The mayor of Langley, Washington, recently billed The South Whidbey Record for an interview with the city’s attorney. The bill accompanied a note that reminded the Record that the city attorney “is not a free public resource,” and asked the paper to “please remit the amount of $64 to the City.”
“We got, essentially, a bill trying to, in a way, bully us into backing off,” Record editor Justin Burnett told CJR last week. “We did the opposite and made sure to tell that story.”
The Record got plenty of help from its community, including open government advocates and members of the city council. “I think that’s absolutely not OK,” one Langley council member told the Record. “I think it’s really important for the public and the media to ask questions, especially right now.” A follow-up editorial invited the Langley mayor to send his bill to the National Archives Building, “the official home of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” That community of supporters grew to include a number of journalists who took to Twitter and called the incident “totally bananas” and playfully labeled it an instance of “when public officials go wild.” CJR’s Corey Hutchins spoke with representatives of the Record to detail the paper’s response.
Within days of the Record’s first story, the city dropped the bill. The Langley mayor “said that by the time he billed the newspaper…he’d already gotten the city attorney to waive the fee and was just trying to make a point,” according to the Record.
However, as the Record pointed out, that point differs depending on where you encounter it. On his Facebook page, for instance, the mayor defended his decision to bill the Record. Days after the bill was dropped, Keven Graves, Whidbey News Group Publisher, wrote, “Social media has become a place for what sometimes amounts to seriously calculated campaigns to discredit newspapers and journalists.
“We see this not only happening locally, but across the country and even in the White House,” wrote Graves.
Earlier this year, when Graves announced his difficult decision to close one of his local newspapers, he also promised readers that the Record would show its value to the community.
“During 2017, we’re going to talk freely and often about what [we] bring to the table, whether it be reliable, vetted journalistic content, proven circulation and distribution or a well-informed readership,” wrote Graves.
The Record’s efforts for access, on behalf of their readers, are a critical reminder to local newsrooms that credibility and viability are bound together. Graves concluded in his recent opinion piece, “If I go out on a limb to publicly defend my newspapers’ editors and reporters’ reporting—and I will—their work better be defensible.” Read CJR’s complete coverage here.
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