Reporter aided start of Paso activist group

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comApril 11, 2012 

A reporter for an online news organization who covered much of the Paso Robles police chief scandal was associated with the formation of a Paso Robles citizen watchdog group that he has covered and that was created in the wake of the controversy.

CalCoastNews.com Senior Correspondent Dan Blackburn bought and registered the domain name for Change Paso Robles Now’s website, www.cprn2012.org.

Blackburn, who said he does not believe his action was ethically questionable, said Wednesday that he donated the domain name to Change Paso as a concerned citizen. He then wrote a story about the group without disclosing his connection.

CalCoastNews also appears as the registrant’s organization — something Blackburn said was a mistake because his personal business, Central Coast News Agency, should have appeared instead.

CalCoastNews co-founder and reporter Karen Velie said Wednesday, “I can assure you that CalCoastNews did not buy that (the domain name). Reporters obviously shouldn’t be involved in activism groups they’re reporting on.”

Velie said CalCoastNews does not support the citizens group and that she wasn’t aware Blackburn had donated the domain. Still, she said: “Our professional confidence in Blackburn remains unshaken.”

Blackburn said his affiliation with the group ended with the donation. Group organizers say he is not part of their meetings, planning or decision-making.

“There’s been no effort to hide anything,” Blackburn said. “I heard about the group starting and I offered up this (website domain). And it was just that simple — no plot or conspiracy. I didn’t see it as (a conflict) because I’m a reporter but I’m also a citizen of Paso Robles.”

Change Paso Robles Now announced its formation last month and seeks transparency in local government by obtaining public records and questioning city officials.

Among its concerns: years of budget cuts resulting in city streets in disrepair and a smaller police force, as well as a controversial $250,000 payout to former police Chief Lisa Solomon last month and a San Luis Obispo County civil grand jury report criticizing $1.6 million in unpaid vacation time.

Organizers said they’re also upset because Solomon was not placed on administrative leave amid accusations she sexually harassed a former officer and while a lawsuit alleging illegal ticket quotas was filed.

The findings of an investigation into the allegations were never released.

All of these issues angered some taxpayers, including the group’s co-chairs, Paso Robles residents Karen Daniels and Sally Reynolds.

Blackburn said the mistake of listing CalCoastNews.com as the registrant’s organization instead of Central Coast News Agency likely resulted from an original account he held with the website that sold him the domain names he collects as a hobby.

Velie and Blackburn co-founded UncoveredSlo.com several years ago, which ultimately became CalCoastNews.com.

About two years ago, the pair severed their partnership, and Blackburn left the news organization until recently, when he was brought back to cover news stories, Velie said.

Blackburn said he had first heard about the citizens group forming from Daniels — he couldn’t recall when — after doing a story about how she was frustrated with the city’s smaller police force and alleged drug trafficking occurring outside her office.

Blackburn said he created a domain called www.cprn2012.org on March 6 because he liked the “CPR” part of the name, as it’s associated with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and he collects domain names for his Central Coast News Agency. He did not say what he intended the full domain name to stand for at the time he created it.

The citizens group also liked the phrase, Daniels said, and added a heart EKG line to its logo.

It is unclear if the group had chosen a name before or after receiving the domain.

“He said he had a domain name we could use — and we could use it as a donation from a citizen,” Daniels said. “It’s the same thing as him writing us a check for $10. There’s no impropriety. Everything is above board.”

Reynolds became involved a few weeks after Daniels began organizing the group.

Reynolds was in the early stages of forming a group called We The Residents last month when Daniels contacted her about her own group, which had formed about five weeks earlier. The like-minded neighbors quickly teamed up.

“Our organization is not about a me or a you or driven by anyone singularly,” Daniels added, noting that the group is only about bringing information to the citizens of Paso Robles.

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty representative in ethics for Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., said it’s “not a huge conflict” for a reporter to donate a website to a citizens group that’s journalistic in nature.

“But the timing of it is suspect — if he had bought it years ago, that would be one thing, but that he just bought it and lo and behold this organization had just wanted it is a little questionable,” she said. “As a journalist, you always try to be super, super transparent.”

“He did have an alternative,” McBride said of Blackburn’s situation. “He could have vacated the domain name and let them buy it. That would have been the easiest way to avoid any conflict.”

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