Old Lyme GOP chairman launches local newspaper

These days, news of a newspaper startup should be cause for celebration.

The country has been losing journalism firepower for a long while now, and the decline in the business has been especially hard on small communities, as newsrooms wither or small papers go completely dark.

Given that environment, I would certainly welcome new journalism efforts around here. The more reporters' feet on the ground, the better it is for everyone — from existing news outlets to the reading public. Competition is healthy.

But I would urge the people of Old Lyme to pay attention to the management of a new online newspaper, the Connecticut Examiner, scheduled to launch soon, with two reporters and an editor in chief already hired.

The new newspaper is the work of David Kelsey, who is chairman of the Old Lyme Republican Town Committee and a member of the town's finance board.

The new editor in chief, who says he was recruited by Kelsey about five months ago, is Gregory Stroud, who has been executive director of SECoast, a nonprofit advocacy group formed out of opposition to Amtrak's planning for high-speed rail through Old Lyme.

More recently, SECoast mounted a campaign in opposition to an affordable-housing project proposed in town.

Of course it would be an obvious conflict of interest for the editor of a newspaper to run an organization taking strong policy positions on controversial issues in town, like affordable housing, and Stroud told me last week he is giving up his post running SECoast.

That doesn't solve, it seems to me, the considerable conflict of interest posed by the fact that the founder and principal backer of the new newspaper is both a major partisan player in town politics as GOP chairman, and closely involved in decision-making about all kinds of issues in town as a member of the finance board.

I doubt you could find an authority on journalism anywhere in the country who would endorse this as ethical journalism. A newspaper shouldn't be controlled by someone extensively involved in the issues it covers, especially in the tight confines of a small town.

Stroud told me the newspaper won't charge a subscription fee and won't have advertising. All of its funding would come from Kelsey, whom Stroud refers to as an angel investor.

While Stroud likened it to the kind of angel investment that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has made in The Washington Post, I would suggest there is an enormous difference, besides the scale.

The situation might be more analogous if The Washington Post only wrote about Amazon. I am sure when it does, on somewhat rare occasions, it points out the obvious conflict.

In the case of Old Lyme, it would be nearly impossible to deal with a news topic that doesn't involve the head of one of two principal political parties in town and a member of a board that determines how every dime of the town's money is spent.

Both Kelsey and Stroud, when I asked them about this enormous conflict of interest, said the newspaper founder would have no input on coverage.

"David Kelsey won't be calling us up saying 'I don't like this story' or that kind of thing," Stroud said.

"Greg owns the entity 100 percent," Kelsey told me. "I won't have any editorial input. It's absolutely Greg's baby."

Kelsey is a founding principal in Hamilton Point Investments, a real estate investment company that has acquired more than 75 properties around the country, with 17,000 apartments. The company, with headquarters in Old Lyme, has 180 employees.

Presumably hiring Stroud and two professional journalists is a significant investment for Kelsey.

It is hard to fault that kind of confidence in small-town journalism and a spirit in which Kelsey says he wishes to "bring back vibrant community reporting."

I just wish it was being made in a town he isn't so involved with running.

I asked him if he would consider resigning his political and governmental positions in town, and he said no.

In response to my questions about the conflict of interest, Stroud told me the "proof will be in the pudding."

Stroud has a doctorate in history and a professional background teaching college students but no experience running a newspaper.

"In terms of our coverage, it will be quality, unbiased and fair," he told me about the new newspaper.

"I hope you and everyone else hold us to that standard."

I wish them luck.

I expect the people of Old Lyme will be paying attention. And I hope they never forget, as they ponder the coverage, where the money to produce it comes from.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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