Pa­per fights suit, then for its life

An Iowa pub­li­ca­tion that won a li­bel case is left in $140K hole

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Mea­gan Flynn

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 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. 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 $73,000 as of Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon. “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”

Be­tween July 2017 and May 2018, the news­pa­per pub­lished a se­ries of sto­ries re­lated to Smith’s re­la­tion­ships with teenagers and the en­su­ing lit­i­ga­tion. Smith sued for li­bel the day af­ter the pa­per pub­lished the first ar­ti­cle, “Car­roll cop who courted teenage girls re­signs.”

The news­pa­per’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that Smith had been hired at the Car­roll Po­lice Depart­ment in 2015, not long af­ter be­ing fired from the Sum­ner Po­lice Depart­ment in north­east­ern Iowa, in part for in­ap­pro­pri­ate Face­book mes­sages to a 16-year-old girl. As a cop in Car­roll — a town of fewer than 10,000, whose cozy down­town is sur­rounded by miles of farm­land — Smith met a 17-yearold girl while in­ves­ti­gat­ing a po­ten­tial car bur­glary that she called 911 to re­port, the Times Her­ald re­ported.

Im­me­di­ately there­after, they be­gan ex­chang­ing dozens of “flir­ta­tious” text mes­sages, the pa­per re­ported. And soon, the high school se­nior moved in with Smith, then 25, in his Car­roll home af­ter a fight with her par­ents, hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with him while Smith’s wife was away tak­ing care of her mother who had can­cer, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. (The age of con­sent in Iowa is 16 and Smith is not ac­cused of any crimes.) Smith then be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with a 19-yearold woman in town, the Times Her­ald re­ported, lead­ing the 17-year-old to van­dal­ize the other woman’s car.

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.”

But dur­ing his de­po­si­tion, Smith ad­mit­ted hav­ing sex with the 17-year-old, say­ing he knew it was wrong.

For Burns, lis­ten­ing to Smith’s ad­mis­sions felt “sur­real.”

“It was head-spin­ning for me, to lis­ten to a former po­lice of­fi­cer ad­mit that he had a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with a teenager and ac­knowl­edge that it was wrong — and I’m sit­ting there in the role of the de­fen­dant who’s hav­ing to bankroll all the de­fense,” Burns said.

Burns said the pa­per re­fused to set­tle, stand­ing by its re­port­ing and con­fi­dent it stood on solid ground. They were 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.

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.

CAR­ROLL TIMES HER­ALD

For Dou­glas Burns, the Car­roll Times Her­ald’s co-owner, whose fam­ily has been part of the pa­per for three gen­er­a­tions, “there’s a lot at stake when you’re fac­ing some­thing like this.” The Her­ald has raised some $73,000 out of the $140,000.

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