‘I don’t pretend to be an experienced journalist in all the traditional ways’

A small weekly's approach to journalism toes the ethical line

The Niagara Falls Reporter is in the news again. The attention has dramatically increased the free weekly’s readership. It has also put a spotlight on publisher and editor in chief Frank Parlato’s unorthodox—perhaps even unethical—approach to journalism.

The 22,500-circulation paper (Niagara Falls, New York’s population is around 50,000) first attracted media attention in July, when Deadspin alerted readers to a column by Lenny Palumbo that contained anti-gay statements.

Now Parlato, a real-estate developer who purchased the paper from its founder in April, has come under fire after an email he wrote to the Reporter’s (now ex-)movie reviewer, Michael Calleri, was published in Roger Ebert’s “Our Far Flung Correspondents” blog on the Chicago Sun Times’s website.

Parlato wrote to Calleri that he didn’t “want to publish reviews of films where women are alpha and men are beta. where [sic, etc.] women are heroes and villains and men are just lesser versions or shadows of females. i believe in manliness … In short i don’t care to publish reviews of films that offend me.”

A statement like that is going to get people’s attention. That attention worked out well for Calleri: international exposure, a spot on CBS This Morning, plenty of plugs for his new movie-review column and radio show.

Parlato tells CJR that it’s done good things for his paper, too: He’s picked up new advertisers, new readers, and, “I’ll be darned if we’re not now getting all kinds of Internet readers. I never even paid any attention to Internet—we put it up just as a courtesy.” The hate mail has died down as well, Parlato says; it’s now “four or five to one” in support of his anti-Hollywood, anti-“degenerate power woman” stance.

“I don’t pretend to be an experienced journalist in all the traditional ways,” Parlato says.

This much is clear. He recently paid prostitutes and a drug dealer for interviews, transactions he detailed in two cover stories. Both articles lack context or details about any drug or crime problems in the area that might prompt such coverage. In the articles, we follow Parlato from the streets of Niagara into an apartment where a prostitute and her friends smoke crack and watch porn. We learn about a drug dealer’s “business model” (he buys the crack he later sells “already cooked” and makes enough per week to “take care of [his] weed habit,” pay rent, and keep a cellphone).

But Parlato’s unusual approach to journalism goes beyond payouts. The Niagara Falls Reporter frequently pads its pages with photos and content from other sites and publications, apparently without permission. Columns by Michelle Malkin and Charlie Daniels from Creators Syndicate and CNS News appear in the Reporter with no attribution to their original source. Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn’s annual report on wasteful government spending is frequently mined for content; sometimes Coburn’s name is spelled correctly, sometimes it isn’t. The original source of the material is never stated. Parlato says he “contributes” to CNS but doesn’t have an “official relationship” with the syndicate. CNS did not return calls; Creators would not tell CJR whether or not it had an agreement with Parlato or the Reporter.

In another article, five of the nine paragraphs were entirely lifted from a press release posted on Food and Water Watch four days earlier. Morgan Dunbar was originally given the byline for the Reporter’s article; her name was removed after Parlato was informed that the majority of the article’s content was not original. The article was not removed from the site.

And the Reporter frequently uses photos without permission or credit. In one recent story, Parlato visited a store whose owner advertises in the paper. Its manager, he writes, looks like Clark Kent, “a mild-mannered reporter alleged to have a hidden life as a super hero whose true identity was unknown, but occasionally suspected.” The resemblance to late actor Christopher Reeve was highlighted by paired photos. The photo of Reeve, from a movie still, is not credited to Warner Bros.

After consulting with “several” lawyers, Parlato told CJR that the photos, which he found “on the Internet,” constitute “fair use,” pointing out that sites such as Yahoo and Romenesko have used photos of Parlato that were “lifted” from his site (it should be noted that Yahoo credited the photo). “It seems strange to hold struggling print media to a higher standard than Yahoo,” Parlato says. “Maybe us print people have to, to some extent, take the gloves off and compete toe-to-toe with the Internet.” (Incidentally, several prominent sites have been sued for copyright infringement over the years for posting copyrighted photos: Buzzfeed, PerezHilton, and BleacherReport, to name a few. Just because a lot of websites use photos without paying the copyright holder for them or crediting the source doesn’t mean it’s not legally actionable.)

And Parlato continues to “lift” photos off the Internet, even using the fact that a picture was created by someone else as a defense in the Reporter’s current editorial, in response to accusations that the paper was making fun of children with Down syndrome in a photo published as “humor.”

“The Niagara Falls Reporter published a picture last week that was originally posted on an internet site,” Parlato wrote. “It was a mock KFC ad for their ‘Double Down’ sandwich. We did not create the image.”

But there is some good news: Parlato says he’s doubled the size of his paper since taking over in April, and it’s doing so well that he’s looking to hire three full-time investigative reporters. “Guys — or girls — with real intrepidity,” Parlato says. The additions will be welcome; the Reporter is at its best when it’s trying to do real investigative work. Before Parlato’s time, the Reporter was given a positive mention in the Darts & Laurels section of CJR’s January/February 2007 issue for its role in uncovering some shady ethics between Niagara Falls and the Reporter’s rival paper, Niagara Gazette.

If Fox News has taught us anything, there certainly is a place in journalism today for news presented from a specific point of view. People will watch it and read it; advertisers will pay for it. If Parlato’s brand of journalism is what his public wants, more power to him and his newspaper. It would be nice, though, if Parlato focused less on “publishing that which promotes traditional family values” and more on publishing that which promotes good journalistic ethics.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,