Thursday, October 10, 2019

Failed libel suit by ex-police officer it probed costs rural Iowa weekly big legal bills and lost ads, so it seeks donations

Doug Burns
An award-winning twice-weekly newspaper in rural Iowa is in financial trouble after a failed libel lawsuit drained its coffers. Reporter Jared Strong and co-owner Doug Burns of the Carroll Times Herald spent more than two months investigating a tip that police officer Jacob Smith was having an inappropriate relationship with teenage girls. Just before they published their story in July 2017, Smith resigned—and immediately filed a libel lawsuit, Meagan Flynn reports for The Washington Post.

A judge dismissed the suit in 2018, but the paper's legal expenses were huge. Burns, whose family has owned the paper since 1944, created a GoFundMe page seeking $140,000 to cover expenses. Flynn writes, "In an interview Wednesday, Burns said the $140,000 represents expenses not covered by libel insurance as well as lost advertising revenue and subscribers, who doubted the paper’s reporting on Smith."

The Times Herald's troubles show why many rural papers avoid doing such stories. "Standing up to the patriarchy, particularly in a rural reach of the nation, and especially now, is a financially perilous choice, one fraught with pressures from a host of sources and power centers, many of whom sought to kill the story and then retaliated against the newspaper," Burns wrote on the GoFundMe page. "We published the stories, and would again, but the legal bills and other expenses and losses, even after our libel insurance, jeopardize the local ownership of the newspaper."

Burns and his staff are no strangers to gutsy reporting. The Times Herald received plenty of pushback in the town of 10,000 after covering a school superintendent who sent a sexually suggestive email to a teacher and then collected a large salary for months while on leave. Some of the blowback bordered on calls for violence to the reporters, but rural journalists owe it to their readers to keep local leaders accountable, Burns wrote in an editorial: "We think you deserve better."

The GoFundMe page had raised $44,127 as of 5:30 p.m. ET Thursday. "I am donating, and I encourage all supporters of good rural journalism to do likewise," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "It's more difficult to do good journalism in rural areas, especially accountability journalism, and those who take the risks often associated with that need the public's support."

UPDATE, Oct. 11: Burns writes on the GoFundMe page, "I had a tearful interaction Friday with a talented young reporter who can remain on our staff as a result of this funding. This reporter produces excellent accountability journalism and asked me for an expanded role in that regard. This not only boosts our paper but benefits others as the reporter has an enormously promising career and will no doubt excel at other newspapers someday." Just before noon Central Time on Oct. 11, $70,038 had been raised, just over half the goal.

1 comment:

Benz said...

Why not include a link to the GoFundMe? It's