Covering the news, no matter what

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Oct 1, 2023

Last year, the North Carolina Press Association awarded Tom Boney the Henry Lee Weathers Freedom of Information Award for his tough watchdog coverage. He also received the NNA First Amendment Award in 2021.  (The Alamance News)

Despite arrests and police raids, watchdog newspapers keep on watching

When local police raided The Marion County Record last summer after a local restaurant owner accused its reporter of gathering information about her illegally, the raid extended into the private home of the newspaper’s 98-year-old matriarch, who died the day after.

While obtaining search warrants, raiding newspaper offices and seizing equipment is an extreme measure, newspaper publishers and editors have traditionally faced retaliation from public officials and law enforcement for their reporting.

The length of North Carolina publisher Tom Boney Jr.’s rap sheet could very well rival that of a far more hardened criminal. He’s been arrested so many times for standing his ground in public board rooms and courtrooms that he stops to think and counts them out loud when asked to recite a list.

“The most recent one was when I was ordered out of a courtroom in December of 2020, when we were trying to cover a court case,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “I tried to explain to the judge why I was entitled to be there, and instead of allowing me to stay, he instructed the bailiffs to hold me in contempt and take me to jail.”

Boney, who owns and publishes The Alamance News in Graham, North Carolina, added that the deputies showed no kindness when they roughly handcuffed him. But in the end, he was spared his time behind bars when the judge rescinded his arrest order and simply kicked him out of the courthouse.

He’s able to chuckle about it now and recalled trying to explain to the judge that the North Carolina Constitution includes one simple sentence that’s easy to memorize, and it states, “All courts shall be open.”

The judge replied that his courtroom was not, in fact, closed, Boney said.

“He pointed around to other people sitting in the courtroom and said, ‘it’s just closed to you,’” Boney said.

Standing up for the public’s right to know is in Boney’s DNA. He took over the reins at The Alamance News almost 34 years ago. His father, Tom Boney Sr., was legendary for his zealous adherence to North Carolina’s FOI laws and knew his way around the inside of a jailhouse.

In 2021, Boney and The Alamance News won the NNA First Amendment Award for its local government coverage.

“We won the award for a series of five editorials against various local bodies who were trying to do sneaky things, and we called them on the carpet about it,” he said.

As many times as Boney has been arrested, handcuffed and even sued in a SLAPP suit, he says his treatment pales in comparison with what Marion County publisher Eric Meyer went through when the police raided his newspaper and his mother’s house.

“What happened out there is just outrageous,” Boney said. “Issuing a search warrant goes beyond the pale, and I’m trying to figure how this could happen in our country.”

Al Cross, the retiring director of the Rural Institute for Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, has written extensively about The Marion County Record’s experience.

“In this case, the newspaper was already investigating the police chief who knew he was being investigated,” Cross said. “There was already an adversarial relationship.”

The animosity bubbled over when a reporter at the newspaper began following up on a tip that a local restaurant owner drove without a valid license after receiving a citation for driving under the influence in 2008. The record came to light when the restaurant owner applied for a liquor license, and she believed a reporter at newspaper had obtained that information illegally.

“What worries me is that other publishers might look at this and either create a more adversarial relationship with their own local police or go the other way and work with them hand in hand,” Cross said in a phone interview.

“Neither of those approaches is good,” Cross added. “The key here is for each entity to understand the institutional role it plays.”

Cross says newspapers must be independent, existing to do their business, and he adds police need to understand that the constitutional role of the newspaper is to hold them accountable, and the more transparent they are, the better they are going to look.


The Marion County Record incident is a reflection of the wave of public mistrust of the media across the country, Cross says. And several factors contribute, including former President Donald Trump’s declarations of “fake news” and “the media are the enemy of the people.”

He also cites the rise of social media, which tends to blur the lines between fact and opinion, and the newspaper landscape itself, where chain ownership has led some towns to have “ghost newspapers” without a local editor or publisher.

“A recent survey in Oklahoma, which included 352 interviews with people in seven counties, found that it is rare for people to subscribe to newspapers,” Cross said. “And the survey also found that readers had more trust in their local newspaper when a local person is in charge of it.”

In Alamance County, North Carolina, Boney has found himself in a unique position — The Alamance News is on the rise.

“We’ve been fighting a sort of generic battle based on the impression that nobody’s reading newspapers anymore and the industry is in decline,” Boney said. “And yet, in our case, we have a growing readership both in print and online.”

He credits his dogged coverage of courts and local government, as well as his growing status as the go-to newspaper in his county.

For one thing, The Alamance News has just recently started covering high school sports after generations of relegating that role to the local daily in favor of pouring resources into watchdog coverage. Due to public demand, Boney hired a reporter and added sports pages to his newspaper. The coverage has been a hit.

“I never would have thought sports would have been this significant in The Alamance News,” Boney said.


Cross says newspapers like The Alamance News and The Marion County Record do a great job of demonstrating their value, despite the price their publishers sometimes pay.

“Newspapers cannot hunker down in fear,” Cross said. “They need to stand up for the principles of watchdog reporting and local commentary; otherwise, people will eventually see they have no real value.”

As for Meyer and the Marion County Record, Boney advises them to continue zealously covering law enforcement and local government, because mending fences and creating a working relationship with them is not the answer.

“Frankly, I would not be worried one iota about creating a decent working relationship in this kind of situation,” he said. “I’d file every kind of public records request I could think of to unearth all sorts of issues, and I’d go to every city council meeting and watch carefully everything that happens.”

Boney loves to quote his father and vows to write a book someday titled My Daddy Used to Say.

“One of his sayings that has been relevant recently is ‘if you stay in this business long enough, you’ll see things come full circle,’” he said.

In Alamance County, he’s noticed two or three former school board members who have become regular citizens are now curious to know what’s happening behind closed doors at the school board meetings they used to attend.

“We’re just as diligent now as we were when they were on the board, and it has been interesting to note that some people who were not friendly toward the newspaper when they were on the board are now counting on us to find out for them what’s going on with the current board,” he said.

Boney laughs when he’s asked if he thinks those members have learned a lesson and would be more open if they were elected back to the school board.

“No, I’m afraid they’d revert back to their old practices,” he said. “When they are not on elected boards, they count on us to keep the public informed, but I’m afraid when they’re back on the inside, there’s not as much concern for the public.”

After three decades of publishing The Alamance News and watching his father publish it before him, Boney is convinced public officials will do what whatever they want, believing they are being clever and not thinking that their actions might be wrong or even illegal.

But with his paper on the rise, local officials in his community are on notice that he’s there for the long haul to keep an eye on the public’s business.

“Let’s put it this way — as diligent as we are at being watchdogs, and as much mischief that still goes on while we’re being a watchdog, I cannot imagine how much worse it would be if we weren’t here to be a watchdog,” he said.

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Reach her at