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Paper that covers Chesapeake Bay faces questions over its EPA funding

- - Sunday, September 16, 2012

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."

EPA declined comment, referring to the agency's statement in the IG report.

"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."

And a wire service that syndicates the Bay Journal's content to other newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, makes no mention of an EPA connection.

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.

Mr. Blankenship, the editor-in-chief of the Bay Journal, makes no apologies for taking EPA money and doesn't think the newspaper needs to do more to disclose its connections to the federal agency.

"The grant is to do education and outreach," he said. "And what we do has proven to be an effective way to do education and outreach. The product speaks for itself."

The paper was not started by the EPA, Mr. Blankenship said. It was created by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to meet a government mandate to inform the public about environmental issues during the 1980s. He said he has tried to maintain independence for the 30,000 circulation paper, forming his own group to run it -- Chesapeake Media Service.

"It's an organization that has a number of professional journalists on the board," he said. "So there's somebody to say there's journalistic integrity to what we're doing."

Some editorials by the Bay Journal News Service have supported EPA viewpoints and are critical of GOP lawmakers wishing to curtail the power of the agency.

At other times, the media outlet has been critical of EPA, such as an opinion piece written by Mr. Blankenship entitled "EPA torches public's right to know." The article charged the EPA was preventing the public from learning about violations from companies using toxic chemicals.

Nonetheless, the Bay Journal's wire service does not disclose on its website that several of its opinion writers get part of their pay from EPA.

Mr. Blankenship said he doesn't feel the need to expressly tell outlets picking up stories that funding comes partially from the EPA.

"The Bay Journal is pretty well recognized," he said. "It's been around for 20 years."

The Baltimore Sun, one of the publications that has syndicated some of the Bay Journal's content, said it doesn't plan to change the way it handles such columns.

"The Baltimore Sun is aware that Bay News receives some funding from the EPA as it is disclosed on their website along with funding from private donations and other foundations. We do not anticipate any changes in the handling of Bay News content on our Op-Ed pages," spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik said.

Mr. Todd said the Bay Journal "tries to provide that middle ground, that unbiased view. EPA gets to present its view, but so do others."

And the advisory board for the paper is there "not to serve the EPA, but to provide their independent viewpoint," he added.