It started, like many newspaper investigations, with a tip.
The Carroll Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, 96 miles northeast of Omaha, heard from a source that a local police officer was having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.
It was exactly the type of accountability journalism that the co-owner and vice president of news, Douglas W. Burns, thought the paper should be doing, and before long, reporter Jared Strong was chasing leads. He spent at least two months gathering Carroll Police Officer Jacob Smith's personnel records, private messages and other public documents, interviewing the teenagers and others — until finally, just as the Times Herald published its first article, the officer resigned.
And then he filed a libel lawsuit immediately.
Now, even though the newspaper handily won the case, the legal expenses have left the family-owned local newspaper in financial peril, leading Burns to create a GoFundMe page seeking $140,000 to cover the expenses and to try to keep the paper in the family.
Such have been the consequences of high-impact journalism for a newspaper with limited resources in rural America, already confronted with the financial challenges of a rapidly evolving digital-media landscape. Mix in a costly libel lawsuit and the Times Herald's future could be in trouble.
In an interview Wednesday, Burns said the $140,000 represents expenses not covered by libel insurance as well as lost advertising revenue and subscribers, who doubted the paper's reporting on Smith. An Iowa judge ruled that the articles were accurate in dismissing Smith's libel lawsuit in May 2018.
"Standing up to the patriarchy, particularly in a rural reach of the nation, and especially now, is a financially perilous choice, one fraught with pressures from a host of sources and power centers, many of whom sought to kill the story and then retaliated against the newspaper," Burns wrote in the GoFundMe page, which had raised about $64,000 as of late Friday. "We published the stories, and would again, but the legal bills and other expenses and losses, even after our libel insurance, jeopardize the local ownership of the newspaper."
The Carroll Times Herald has been in Burns' family for the better part of a century.
His grandfather, James W. Wilson, worked in the east Iowa coal mines to save money to go to journalism school at the University of Missouri, Burns said, before returning to Iowa to find work. Wilson began as the then-Carroll Herald's business manager in 1929 and took over ownership in 1944. Three generations later, Burns sits in the same office his grandfather once did.
"This is my life. I've dedicated everything I have to the paper," Burns, who is also a reporter, told the Washington Post. "So there's a lot at stake when you're facing something like this."
Between July 2017 and May 2018, the newspaper published a series of stories related to Smith's relationships with teenagers and the ensuing litigation. Smith sued for libel the day after the paper published the first article, "Carroll cop who courted teenage girls resigns."
The newspaper's investigation found that Smith had been hired at the Carroll Police Department in 2015, not long after being fired from the Sumner Police Department in northeastern Iowa, in part for inappropriate Facebook messages to a 16-year-old girl. As a cop in Carroll — a town of fewer than 10,000, whose cozy downtown is surrounded by miles of farmland — Smith met a 17-year-old girl while investigating a potential car burglary that she called 911 to report, the Times Herald reported.
Immediately thereafter, they began exchanging dozens of "flirtatious" text messages, the paper reported. And soon, the high school senior moved in with Smith, then 25, in his Carroll home after a fight with her parents, having a sexual relationship with him while Smith's wife was away taking care of her mother who had cancer, according to the investigation. (The age of consent in Iowa is 16 and Smith is not accused of any crimes.) Smith then began a relationship with a 19-year-old woman in town, the Times Herald reported, leading the 17-year-old to vandalize the other woman's car.
Burns said the reaction to the investigation was a "mixed bag," with some parents of teenagers praising the newspaper's work to rid local law enforcement of an officer who had sexual relationships with teenagers. Others reacted to the investigation with an "unexpected level of hostility," Burns said, siding with law enforcement and doubting the reporting. "Fake news" rhetoric, he said, has trickled down to affect even local papers.
In his libel lawsuit, Smith disputed the investigation's findings, saying his "reputation has been destroyed, his character and integrity forever castigated in the public eye, and his employability as a law officer severely damaged if not totally ruined."
But during his deposition, Smith admitted to having sex with the 17-year old, saying he knew it was wrong.
For Burns, listening to Smith's admissions felt "surreal."
"It was head-spinning for me, to listen to a former police officer admit that he had a sexual relationship with a teenager and acknowledge that it was wrong — and I'm sitting there in the role of the defendant who's having to bankroll all the defense," Burns said.
Burns said the paper refused to settle, standing by its reporting and confident it stood on solid ground. They were vindicated in May 2018 when an Iowa district court judge agreed. "The article at issue is accurate and true, and the underlying facts undisputed," District Judge Thomas Bice wrote in a 10-page ruling dismissing the case.
Iowa does not have an anti-SLAPP law on the books, which discourages meritless libel or slander lawsuits oftentimes by making those who file suit pay attorney's fees if they lose the case. The legal victory was welcome, Burns said, but more than a year later, the paper has still not caught up financially.
In April, the paper switched to a twice-a-week publishing schedule rather than five, but with more online news. In its heyday, it published every day.
Last year, a study by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media found that more than 1,300 American communities completely lost their local news source, creating "news deserts," and that 20% of all metro area or community newspapers went out of business or merged since 2004.
Burns said he feels the Times Herald is far from approaching its end, but he created the GoFundMe because he felt he had to do everything he could to keep it healthy, so it could continue robust reporting.
"Small newspapers like ours, we're kind of the last vestige for collective or common truth, or trust," Burns said.
"Pretty much everything in our paper you're one or two degrees of separation away from personally, so you know it to be true because you were there — you were at the game, or you see an obituary and it's somebody you were connected to. … We own the paper, but in a very real sense, I've always looked at it like I'm a temporary steward of the paper. At the end of the day, it really belongs to the community."