Twice in the past two months, The Local Reporter has fundraised against an “arrangement” or “connection” with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism.

The only problem? There’s no arrangement or relationship.

In the first incident – which took place on March 19 – The Local Reporter wrote in their newsletter that donations “from our last plea” helped them “secure an arrangement with UNC Media to share investigative articles.” They then asked donors for more money.

The UNC Media Hub is a student-run wire service that offers their articles to local publications – including ours – for free. We’ve printed some. So has Indyweek, and the News and Observer. No money exchanges hands – it’s a way for students to get bylines and exposure, and for the publication to extend its reach.

We contacted the UNC Media Hub to ask if The Local Reporter paid reporters or had a special relationship with them. The answer was no.

On April 24, the Local Reporter sent out another fundraising plea stating that they had “developed a connection with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism” and were fundraising to be able to support two summer interns: one reporter for a specific story and one social media marketer.

We reached out to Jay Eubanks, the director of Career Services of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, for clarification. He wrote, “No, there is no “relationship “ w Hussman. The Local Reporter asked how they could put a potential internship before our students. We publish a weekly newsletter with internship and job opportunities that is distributed to our students. I told [the person] (who reached out to me) to send a description of the internship we could include in that newsletter. And that is the extent of it.”

This is problematic. As we’ve written before (and again and again), The Local Reporter is unique in our local media ecosystem in that:

  • All three board members of Friends of Local Journalism, the non-profit organization running The Local Reporter, were leaders in CHALT, a local organization with a political PAC, and remained in leadership roles for years after the news organization started. The publication has no full time employees.
  • They have churned through eight part-time editors, including two former political candidates that they previously endorsed.
  • They routinely interview leaders within their organization with a PAC without identifying them.
  • On their most recent 990, their board members each claim to work 20 hours/week on the publication. This isn’t the way non-profit news organizations are typically structured.
  • Student reporters in the past have been told who to interview, what questions to ask, and had their copy changed substantially before publication. Entire pieces have changed or been deleted.
  • In the last municipal election cycle, they forgot to write about one of the mayoral candidates until we pointed it out. In response to our other reporting, they added a masthead and stopped communally writing articles under a group byline.
  • They previously started a Kickstarter that offered access to the reporter for high dollar contributors. After our reporting, they canceled it.

The Local Reporter is turning 5 this summer. They rely on a cadre of retirees, brand new, non-local, and syndicated writers to make up their content. They don’t respond to requests for comment. They were removed or asked not to return to LION Publishers and INN, two prestigious non-profit news consortiums. They routinely print full press releases and/or written statements as full pieces. They frequently quote sources that are members of CHALT without revealing that affinity or their own relationship(s) with them. And they frequently fundraise against the idea that they’re saving non-profit local news, forgetting or omitting that the award-winning The Daily Tar Heel (which has and follows a code of ethics) is down the street.

We deserve high quality local news. This is not that.

But it does offer a warning to the leaders of Press Forward and other funders who are about to inject lots of funding into the local non-profit news ecosystem. Please make sure you closely examine mastheads, biographies, and 990s of non-profit news organizations. They’re not all alike. And we should hold them accountable.

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....