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Water district orders PR consultant to halt use of News Hawks site

Central Basin officials tell publicity consultant to stop using website after Google News removed it from its search index.

November 12, 2011|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Central Basin Water District members attend a meeting in Commerce earlier this year.
Central Basin Water District members attend a meeting in Commerce earlier… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Central Basin Municipal Water District officials said they were unaware of questions over the authorship of stories written about the agency by a news website and have instructed their public relations consultant to stop using the site.

The Times reported this week that it could not verify the biographical information of many staff writers at News Hawks Review, which published more than 30 articles about the water district over the last year. The Times found that photos purporting to be of some News Hawks writers were available on other websites as stock images.

The district, which serves more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County, became aware only recently that some of the reporters listed on the site were "fictional," spokeswoman Valerie Howard said Thursday.

"This website, and the bylines and the people who wrote for it, we didn't know anything about it," Howard said. "As far as we knew, these were real writers."

News Hawks' coverage of Central Basin began after the district hired public relations consultant Ed Coghlan last year. Under the deal, the district agreed to pay Coghlan's firm in exchange for services that included producing positive stories and placing them as news articles on Google News.

After The Times first reported about the website in September, Google News removed News Hawks from its search index. It was at that point that the district instructed Coghlan to no longer use the website, Howard said.

Central Basin officials found out about the bylines from Coghlan later, she said, adding that the district would have stopped using News Hawks had it known about the issue.

Most of the articles about Central Basin appeared under the byline of Mike Adams, whom News Hawks claimed was a former magazine writer and TV veteran with a degree in construction sciences from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

But The Times could not confirm Adams' background in journalism and Westminster's Registrar said the school has never offered a degree in construction sciences.

A photo of Adams on News Hawks — showing a stoic man with a black cowboy hat — turned out to be a popular stock image used to demonstrate editing techniques online. Photographer Leroy Skalstad said he took the shot at a Milwaukee food bank last year and posted it to several photo-sharing websites. The subject, he said, is a man nicknamed "Cobra."

After the newspaper inquired about Adams, his name and image were removed from the website. The names of other reporters and editors previously listed on the site have also been taken down, including Editor in Chief Ruth Gramma and reporters Hannah Grimm, Charles Lindy and Kara Degete.

Howard said Thursday that she and other Central Basin officials gave interviews and information to Coghlan and viewed drafts of stories, which were then sent to the website.

"It was our understanding that the writers would get the byline, and edit it to make it more newsworthy," she said. "It was only very recently that we were made aware that the bylines were fictional."

She added that Coghlan was still under contract with the water district but is now focusing on the district's own blog.

The water district's board has approved $172,500 in payments to Coghlan as well as a 10% contingency fee. The district said it had paid Coghlan $70,000 as of Sept. 14.

Coghlan, who was listed as a reporter for News Hawks, did not respond to a request for comment.

Howard also reiterated that Central Basin originally used Coghlan to try to combat what she described as misinformation being published online about the district by another local water agency, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

sam.allen@latimes.com

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