adams (a former leader in CHALT) who gave the paper $600 when he closed out his campaign.

The paper soon plans to look beyond individual donors. In December, they wrote to readers and said “hopefully, as our newspaper continues to mature, we will become more competitive for grants from foundations.”

This is concerning.

I’ve been covering this paper for over three years now. I started looking into it after I saw a Facebook post by local journalist Kirk Ross, who wrote:


Before the paper launched there were some journalists involved. All but one – the paper’s humor columnist – has left the advisory board. In the past two years, the paper has been removed or asked not to reapply from two news consortium, INN and LION. They no longer appear as a member of the NC Press Association in the online membership directory. Following previous reporting I’ve written, the paper added a masthead and revealed their then-editor. (Surprise! It was a former Town Council member, who had previously been endorsed by CHALT.)

I’ve talked to multiple reporters who stopped writing for the paper after their stories were changed. I’ve talked to consultants who were brought on before the paper launched. I’ve read dozens of emails shared with me by people who have been involved in this paper, in some way, over the past five years.

Sometimes I question why I’m continuing to stick with this story. And I think it’s for this reason: I worked in newsrooms for many years, and I wrote a column about local news for many years, where I focused on innovative ways local news organizations were staying in business.

I care about civics and civic news – it’s a cornerstone of our democratic institutions. And for the past decade, I have watched as local news organizations have been gutted across the country. There are many smart people working to fix and expand local news, and there are model local newsrooms that have sprung up around the country, from Detroit to South Dakota to New Jersey.

All of these newsrooms are transparent about their board (if they’re non-profits and have a board) and their editors. They have bios for staff and their board on their websites. They tell you when a new editor is hired. They cover both candidates in an election cycle. They tell you if they have a personal stake in an issue, and sometimes even hand off editing of a story to someone else if that’s the case. If they change a story, they tell readers why. They are accountable and transparent, and explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

The Local Reporter, on the other hand, continues to be different.

If The Local Reporter were more transparent with their own connections to CHALT and its web of related organizations, I wouldn’t have any problem whatsoever with their news organization. Our community deserves to know how and why topics are covered or not covered, and how they are framed.

This builds trust and credibility with an audience, and with a community. And we should expect no less from any relentlessly local news organization.

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....