Once a month, a free print publication gets delivered to mailboxes, coffee shops and libraries across the mid-Atlantic with the latest news about how the government and private sector are trying to protect one of America’s natural crown jewels: the Chesapeake Bay.
There’s just one catch: the Bay Journal’s chief financial backer is also one of its frequently covered subjects: the U.S. government.
Since 2005 alone, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has given $3.5 million to the newspaper’s parent organization, the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, in part to help print and distribute the newspaper.
The paper’s editor, Karl Blankenship, says the publication gets about 70 percent of its annual funding from EPA, averaging between $250,000 and $350,000 a year. But now the arrangement is coming under some uncomfortable scrutiny. The EPA’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, issued a toughly worded report last month questioning $1.3 million in recent federal money spent on the newspaper, suggesting financial safeguards for the project were lax.
The investigation found the grant money has been awarded for years without any competitive bidding and that documents validating expenses charged to the EPA were lacking. The EPA watchdog recommended taxpayers recover more than $1 million from the newspaper.
The newspaper, its founding nonprofit parent and its editor all dispute the inspector general findings, insisting EPA has gotten its money’s worth and that the IG’s questions are really just a matter of some misplaced paperwork and record-keeping.
“The report does not question that the work was completed as required,” said Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “We certainly documented the product that was produced, the quality, numbers and circulation, people’s response to it.”
“We look forward to resolving this matter by researching whether the costs of the contract were fair and reasonable and disallowing any costs over that which is allowable based on the results of our review,” the agency said.
But the inspector general report had another impact: it called attention to the fact that Uncle Sam was essentially in the publishing business, funding a newspaper that writes articles about the government’s own work.
The newspaper makes a reference on the “About” page of its website and page 2 of its print edition: “Publication is made possible through grants from the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, the Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Town Creek Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and by donations from individuals,” it says. “Views expressed in the Bay Journal do not necessarily reflect those of any governmental or grant-making organization.”
The limited disclaimers, especially in specific stories about the EPA, concern some journalism ethics experts.
“One of the guiding principles for journalistic news organizations is to avoid competing loyalties and conflicts of interest that would undermine the credibility of the journalism,” said Bob Steele, journalism ethics professor at DePauw University.