Thursday, April 14, 2016

Md. paper an example of weakened local coverage, writer says in Columbia Journalism Review

Most of the focus on troubles of the newspaper industry has been on metropolitan papers, and rightly so; they have lost a greater share of their revenue than community papers, reducing their role as the nation's leading journalistic watchdogs. But there has been a similar erosion among community newspapers, many of which have also become weaker as they have lost revenue.

Kent County, population 20,000, is the
least populated county in Maryland.
One example is the Kent County News of Chestertown, Md., Miranda Spivack reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Until 2012, it was a crusading weekly that filed about one complaint per year with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, including one against University of Maryland trustees for their secret talks about joining the Big Ten Conference. "The open-meetings board criticized the trustees, who promised to be more accountable to the public. Closer to home, the paper broke stories and filed complaints about the Kent County library board’s failure to keep accurate meeting minutes, to address one member’s chronic absenteeism, and to hold public sessions, all while it ran up a deficit of about $200,000. The seven board members were replaced."

The paper was part of Chesapeake Publishing Corp., a chain that "kept regular tabs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as it grew into a bedroom community," Spivack reports. In 2007, the papers were sold to American Consolidated Media, which in 2014 sold them to Adams Publishing Group. "The Kent County News now has four reporters and one editor, down from a staff of seven in 2009. Its journalists are expected, like so many others, to do more with less, filing short daily stories for the online edition while also meeting their weekly print deadlines. They’re rarely able to carve out time for in-depth investigations. Since March 2012, when [Kevin] Hemstock was replaced by Daniel Divilio as editor, the paper has run few deeply reported accountability stories. Since early 2014, it has filed no complaints about closed government meetings. . . . Hemstock left in 2012 after refusing to lay off staffers for a second time in three years." Now a member of the Millington Town Council, he told Spivack that local governments "think they can run amok."

It took the Kent County News two years to report on Apex Clean Energy's plans to build a wind farm with 30 to 50 turbines 500 feet tall, and when it did, its "single-source story, which quoted Tyson Utt, a director of development at Apex, was written by Editor Daniel Divilio, who says that it came about after Apex officials contacted the paper seeking publicity," Spivack reports. The story "failed to report that the county’s carefully hashed-out, seemingly airtight zoning laws had left a hidden, gaping loophole" for the state to approve turbines taller than 120 feet. But the paper reported nothing else about the proposal for another year, and refused to publish a letter about it, saying it exceeded its length limit, Spivack reports.

"An anti-turbine group . . . eventually, without much help from the local government and media, pieced the puzzle together," and Apex changed its plans, proposing a solar-energy facility, Spivack writes in her 4,200-word story. Without the citizen activists, "Residents might not have known about the Apex project until it was a done deal."

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