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Libel suit's expense hits paper in Iowa

Journal in peril despite court victory by MEAGAN FLYNN THE WASHINGTON POST | October 13, 2019 at 1:54 a.m.

It started, like many newspaper investigations, with a tip.

The Carroll Times Herald in the small town of Carroll, Iowa, heard from a source that a local police officer was having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.

It was exactly the type of accountability journalism that co-owner and vice president of news, Douglas W. Burns, thought the paper should be doing, and before long, reporter Jared Strong was chasing leads. He spent at least two months gathering Carroll police officer Jacob Smith's personnel records, private messages and other public documents, interviewing the teenagers and others -- until finally, just as the Times Herald was ready to publish, the officer resigned.

And then he filed a libel lawsuit immediately.

Now, even though the newspaper handily won the case, the legal expenses have left the family-owned local newspaper in financial peril, leading Burns to create a GoFundMe fundraiser seeking $140,000 to cover the expenses and to try to keep the paper in the family.

Such have been the consequences of high-impact journalism for a newspaper with limited resources in rural America, already confronted with the financial challenges of a rapidly evolving digital-media landscape. Mix in a costly libel lawsuit and the Times Herald's future could be in trouble.

In an interview last week, 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. An Iowa judge ruled the articles were accurate in dismissing Smith's libel lawsuit in May 2018.

"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 in the GoFundMe page, which has so far raised roughly $6,800 as of early Thursday. "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."

The Carroll Times Herald has been in Burns' family for the better part of a century.

His grandfather, James W. Wilson, worked in the east Iowa coal mines to save up money to go to journalism school at the University of Missouri, Burns said, before returning to Iowa to find work. Wilson began as the then-Carroll Herald's business manager in 1929 and took over ownership in 1944. Three generations later, here's Burns, sitting in the same office as his grandfather.

"This is my life. I've dedicated everything I have to the paper," Burns, who is also a reporter, told The Washington Post. "So there's a lot at stake when you're facing something like this"

Burns said the reaction to the investigation was a "mixed bag," with some parents of teenagers praising the newspaper's work to rid local law enforcement of an officer who had sexual relationships with young girls. Others greeted the investigation with an "unexpected level of hostility," Burns said, siding with law enforcement and doubting the reporting. "Fake news" rhetoric, he said, has trickled down to affect even local papers.

In his libel lawsuit, Smith disputed the investigation's findings, saying his "reputation has been destroyed, his character and integrity forever castigated in the public eye, and his employability as a law officer severely damaged if not totally ruined."

Burns said the paper refused to settle, standing by its reporting and confident it stood on solid ground. It was vindicated in May 2018 when an Iowa district court judge agreed.

"The article at issue is accurate and true, and the underlying facts undisputed," District Judge Thomas Bice wrote in a 10-page ruling dismissing the case.'

Iowa does not have an anti-SLAPP law on the books, which discourages meritless libel or slander lawsuits oftentimes by making those who file suit pay attorney's fees if they lose the case. The legal victory was welcome, Burns said, but more than a year later, the paper has still not caught up financially.

In April, the paper switched to a twice-a-week publishing schedule rather than five, but with more online news. In its heyday, it published every day.

Last year, a study by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media found that more than 1,300 American communities completely lost their local news source, creating "news deserts," and that 20% of all metro or community newspapers went out of business or merged since 2004. The school was renamed in September after a $25 million dollar donation by the the Hussman family -- Walter E. Hussman Jr.; his wife, Ben Hussman; son Palmer Hussman; and daughters Eliza Gaines and Olivia Ramsey. Walter E. Hussman Jr. is chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc. and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Burns said he feels the Times Herald is far from approaching its end, but he created the GoFundMe because he felt he had to do everything he could to keep it healthy, so it could continue robust reporting.

"Small newspapers like ours, we're kind of the last vestige for collective or common truth, or trust," Burns said. "Pretty much everything in our paper you're one or two degrees of separation away from personally, so you know it to be true because you were there -- you were at the game, or you see an obituary and it's somebody you were connected to. ... We own the paper, but in a very real sense, I've always looked at it like I'm a temporary steward of the paper. At the end of the day, it really belongs to the community."

SundayMonday Business on 10/13/2019

Print Headline: Libel suit's expense hits paper in Iowa


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