Thursday, May 21, 2015

Port of Olympia and ThurstonTalk: When “Journalism” Isn’t What It Seems

Little Hollywood Investigation Reveals Paid Contract

By Janine Unsoeld
When the Port of Olympia put out an article on May 5 by Kate Scriven for ThurstonTalk called, “Port of Olympia: Snapshot of Current Projects, Recent Changes, Plans for Future,” via the Port’s list serv, I read it. The public and the media are invited to subscribe to this list serv in order to keep up on Port activities.
The article was an interview with Port of Olympia executive director Ed Galligan and read like a one-sided industry puff piece, so I discredited it, but then, I became curious.
The next day, I wrote an email to Port staff and commissioners:
“I think it is very strange that the Port of Olympia would select this story written by a blog called ThurstonTalk to send out to those who have signed up to receive Port related information. My blog, Little Hollywood, has written many timely, well researched Port related stories worthy of sending out via this list. I am wondering how you determined that this story was more worthy for broader public dissemination than any of mine. What is your policy for selecting articles?”
Kathleen White, communications director for the Port, was prompted to respond to my inquiry on May 15 when Port Commissioner Bill McGregor sent me an email on May 14 wondering if I had received a response and what the answer was to my inquiry.
White’s answer revealed that the ThurstonTalk article was not just one-sided journalism, but was, in fact, a paid piece of marketing disguised as journalism, the product of a Port-ThurstonTalk contract signed on March 5.
“….In an effort to reach a broad local audience, the Port at its discretion chose to contract with ThurstonTalk for the writing and publishing of a select number of articles about the Port which can then be forwarded to the Port's email list,” White wrote Little Hollywood in an email May 15.
I immediately expressed confusion and responded that I was not aware of ThurstonTalk’s business model:
“…I heard that they pay their writers. That's all I know…. It sounds like they are a public relations firm that the Port contracted with to promote the Port, but it's made to look like independent journalism.  So, how much is the Port paying ThurstonTalk for this contract and what are the terms of that contract? I would also like to know what articles the Port is paying to be produced. Was the one sent out by Ed Galligan the first one? As you can imagine, I am very alarmed and disappointed that the Port wasn't more transparent about this when it sent out the article. Future articles from ThurstonTalk should contain a clear disclaimer, something like, “The following message from the Port of Olympia is a paid advertisement,” I wrote.
White responded that ThurstonTalk was hired by the Port of Olympia to produce four such “articles.” The article sent out May 5 as a “Message from Executive Director Ed Galligan” was the first article.
“Thank you for drawing the Port's attention to the need for a disclaimer on the article written and published by ThurstonTalk. Should the Port send out any future such articles, the Port will indicate that the article was paid for by the Port of Olympia,” wrote White.
White said that in 2015, the Port will pay $1200 per year for publication of all its news releases and $600 for the writing and publication of four articles about the Port, for a total of $1800. White said that the topics for the other three have not yet been determined. 
The Port's contract was signed on March 5 by White and Martin McElliott of ThurstonTalk.
According to its website, ThurstonTalk calls itself an “information source” serving the Thurston County community and was launched on January 1, 2011.
It says, “A vibrant community needs an information source that has the ability to interact with community members through multiple tools, while adding a meaningful advertising platform for local businesses.”
Asked to comment on its business model and how a discerning reader could know which articles are paid for, McElliott responded, “All of our writers are contractors.  Not all of our content is paid for by our sponsors.  Generally the articles that have a business logo attached are sponsored.  We write positive feel good stories and showcase why we all live work and play where we do,” said McElliott in an email today.
The Port-ThurstonTalk contract says that their package includes all news releases by the Port, but when asked today after the Port’s work session, White said she wrote the May 20 press release about Olympia Beekeepers Association members installing hives in an Olympia Airport field that will be full of flowering blackberries this summer, and was not related to the ThurstonTalk contract.
According to the contract, ThurstonTalk features a variety of marketing and content packages ranging in monthly prices for articles from $150 to $3,100. For example, customer driven articles cost $500 per article, or $900 for six short posts. An event focused article is $450 per article.
Eight Port of Olympia Candidates To Be Interviewed For Commissioner Position
At today’s work session, Commissioners Barner and McGregor agreed to interview all eight candidates for the open commissioner position on June 1 and June 2 between 1 – 5 p.m. at Tumwater Town Center, 7241 Cleanwater Drive SW, Tumwater.  Each interview will last about 40 minutes.
One candidate, Bill Wells, asked the Port to withdraw his name from consideration.
Port commissioners George Barner and Bill McGregor are expected to reach a decision by June 10, but have until June 30 to do so.
Full Disclosure: Janine Unsoeld does not write any article for her blog, Little Hollywood, in exchange for payment. A small sidebar on her blog asks for donations if folks appreciate independent journalism and like what they are reading. Janine works fulltime as a caregiver for seniors and while she appreciates the donations she receives, it is safe to say that she writes what she is able to as a community service.
Janine is also under contract to write a book, “Legendary Locals of Olympia and South Puget Sound,” through Arcadia Publishing/History Press. The publishing company found her through her blog and felt she was qualified. No money will be exchanged as a result of this contract until actual books are sold. Due to the ridiculously low royalties one receives from writing, unless you are someone like a certain Ms. Rowling, it can safely be said that both this blog and the book project are labors of love.


  1. I'm upset that the Port is paying the ThurstonTalk blog to write puff pieces about itself, especially since the Olympian does it for free! Good job on this story, Janine. You obviously understand the meaning of journalistic ethics.

  2. Thanks Janine. Makes me suspicious of anything from Thurstontalk. I was already completely suspicious of the port. Nothing they do is surprising, unfortunately.