the news frontier

Orlando Startup Covers the Trayvon Martin Story

When the national news is local
April 3, 2012

West Orlando News Online in Orange County, Florida, has, like many outlets, devoted considerable resources to covering the story of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who says he shot in self-defense after an altercation in their gated community in Sanford, Florida. Keith Longmore, the founder of West Orlando News, has half of his full time staff (two out of four) devoted to the story.

Longmore is an African American running a liberal outlet—in Florida, no less—and he feels that his site’s perspective is one that’s especially lacking in this region. “The media here in Central Florida, there’s always a kind of anti-black tilt to it,” says Longmore. “We think we’re a very important alternative to media in the area.”

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Longmore moved to Florida in 2004 for a job overseeing print sales for Tama Broadcasting, a national African American media chain. He saw a need for hyperlocal news in the Orlando area, and started West Orlando News in 2005, at first as a weekly newspaper. But as the business model for print became harder to sustain, Longmore focused in on web content, and went exclusively digital in 2009. The site covers a wide array of local topics, from Orlando’s schools to reviews of cultural events in the area. The site is also dedicated to covering local politics, and has featured interviews with government officials, as well as analysis of policy and budgetary decisions.

The site is unabashedly liberal, a fact about which Longmore is unapologetic. “We’re not big believers in objective journalism, outside of weather and sports,” says Longmore. ‘”Everyone has a spin or a tilt. At least we’re straightforward about it.” The site has taken a clear stance on the Martin case. Recent headlines include Civil Right Groups, Pastors: Suspend Zimmerman’s Weapons Permit Now, Lawmaker Urges Scott to Speed Up Review of ‘Shoot To Kill’ Law, Sen. Siplin says Sanford Must Break its Plantation Culture and An Open Letter to George Zimmerman.

For Longmore, the mainstream media’s coverage of the Martin case has verged on irresponsible. Longmore specifically objects to the insinuation that Martin instigated the shooting. “[Media coverage has] all been about this poor Zimmerman, being beaten by a 17 year old kid,” says Longmore. From the media’s focus on the marijuana found on Martin and his subsequent suspension from school, to the reports that Martin hit Zimmerman first, Longmore feels the coverage skirts the reality of this situation. “What they fail to mention is that this kid was reacting to Zimmerman, he initiated it. That’s always subtly left out,” says Longmore.

He refers to the Lawrence O’Donnell interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Rene Stutzman, (for more on that read here), and charges Stutzman with reporting Zimmerman’s account, leaked from law enforcement, as facts. “It really revealed the true right-wing, extreme mentality of the Orlando Sentinel,” says Longmore. While, to an outsider’s eye, the Sentinel’s coverage of the case doesn’t seem particularly right-wing, Longmore’s disapproval seems rooted in a broader frustration with the mainstream media’s poor coverage of minority communities in general.

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“The African American community, which is about 37 percent of the population, left the mainstream media a long time ago,” says Longmore. “It’s not that we target a specific group, although maybe we should.”

Like other media in the area, the site’s coverage of the case has dovetailed with the release of police information. The site’s first piece on the shooting appeared on February 29th, three days after Martin was killed. Longmore explains the delay: “Sanford Police Department first alerted on the shooting on February 26th. There were no names of the victim or shooter. On February 27th, Sanford PD sent the names and ages and described Martin as a black male and Zimmerman as a white male. We wrote back on Feb 27, asking the police, ‘Has George Zimmerman been charged yet? And if so, has he been booked?’” By February 29th, the police responded to Longmore’s requests with this: “He has not been charged with a crime as the investigation continues”; it was then that West Orlando News Online began its coverage. A week went by before the site posted its next update, on March 8th.

Gillian Nanton, senior editor at West Orlando News Online, says being a smaller outlet can be a challenge for access. “It’s problematic when the town and police department tend to defer to the big networks, like ABC and The New York Times. These large networks have had the best access and been given priority,” writes Nanton over e-mail. “Of course, it’s a small police department and they are overwhelmed. We do not detect any intentional blockage.”

“We have had to prioritize in terms of briefings, conferences, marches and rallies that have been covered,” writes Nanton. “We have stuck to covering the larger events and more significant briefings.” She adds that “the story has dominated locally, since it gained a life of its own, and has overshadowed local government elections.”

As the Martin case continues to unfold, Longmore says they will continue their coverage, though “at this point it’s dribbles and drabbles of information,” says Longmore. “At the end of the day, we’re waiting to hear what the grand jury is going to do.”

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.