How a Connecticut journalist unmasked ‘Edward Clarkin’

Christine Stuart via Facebook
Christine Stuart (via Facebook)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The recent sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal is such a strange and complicated morass that it’s hard to know where to begin. There was the shroud of secrecy that was pierced when we learned that the buyer was casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The threads connecting the transaction to Russel Pergament, a former top executive with The Real Paper, the Tabnewspapers, and the short-lived commuter tabloid BostonNOW. And, above all, the role of Michael Schroeder, a former BostonNOW executive who’s emerged as a principal player in all of this.

If you haven’t been following the epic tale, The New York Times has a decent overview, though it lacks the sense of drama and just plain weirdness that have already made it one for the ages.

Since I have to begin somewhere, I’ll begin with Christine Stuart. She’s the Connecticut journalist who appears to have solved at least part of the mystery involving an article that was published by the New Britain Herald criticizing a Nevada county judge who had tangled with Adelson.

Last week the media world was astir over one of the more bizarre aspects of the Adelson saga. The Review-Journal, which has been fearless in covering the sale and its aftermath, reported that in the weeks before staff members knew their paper was for sale, they were ordered to “Drop everything and spend two weeks monitoring all activity of three Clark County judges.”

Their work appeared to be for naught. Later, though, their notes were apparently used in a plagiarism-riddled story published more than 2,600 miles away in the New Britain Herald under the byline of someone named Edward Clarkin—a reporter who, according to the Hartford Courant, could not be located and might not exist.

Here’s where Stuart comes in. She and her husband, Doug Hardy, run an online news service called CT News Junkie that covers politics and public policy in Connecticut. Last Wednesday, while waiting in an airline terminal, she posted screenshots on Facebook and Twitter showing that New Britain Herald owner Michael Schroeder’s middle name is Edward and that his mother’s maiden name is Clarkin.

“I got a tip that Edward Clarkin first appeared in 2008 when Schroeder was the head of BostonNOW,” Stuart told me by email. “I found it in the Wayback Machine and tweeted that, which got me thinking about pen names. I searched the obits and it led to Schroeder’s Facebook page, which listed his mother’s maiden name: Clarkin. Mystery solved. All during a delay at Bradley on Dec. 23 when the airport ran out of fuel. I helped other reporters put together that story too by contributing info from the terminal. It was a busy day.”

Why Schroeder? As it turns out, he was originally the only person listed as an officer with News + Media Capital Group, the Delaware corporation set up by Adelson to purchase the Review-Journal from New Media, an arm of GateHouse Media. It was GateHouse, according to the Review-Journal, that gave the order to monitor the three Nevada judges. Based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, GateHouse owns more than 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including such notable titles as The Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. (But not, I should note, the New Britain Herald.)

And GateHouse will continue to operate the Las Vegas paper. So of all the myriad questions that still need to be answered, more than a few of them should be directed to GateHouse chief executive Michael Reed, whose answers to reporters thus far have ranged from the noncommittal to the patronizing. For instance, when the Review-Journal contacted him about the matter of the judge-monitoring, he reportedly replied: “I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one. I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.”

Stranger and stranger: In March 2010 I attended the premiere of a documentary titled On Deadline: Is Time Running Out on the Press? Held at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, the film told the story of the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press, which nearly went out of business after their corporate owner, Journal Register Company, declared bankruptcy. Their savior: Michael Schroeder.

Among those taking part in the post-screening panel discussion were Stuart and Schroeder. Unfortunately, I no longer have my notes from that evening. But I wrote about it in The Wired City, my 2013 book on hyperlocal and regional online journalism, as well as for my blog. (You can still watch the trailer, too.) I remember talking with Schroeder afterward, and he struck me as amiable and civic-minded, but by no means wildly optimistic about the future of the papers he had just rescued.

