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DIGGING DEEPER: Buying the news

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) – A social media site frequently cited and shared by local officials is funded, in part, by the same government agencies that are distributing the articles as evidence of successful public projects.

“Input Fort Wayne” was launched recently as an extension of the series of such sites owned by Issue Media Group. The sites — by names such as “Flintside,” in Flint, Mich., and “83 Degrees,” in Tampa, Fla. — provide an abundance of positively oriented articles about the local community. Public and private enterprises are touted — often in glowing terms; business leaders are spotlighted; and local events get a publicity boost.

ABC21 went Digging Deeper to ask about the relationship between local government and the site that heralds its people and projects.

That relationship includes contracts with the City of Fort Wayne and Allen County — both of which contribute funds directly to the site and whose representatives help craft the stories that appear there. Kara Hackett, the Managing Editor of “Input Fort Wayne,” says she views the online publication as a “magazine.”

“We’re a news organization that is made to talk about, you know, the good things happening in the city,” she said. And that mission caught the interest of local leaders who want to get exactly that kind of message into the community.

The contracts reviewed by ABC21 show the City and County each contribute $6,000 per year directly to Input Fort Wayne. In return, they are allowed to join editorial meetings and to help “shape stories.” City Councilman Jason Arp was unaware of the arrangement until he was contacted by ABC21. “It’s pretty troubling,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of… have you ever heard of Pravda? That was kind of the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. “It’s like government paid-for propaganda. You’re not going to get both sides of the story in something like this. It’s paid advertising more or less, and it’s disguising itself as news.” The government entities are far from the only source of revenue for Input Fort Wayne. In fact, they contribute only a fraction of the overall budget, with far more money coming from private companies, non-profits and arts and commerce associations.

But that relationship is a key reason the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists is concerned about how the site is viewed by the public. “More information out there is not a bad thing. What can be dangerous though, is when that information is being put off as an unbiased opinion when in reality there is an agenda behind it,”

Lynn Walsh said. Hackett — the managing Editor — said “Input Fort Wayne” makes the arrangement clear. She disputes the notion that the site simply passes along press releases, and told ABC21 her staff does its own reporting. “I feel like we’re pretty upfront about what we’re doing,” she said. Scroll to the bottom of the site and you’ll find a montage of logos representing supporters — though no explanation of the financial contributions or how they shape the content. Also, while the County logo shows up with consistency, the City logo appears only periodically — sometimes after numerous “refreshes” of the page.

ABC21 asked several local residents to look at the site. None realized that taxpayer dollars were going toward the enterprise in exchange for that “seat at the table.”

Input Fort Wayne is frequently sourced by the City and by local organizations with interest in specific areas and topics.

“Well, I mean I see (the logos) there, but how many people are going to scroll all the way down to look at that?” one of them asked, rhetorically.

“The article I read seemed like a news website,” shared another. “I would have never put that together — that it was, like, sponsored.” City of Fort Wayne spokesman John Perlich said his office is not aware of any calls or e-mails expressing concern.

“When there are hot button issues in the community, believe me, we hear that,” he said. When asked if it was fair to expect complaints when the public may not even be aware of the arrangement, Perlich noted, “the Input Fort Wayne website is available to anyone that wants to access it.”

Articles on the site in recent months have included a positive take on projects such as the redevelopment of “The Landing,” the Riverfront project and the much-debated “Electric Works” campus. Other topics include trails and efforts to make parts of the City more handicap-accessible.

A Feb. 27, 2019, tweet by Mayor Tom Henry directs readers to an Input Fort Wayne article about Henry’s use of social media.

Perlich said Mayor Tom Henry is aware of the contract. His social media accounts are among those that have shared Input Fort Wayne’s articles on projects he has supported. Perlich acknowledged that city leaders “share ideas” with Input Fort Wayne, but insisted that “at no time do we say ‘you have to cover this story or that story. That’s the decision of Input Fort Wayne.”

But these records obtained by WPTA suggest at least a perception that government funding sways what stories Input Fort Wayne ultimately publishes. An internal memo from the Allen County Public Library shows management wasn’t worried about coverage from Input Fort Wayne on its controversial book-weeding.

The memo says, in part, “Input Fort Wayne has also done interviews, submitted follow-up questions and sent a photographer for a story on weeding. However, as of this time no story has been posted. Based on the blog’s purpose and funding sources (including Greater Fort Wayne Inc, City of Fort Wayne, Allen County, Northeast IN Regional Partnership, Visit Fort Wayne and Downtown Improvement District), there is a good chance the story will not run.” Asked if he believed the process was transparent, he answered: “I don’t know what your definition of transparency is.”

While the City’s contribution to Input Fort Wayne’s bottom line amounts to only 2 percent of the site’s revenue stream, it’s not entirely clear how much public money actually goes toward the site. Allen County has the same arrangement, but other public support is less direct. Some of the organizations that also sponsor the page receive some of their funding from public sources.

Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters and Council President Tom Harris have agreed to discuss the County’s relationship with Input Fort Wayne with ABC21. We will have their perspectives on the arrangement in a follow-up report. In addition to speaking with ABC21 for this report, “Input Fort Wayne” provided the following statement:

“Input Fort Wayne is a community-led media effort funded by a broad coalition of sponsors listed on its website. It is editorially independent, and its writers do all original interviews and reporting for the articles it publishes. Its parent company, Issue Media Group, has received grants, recognition, and awards from the Knight Foundation, the Solutions Journalism Network, Michigan Press Association, Ground Source, and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.”

Alexis Shear and Jonathan Shelley Contributed to this report.

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