Is it OK for a town mayor to run the local news site?
Last month, a Patch.com website highlighted the ethical conundrum in Westport, Connecticut, where Gordon Joseloff, the town’s “highest elected official” also publishes a local news website. About 25,000 people live in Westport, a wealthy suburb on the Long Island Sound.
As Patch’s Anthony Karge described, Westport Now “offers hard news, standalone photos and videos and event coverage.” The site does disclose Joseloff’s political position at the bottom of the website.
According to Westport Now, Joseloff was editor and publisher from the site’s start until his election. When he became first selectman, Joseloff turned over editing reins but stayed on as publisher and does “contribute photographs” to the site.
While Joseloff is no longer listed as editor of the site, he does still pay for the site and have control over what the site runs. Joseloff defined his role to Patch as publisher as:
“I pay the bills. I set the tone. We have some very good reporters and contributors and they do their thing.”
And, according to Karge, on at least one occasion, Joseloff’s site has had to redirect traffic to other news sites for coverage of Joseloff’s actions.
Karge highlighted a few cases in which Joseloff’s positions make reporting tricky like “when a town board recently considered Joseloff’s pension request.” According to Karge, Westport Now didn’t report on the news, but instead “linked to stories on sites such as Westport Patch.”
In interviews for Karge’s Patch stories and a 2005 New York Times story, Joseloff has stressed that his site isn’t the only news site in town, and readers have a choice to get their news elsewhere if there’s a problem.
He reportedly told Karge that the site doesn’t have “a monopoly” because “others have followed suit” of reporting on Westport in “real-time.”
But, Karge noted that when Joseloff launched Westport News, it was the only real online news outlet becuase the two local newspapers “had minimal online presence” and there weren’t any Westport online-only news sites.
In a 2005 New York Times story before Joseloff became first selectman, he said readers won’t go to his site “if it’s a vehicle for personal ambition. If they thought it was a personal vehicle, you wouldn’t see the readership it has.”
Joseloff’s Contributions to the Site
Karge noted that some articles on Westport Now don’t include a byline, which raises the question: Does Joseloff write still? But, Joseloff countered that he doesn’t and explained that the stories not carrying a byline are “from writers who wish to remain anonymous.”
“Frankly, I don’t have time [to write stories],” Joseloff reportedly told Karge. “I have a town to run.”
Joseloff also has a blog as first selectman, but it hasn’t been updated often.
Joseloff’s dual roles have drawn comparison, one that even Joseloff sees, to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his news outlet Bloomberg LP.
“It’s a free country and I don’t think there’s any reason to give it up,” Joseloff told Karge.
But, Karge reported that Charles Davis, a professor at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, commented that the comparison doesn’t match perfectly. For example, Bloomberg focuses on finance, where Joseloff is news.
Davis also reportedly said that he finds it “rather unusual” for Joseloff to continue his involvement in the news site after seeking office.
In the New York Times’s 2005 article following Joseloff’s election, the Times noted that Bloomberg “stepped away from day-to-day operations of Bloomberg L.P” after his election.
As StinkyJournalism recently wrote, even though Bloomberg put up “firewalls” to separate the mayor’s views from the site’s content, questions have been raised about conflicts of interest and editorial independence, especially given the creation of “Bloomberg View.” Bloomberg View is a new OpEd section of Bloomberg News that will include as many as two daily editorials “that channel the views of Mr. Bloomberg himself.”
Media Ethics Experts, Westport Political Locals Comments
In a follow-up article, Karge reported that some media experts, including Davis, view Joseloff’s dual roles as a conflict of interest.
The site “ought to be handed over to professionals because clearly [that] has lots and lots and lots of conflicts of interest,” Davis is quoted as saying.
Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs for Columbia University’s journalism school, commented to Karge that
“For a mayor to run a news site makes no sense — the inherent conflicts of interest are way too many. In New York City, when Michael Bloomberg became mayor, he had to install several different firewalls to reduce his influence at Bloomberg the news company. In a small town, the situation will be even more complicated and rife with problems.”
“Since WestportNow, by their own admission, cannot report on issues involving Gordon Joseloff and his administration in an unbiased way due to the conflict of interest, they forfeit their status as a real news outlet. WestportNow continues to be a nice photo-blog, but for objective, in-depth reporting on the critical issues that face Westport, readers clearly must go elsewhere.”
Likewise, Columbia University journalism school professor Dale Maharidge said to Patch he wasn’t “sure if [Westport News] can be trusted.” Maharidge added that “‘public official journalism’ doesn’t quite do it for me.”
“I don’t see it as a conflict. I see it as a guy who was really on the cutting edge who continues to care about the town. I don’t think he uses it as a mouthpiece for the administration.”
And Jeremy Gilbert, a professor at Medill School of Journalism, commented to Patch that it’s fine for Joseloff to own the site but stressed the importance of being transparent about his relationship.
iMediaEthics is writing to Joseloff for comment and will update with any response.