And by the way: One of the stars of On Deadline was Steve Collins, a Bristol Press reporter who resigned last week, telling Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple in part:

I have watched in recent days as Mr. Schroeder has emerged as a spokesman for a billionaire with a penchant for politics who secretly purchased a Las Vegas newspaper and is already moving to gut it. I have learned with horror that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper—a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system—and then stuck his own fake byline on it. He handed it to a page designer who doesn’t know anything about journalism late one night and told him to shovel it into the pages of the paper. I admit I never saw the piece until recently, but when I did, I knew it had Mr. Schroeder’s fingerprints all over it.

Christine Stuart was literally the first person I interviewed for The Wired City. I met her in March 2009, when she was running a one-person operation at the Statehouse in Hartford. When I caught up with her again a few years later, her husband, Doug Hardy, had quit his job at the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Connecticut, to manage CT News Junkie’s business side, and they had assembled a small staff.

Stuart is fiercely competitive. She bought CT News Junkie in 2006 because she wanted to cover the Statehouse and knew it would take too long to get there if she stayed at her newspaper job. When I pointed out that she might have had to wait five or 10 years, she replied, “Right. Or kill off another reporter.”

She laughed, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be standing in her way.

As for the fate of the Review-Journal, it is likely to be grim. The editor, Mike Hengel, has resigned. No doubt the staff will soon be ordered to stop poking into Sheldon Adelson’s affairs. But what does Adelson intend to do with his newspaper? Promote his casino interests? Advance his support for Israel’s Netanyahu government? Both?

Michael Schroeder, meanwhile, has added to his holdings by purchasing Rhode Island’s Block Island Times. “It’s close enough and a beautiful place and they do a really good job,” Schroeder told the GateHouse-owned Providence Journal. No doubt Schroeder—like his business associate Michael Reed—will be keeping his focus on the positive, not the negative.

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New Haven Independent celebrates its first decade

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Arts writer David Sepulveda with a vintage copy of the first incarnation of the New Haven Independent, which was co-founded by Paul Bass and was published for several years in the late 1980s.

Congratulations to Paul Bass and the staff and friends of the New Haven Independent, who are celebrating the community website’s 10th anniversary.

On Wednesday evening a couple of dozen people gathered at the offices of La Voz Hispana, the Independent’s partner and landlord, to toast 10 years of nonprofit online journalism. It was a lower-key affair than the fifth anniversary — Bass and crew have been so busy launching the Independent’s low-power FM radio station, WNHH, that they didn’t have time to plan a proper celebration. (The Independent is the subject of my book “The Wired City.” I wrote about WNHH recently for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and was later a guest.)

The party was emceed by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of La Voz and chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Independent and its affiliated projects — WNHH, the Valley Independent Sentinel  and the Branford Eagle.

Last week Bass marked the 10th anniversary with a special hour-long conversation on WNHH about the state of independent journalism with Rodriguez-Reyes; Christine Stuart, the editor and co-owner of CT News Junkie, a for-profit website covering politics and public policy in Connecticut; and Babz Rawls-Ivy, managing editor of The Inner-City News, an African-American newspaper based in New Haven, as well as a talk-show host on WNHH.

Among other things, Bass compares legacy media’s coverage of the decline of journalism to someone who spends all his time hanging out at a funeral home and concludes that everyone must be dead. Well worth a listen.

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Mubarakah Ibrahim (left), host of “Mornings with Mubarakah” on WNHH, with her children.
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Paul Bass (right) and me. Photo by Independent alumnus and current Wall Street Journal reporter Thomas MacMillan.

On naming names: Looking back at the Annie Le case

Authorities have arrested and are preparing to charge the Rhode Island suspect in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man last week. News organizations that had been withholding his name are now identifying him. The Boston Globe, for instance, reports that he is Nicholas Rovinski, 24, of Warwick, Rhode Island.

As I wrote last week for WGBH News, identifying a “person of interest” who has not been charged — and who may not be charged — is an ethically dubious practice. My views are informed by what I learned in researching my book “The Wired City.” Among the stories I reported on was the New Haven Independent’s decision not to name the likely suspect in the murder of a Yale graduate student until after he had been formally charged. Independent editor Paul Bass spoke with my Northeastern ethics students about the case in a conference call earlier this week.

