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The 'Marion County Record' that police raided has a history of hard-hitting reporting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this month, police in Kansas barged into the office of the Marion County Record. They grabbed computers, cellphones and reporting materials and raided a journalist's home. This type of assault is extremely uncommon in the U.S. It prompted an outcry over press freedom violations. And as NPR's Danielle Kaye reports, the small Kansas newspaper has a history of hard-hitting reporting.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Journalists at the Marion County Record have been dealing with the aftermath of the raid for more than a week now. They've been talking to their lawyer and doing nonstop interviews with national reporters, and that's pulled them away from what they'd typically be working on.

ERIC MEYER: The story we should be writing this week is not about us. The story we should be writing is about the budget of the city of Marion.

KAYE: That's Eric Meyer, the paper's publisher and owner. Meyer would rather be focusing on something unrelated to the raid - the city's recent budget proposal. He says city council hasn't discussed it. He's worried about how taxpayer dollars will be spent. And if the Record doesn't pay attention, nobody will. The weekly newspaper, with a print circulation of about 4,000, is the only publication covering Marion, a rural community in south central Kansas. Marion Police justified their raid by citing suspected identity theft when a reporter got hold of a local restaurant owner's driving record. Meyer and the paper's attorney say they didn't do anything illegal. They argued reporters were just doing their job by verifying information on a public state website.

MEYER: We're controversial, but we're controversial in the same sense that any news organization that does more than sit there and just write what was told to them by somebody else is controversial.

KAYE: Myer's family bought the paper in 1998. His father had been working there since the 1940s - his mother, Joan Meyer, since the '60s. She died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 98 just one day after police raided her house. Meyer thinks the stress of the intrusion contributed to her death. The paper was part of their family history.

MEYER: We have very strong belief that local news organizations work if they are run by and for local people.

KAYE: Over the years, the Record has carried out lots of investigations, like when they exposed Marion's city administrator for allowing contaminated reservoir water to be used as drinking water or, more recently, when they followed up on tips about the new police chief's background. It's that type of accountability reporting that's upset some local officials and readers. But Whitney Douglas, a Marion County resident, says she's bothered by the police raid on the paper.

WHITNEY DOUGLAS: If the police get to control what information we are allowed to know about, then where does that take us as a culture?

KAYE: Kansas still has a robust network of newspapers, according to Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. But the Record, she says, is an outlier in terms of the size of its staff and its investigative focus. It has five full-time staffers and seven part-timers.

EMILY BRADBURY: So I think it is just a culture of investigative pieces and two generations of how they approach stories.

KAYE: Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, says papers like the Record play a vital role in their communities.

PENNY MUSE ABERNATHY: For 200 years, we have relied on a network of thousands of small newspapers, just like the Marion paper, to both hold local officials accountable and also to provide transparency around government actions.

KAYE: The Marion County Record is getting its equipment back - all the computers, phones and documents seized by police. The paper is having a forensic examiner look through the confiscated devices this week to see if they were illegally accessed while in police custody. The Record's attorney also says he's prepared to sue the city if officials don't agree to compensate the paper for damages from the raid.

Danielle Kaye, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And member station KMUW's Rose Conlon contributed to this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.