A free and codependent press
People’s Vanguard of Davis and Capital Public Radio both received assists from local politicians and private enterprises—is that kosher?
A Davis-centric alternative news outlet is under criticism for perceived money-driven elbow-rubbing with local elected officials.
The online-only, nonprofit People’s Vanguard of Davis held a May 19 fundraiser at Lamppost Pizza in West Davis with a suggested $25 donation. Four of five Davis City Council members, including Mayor Brett Lee and Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, were featured speakers.
Some think the fundraiser breached ethical boundaries.
“It looks like quid pro quo,” Davis resident Colin Walsh said at an April 23 City Council meeting. “It looks like investing now to buy favoritism later. I don’t know that any of you are doing that—I assume you’re acting ethically—but that’s what it looks like. … It’s not proper for elected officials and people running for office to be raising money for the people who will be reporting on you.”
Roberta Millstein, another Davis resident, called the fundraiser a case of “Davis exceptionalism.”
“When you get together and have these mutually beneficial exchanges, it gets harder to be critical,” Millstein told SN&R. “Do I think any collusion is going on? No. But you do need to maintain that distance between elected official and journalists to maintain independence. We’re a small town—for the most part, we all get along and want what’s best for the city. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from ethical norms.”
Even The Davis Enterprise, the city’s only general-circulation newspaper, jumped into the fray with an editorial calling the fundraiser a “stunning lapse in judgment.”
Vanguard editor David Greenwald dismissed the accusations as overblown.
“Number one, people aren’t paying for access,” Greenwald told SN&R a week before the event. “Anyone can come, with or without paying, and it’s not like this group isn’t already accessible.”
The question of whether local politicians should support a news publication that covers them arrives at a dire time for community-driven journalism.
Greenwald runs a tight ship. He’s the Vanguard’s only full-time employee. He has three part-time employees—an office assistant, a Sacramento reporter and an internship coordinator who oversees the Court Watch program. There is no business operations wing—leaving both newsgathering and fundraising responsibilities to Greenwald, who has been doing this for nearly 13 years.
Most traditional newspapers divide publishing and editorial duties to guard against pay-to-play-driven coverage.
“A small boost one month isn’t going to change the way I operate,” Greenwald said. “I’ve disagreed with every member of the council on countless issues over the years. To think that I’d change for, at most, a couple of thousand bucks is absurd. A few speeches won’t stop how I do business.”
The Vanguard relies on online ads, donations, $10-a-month subscriptions and the occasional fundraiser to stay “right on the margin every single month,” Greenwald said. The online news outlet held at least a half-dozen fundraisers over the past five years, some featuring elected officials, according to its Facebook page.
The fundraiser wasn’t expected to account for more than 2% of the publication’s yearly operating budget.
Despite requests from Millstein and Walsh, the four council members still attended.
“From a theoretical standpoint, I understand people’s concerns,” Mayor Lee said. “But from a practical standpoint, I feel like I have an obligation to support local journalism. I subscribe to The Davis Enterprise, The Bee, The Vanguard. If the Enterprise wanted me to speak at one of their events, I would. I’m not looking for favorable coverage or picking favorites here.”
The event wasn’t the only one where elected officials and private enterprise supported a specific member of the Fourth Estate.
On April 30, California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Councilman Steve Hansen helped Capital Public Radio announce its future $10 million headquarters in downtown. Sutter Health is donating $2.25 million for a Center for Community Engagement that is part of the new headquarters.
“This investment reaches far beyond Sacramento and will have positive impacts for our democracy and freedom of expression,” Kounalakis said in a statement.
Whether the press can maintain independence of the politicians and businesses that provide publicity or resources may be eclipsed by a related question: Can it survive at all?
On May 4, referencing research conducted at the University of North Carolina, The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 1,800 American newspapers folded between 2004 and 2018. Researchers predicted that half of the remaining papers will disappear within the next two years.
Davis Councilman Dan Carson, a retired journalist himself, said the city is often overlooked by the region’s larger media enterprises and relies on hyper-local community journalism.
“The Sacramento Bee and KCRA aren’t coming across the causeway every other week to cover our City Council meetings,” Carson said. “We have to look at alternative ways of funding local news. Without The Enterprise, The Vanguard and the like, we’re at the mercy of the spinners and the outright fraud artists.”
Greenwald’s muckraking approach was on display last week. On May 17, a Yolo Superior Court judge, responding to a lawsuit from the Vanguard, ordered the city of West Sacramento to disclose the names of attorneys and law firms the city has consulted regarding police misconduct and use of force cases. The Vanguard’s lawsuit stemmed from the city’s admission that it “purged” records related to a 2005 use of force case.