What follows is an excerpt from “The Wired City,” taken from a longer excerpt published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

Annie Le
Annie Le

On Monday, Sept. 14, 2009, six days after Annie Le had been reported missing, the Independent became the first to reveal that police had identified a 24-year-old laboratory technician who had worked with Le as a “person of interest.” The New Haven Register’s website followed shortly thereafter. And so began one of the more curious side stories of the Annie Le case.

As law enforcement officials continued with their investigation on Tuesday, neither the Independent nor the Register released the name of Le’s coworker. On Tuesday night, though, the police department held a news conference and announced that the “person of interest” was Raymond Clark, whose name was included in a press release. Because the news conference was covered live by a number of television stations, Clark’s identity immediately became public. On Wednesday, the Register named Clark and interviewed people who knew him. “I’m in total shock,” an unidentified high school classmate was quoted as saying. “He was the nicest kid — very quiet, but everyone liked him. I can’t believe he could do this. I’m sick to my stomach.” But the Independent continued to withhold Clark’s name.

The Independent’s managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was at the news conference too. She took notes and shot some video of New Haven Police Chief James Lewis speaking to reporters. But neither her story nor her video used Clark’s name. Bailey wrote, somewhat cryptically, “Police named the target of the search, calling him a ‘person of interest.’” Nor did the Independent identify Clark on Wednesday — and not even in a story posted early on Thursday morning reporting that police had staked out a motel where Clark was staying the night before, although it did link to a Register story that identified Clark in its lead paragraph. It wasn’t until later on Thursday morning that the Independent finally named Raymond Clark as the person police believed had murdered Annie Le. The reason: by then Clark had been arrested and charged, and was being taken into court for a formal arraignment.

The Independent’s refusal to name Clark until he had been formally charged was an admirable exercise in journalistic restraint. The decision derived in part from Bass’s institutional memory. In 1998, police had mistakenly identified a Yale professor as a “person of interest” in the murder of a student named Suzanne Jovin. No evidence against the professor was ever made public, and the murder was never solved. (In 2013, Yale and the city of New Haven announced a settlement with that wrongly accused professor.) Essentially, though, this restraint was a statement of Bass’s sense of how a news organization ought to serve the community

Judging by comments posted to the Independent, many readers appreciated Bass’s decision. “Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time,” wrote “asdf” on Tuesday evening, after Clark’s name had begun to leak out but before the police had named him. The commenter added: “I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.” Then there was this, from “LOOLY,” posted on Wednesday morning, after Clark’s name had been widely reported: “It should really be very simple. Unless he is being charged his name should not be used.”

Bass also had to make several other difficult decisions about identifying people connected to the Annie Le story. On Sept. 14, as Clark’s name was leaking out, the media converged on his apartment in Middletown, northeast of New Haven. Christine Stuart, who runs the political website CT News Junkie and contributes to the Independent, noticed the name of a woman along with that of Raymond Clark. She passed it along, and Melissa Bailey started plugging it into various social-networking sites. It didn’t take long before she found a public MySpace page for the woman, who turned out to be Clark’s 23-year-old fiancée. Bailey captured a screen image before the page could be taken down — which it soon was.

Bailey wrote a story that began, “The target in the slaying of Yale graduate student Annie Le had something in common with the victim — he, too, was engaged.” And she quoted the young woman as writing of Clark: “He has a big heart and tries to see the best in people ALL THE TIME! even when everyone else is telling him that the person is a psycho or that the person can’t be trusted. he thinks everyone deserves a second chance.” The woman’s name and photograph wound up being published by other news outlets, but it never appeared in the Independent.

