It must have come as a shock to readers of The Herald-Sun last Friday to hear that mayoral candidate Vincent Brown was dropping out of the race.
Five days earlier, on Sunday, Sept. 25, The News & Observer revealed an extensive criminal record that contradicted Brown's own statements about his past. There was a felony conviction for forgery, five months spent in state prison, and guilty pleas to 46 misdemeanor charges. Brown denied it all, claiming mistaken identity, though names, current and past addresses and two birthdates he's used all matched. A Durham prosecutor identified a photo of him as the man charged with a felony count of promoting the prostitution of a minor. The alleged victim later said she didn't want to testify, and the charges were dropped.
The story got hotter the following Tuesday, when The N&O reported additional revelations of sour business deals and open warrants for Brown's arrest in other North Carolina counties. By then, Brown's most powerful political supporters, former Durham NAACP head Joe Bowser and members of the county Republican Party, had publicly withdrawn their support. Also that day, The N&O ran an editorial concluding, "Brown does not belong anywhere near elective office."
Still, the pages of The Herald-Sun, which holds itself out as Durham's hometown daily, mentioned nothing about the revelations. On Wednesday, the paper's coverage of a Tuesday night candidate forum mentioned Brown in passing, explaining his absence with the following: "Recent published reports have detailed Brown's apparently lengthy criminal record, claims he denied in the reports."
The N&O's coverage of that forum, meanwhile, featured a lead sentence that defenders of Durham's reputation could only shake their heads at: "Of the 17 candidates on the primary ballot for mayor and City Council in Durham, at least eight have been convicted of criminal charges." N&O reporter Michael Biesecker, who broke the original story, found that at least six other candidates at the forum had lied about the extent of their criminal records.
Since Kentucky-based Paxton Media took over ownership of The Herald-Sun in January, its advertising slogan has been "more local news." Cuts in the newsroom--and across the board--were accompanied by a stated emphasis in local coverage. Meanwhile, The N&O's parent company, California-based McClatchy, went after Durham readers aggressively by expanding its Durham office to create a weekly, 70,000-circulation home-delivered publication, The Durham News.
Every newspaper must face the question sometime: How do you handle a scoop by a competitor? In some cases, you can ignore it; in others, you pick it up and attribute the information to its original source. Or you can independently verify the story and run with it. If the readers need to know, you find a way to tell them. It took The Herald-Sun five days to fill their readers in.
Why so long?
"We were treating that and Brown as sort of a quixotic candidacy in a race that wasn't really very competitive," says Herald-Sun editor Bob Ashley, "and frankly we weren't giving that much attention or resources to it. The News & Observer made a different choice, and I give them credit. They did a great story."
Brown's criminal record is extensive, spanning 15 years and many counties, though he says it's a case of mistaken identity. The N&O also investigated his academic record, finding that he was never a student at N.C. A&T University as he claimed.
That's probably why The Herald-Sun wasn't the only local media outlet slow on the uptake. WRAL ran a story on its Web site Wednesday evening that listed the criminal records of six Durham candidates. It followed up with a Thursday afternoon story on Brown dropping out. NBC17 covered Brown's withdrawal from the race Thursday evening. Even the Associated Press waited until Friday.
"We were going to catch up on it," Ashley says, "but as we were looking for some new ground, Brown resigned. In fact we probably would have run something that Friday even if he hadn't dropped out. But his dropping out of the race basically overtook and somewhat mooted our reporting."
Managing Editor Bill Stagg says The Herald-Sun does routine criminal background checks on candidates, but their check on Brown "did not turn up several key elements of what The N&O's turned up."
Once that information came out in The N&O stories, "We really felt like we had to re-report it, verify it, that we needed to do our own original checking into the same records," Ashley says.
Though Brown's officially out of the race, his signs are still all over town promising "A New Beginning." As of Tuesday afternoon, he was still listed in the Votebook section of The H-S Web site. Any votes cast for him in the Oct. 11 primary will not count.