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Iowa newspaper in financial peril turns to social media to raise $140,000

Over 1,300 donors pitch in to help cover legal bills for Carroll Times Herald

Douglas Burns, co-owner and vice president of news at the Carroll Times Herald in western Iowa, started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs the newspaper incurred in defending itself in a libel lawsuit brought by a former Carroll police officer. The newspaper reported the officer, who resigned, had had relationships with two teenage girls. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Burns)
Douglas Burns, co-owner and vice president of news at the Carroll Times Herald in western Iowa, started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs the newspaper incurred in defending itself in a libel lawsuit brought by a former Carroll police officer. The newspaper reported the officer, who resigned, had had relationships with two teenage girls. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Burns)

A small western Iowa newspaper, facing daunting legal bills incurred in defending its journalism, has turned to social media for help — and found support for local news from hundreds of contributors.

The GoFundMe campaign started in Carroll has captured national attention as the city’s longtime newspaper tries to recoup losses it faces from reporting on a police officer’s relationships with teens.

As of Thursday evening, the Carroll Times Herald had raised $46,617 of its $140,000 goal from more than 1,300 donors.

Douglas Burns, the co-owner of the newspaper and its vice president of news, launched the campaign on Wednesday.

“To see the support not just from Iowa but from across the U.S. is really heartening and humbling,” Burns told The Gazette on Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to make certain that the dollars that people have contributed go to support the continuation of robust reporting, to make sure that we do accountability reporting, that we do government watchdog reporting, that we do strong enterprise reporting and that we make sure our part of rural Iowa does not become a news desert like far too many parts of the country.”

The Times Herald in May 2018 won a libel lawsuit filed by former Carroll police Officer Jacob Smith, who, journalist Jared Strong reported in July 2017, had relationships with two teenage girls.

The investigation found Smith was fired from his first police job in Sumner, in northeast Iowa, in part due to “inappropriate” Facebook messages exchanges with a 16-year-old girl.

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After joining the Carroll Police Department in 2015, Smith began a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl he met while on duty, while his then-wife was out of town caring for her mother, who had cancer, and also pursued a second relationship with another teenage girl.

Smith, 26, resigned before the Carroll Times Herald published its first story and filed the lawsuit days afterward.

Iowa’s age of consent is 16, and Smith was not charged with any crimes.

‘Story locked down’

Despite the Carroll Times Herald’s legal victory, Burns said the lawsuit cost the newspaper about $140,000 in legal expenses not covered by libel insurance, plus revenue lost from advertisers and subscribers.

Even as bills were piling up, Burns — a third-generation owner of the paper operated in his family for 90 years — said he declined the chance to settle the suit.

“I knew we had the story locked down,” he said. “I knew that Jared’s reporting was airtight and solid, and I thought we had a responsibility to the community to continue with the case and stand by our story.”

Community reaction

During and after reporting the story, Burns said he found himself on the receiving end of a “mixed bag” of community responses in Carroll, population 10,100.

“I can think of many, particularly fathers, who told me that they were very supportive of our coverage of this, who were outraged and hoped that our story would prevent episodes like this from occurring in the future,” he said.

There were detractors. One morning, he said, an acquaintance in the business community approached him while he was eating breakfast at a local restaurant.

“He said, ‘You better enjoy that breakfast because once you lose that lawsuit to the police, you’re not going to be able to afford to eat, Doug,’ ” Burns recalled.

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As a small town newspaper, the Carroll Times Herald enjoys its access to its readers and the readers’ access to the staff, Burns said.

At the same time, he said, some of the national rhetoric surrounding the media has filtered down to the local level, resulting in pushback even on basic school board or crime stories.

“There’s a growing and surprising percentage of the population that I think would be happy if there were no news organizations and no mechanism for accountability other than their own social media reactions at any given moment,” Burns said.

Against that backdrop, he said, response to the GoFundMe appeal is a reminder of the value of local journalism.

If donors contribute money beyond the campaign’s $140,000 goal, Burns said he plans to start a not-for-profit group to support reporting at other newspapers in western Iowa.

“I feel responsible for every dollar that comes in,” he said, “to make sure that we’re producing the kind of journalism that people have contributed to.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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