That was not the Independent’s only social-networking scoop. In nearby Branford, Marcia Chambers of the Branford Eagle, a community news site that is affiliated with the Independent, was working her sources. Somehow she obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of Raymond Clark who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put. Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest, Bailey and Chambers wrote a story without using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”

The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” The Independent withheld the fiancée’s name, a decision Bailey wrote that she had no misgivings about even though the woman later appeared on network television and identified herself.

By declining to name Raymond Clark until he had actually been charged with a crime, and by withholding the identities of the two women, Paul Bass had made a statement about what kind of news organization he wanted the Independent to be and what kind of journalism his community could expect from the site. Protecting the two women at a time when only the Independent knew who they were was the more straightforward of the two decisions. Any news executive who cares about journalistic ethics — or, for that matter, basic human decency — might have made the same call. But keeping Clark’s name off the site even after the New Haven police had put it in a press release, and even after the police chief had freely discussed it at a news conference — well, that was an extraordinary decision. Many journalists would argue that a news organization has an obligation to report the name of someone who might soon be charged with murder when the police have very publicly placed that name on the record. But Bass clearly has a different way of looking at such matters.

Weeks later, in a conversation at his office, Bass wondered if he had done the right thing while simultaneously defending his decision. “I still believe it’s a complicated question. I still believe we could definitely be wrong,” he said. Yet, as he continued, he didn’t sound like someone who thought he might be wrong, even as I suggested to him that his decision to withhold Clark’s name could be seen as something of an exercise in futility. “I’m in no way moving toward the idea that we should have run the name. I see no reason for putting the name out sooner. Nothing served,” he said. “I agree with you that it was futile. The name was out there. But we are still a news organization with standards.”

Those standards, I came to realize, are rooted not just in Bass’s view of journalism but in his sense of place, and even in his spiritual beliefs. The Independent is a news site, but it’s not just a news site. It is also a gathering place, a forum for civil discussion of local issues, and a spark for civic engagement. It is a mixture that reflects Bass’s interests: a multifaceted approach to community journalism — to community and journalism — that has been visible in his life and work from the time he began writing about New Haven.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Book notes and upcoming appearances

Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday's book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for "The Wired City."
Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday’s book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for “The Wired City.”

Many thanks to Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, and Will Baker, director of the Institute Library, for a terrific event for “The Wired City” last Thursday. It was great to catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in quite a while and to meet new people. The Independent’s Thomas MacMillan covered the event here; the New Haven Register’s Randall Beach and Melanie Stengel here.

Closer to home, Will Broaddus of The Salem News interviewed me last week for his book column.

I’ve got three events coming up during the next week that you might be interested in.

• On Wednesday at 6 p.m. I’ll be part of a panel that will discuss the New England premiere of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio,” directed by Kevin McKinney. It’s not cheap, but it’s for a good cause: The event will benefit WHAV Radio, an independent online-only radio station based in Haverhill. The screening will take place at Chunky’s Cinema Pub, 371 Lowell Ave., Haverhill. You can find out more here.

• On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be doing an event for “The Wired City” at the Globe Lab, which works on new technology projects for The Boston Globe. The lab is located at the Globe, which is at 135 Morrissey Blvd. The event is free and open to the public.

• Next Monday, June 24, I’ll be sitting down with Emily Rooney to talk about “The Wired City” on “Greater Boston,” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

Photo by Thomas MacMillan for the New Haven Independent.

Meet two young media entrepreneurs

Christine Stuart

Connecticut Magazine has released its list of “40 Under 40” — that is, 40 Connecticut residents under 40 who are making a difference. And it turns out that two of them have been the subject of video interviews on Media Nation. Among those named were:

  • Christine Stuart, 33, who runs the Hartford-based Statehouse news site CT News Junkie (she doubles as the New Haven Independent‘s Statehouse bureau chief).
  • New Haven’s Ben Berkowitz, 31, co-founder of SeeClickFix, an interactive website that uses mapping and discussion boards to connect citizens, government and the media to deal with community problems.

You can see my interview with Stuart here. Berkowitz is here.