June 18, 2024

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A newspaper vanished from the internet. Did someone pay to kill it?

9 min read


One day in early June, a swath of Charlottesville’s history all but vanished from the internet.

Thousands of stories reported by the Hook — a defunct local paper whose online archives nevertheless had continued to inform historians, residents and public officials — disappeared. Anyone trying to read old stories about the university town’s sagas, scandals and sundry crimes was greeted by the same error message: “Sorry!”

In many ways, the erasure of the alternative weekly, whose print and online journalism included matters such as nightlife listings as well as deep investigative work, isn’t unusual. Historians have long warned about the decay of digital news archives, which are increasingly falling victim to mishandling, indifference, bankruptcies and technical failures.

But some of the Hook’s founding journalists suspect the archive didn’t simply expire from natural causes. They think someone paid to kill it.

Their evidence, while circumstantial, is intriguing. There’s the mystery buyer who purchased the Hook archive from its longtime custodian a few months before it went dark. There’s the reluctance of people involved in that sale to say much about it.

Then there’s the flurry of copyright complaints apparently filed by the new owner in the days and weeks after the sale. These complaints, seeking removal of links to the archive, have targeted news sites, discussion forums and small-time blogs, most of which cited one particular story among the thousands the Hook wrote about in its heyday: a rape accusation involving students at the University of Virginia nearly 19 years ago.

Despite the promise of the internet age for preserving published information, digital archives often disappear. The breakdowns and takedowns have obliterated the work of small newspapers, magazines, blogs, zines and other troves of information. Even some Supreme Court opinions have deteriorated from “link rot,” with hyperlinks in the justices’ citations now taking readers to dead pages.

The collective loss, in cultural and historical terms, is literally incalculable. “We really don’t find out what’s missing until someone goes looking for something and finds out it’s not there,” said Deborah Thomas, a preservationist who oversees the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America,” a digital gateway to thousands of newspapers dating to the 1770s. “Sometimes that [discovery] takes years, sometimes decades.”

Archives, Thomas notes, are repositories of “our intellectual output. Whether it’s written or on film or audio or online, it’s how we mark our history.”

The Hook’s founder, Hawes Spencer, rues the sudden demise of his old paper’s historical record. But after months of investigation with his former newsroom colleagues, he is convinced that the archive’s erasure wasn’t an accident.

“My fear is that it’s a catch and kill,” he said, referring to the practice — infamously used by the National Enquirer to bury stories about Donald Trump — of buying exclusive rights to information to keep it hidden from the public.

Spencer launched the Hook in 2002, scraping together the seed money with the help of friends. Produced in a small office overlooking Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, the weekly paper was a model of hard-hitting local journalism. It wrote about grisly homicides, corrupt land deals and environmental issues in the Shenandoah Valley. Three times in just a decade, it won the Virginia Press Association’s top honor, the prize for “journalistic integrity and community service.”

And repeatedly, the Hook’s spotlight fell on one of the most powerful institutions in Charlottesville: the University of Virginia. Among its many accountability stories about the school, the newspaper occasionally covered sexual assault allegations at U-Va., including some that never led to punishment.

“We were complete civic nuisances,” said David McNair, one of the paper’s early reporters.

Another former Hook reporter, Courteney Stuart, recalled a similar sensibility. “In 12 years, we did a lot of reporting that made a lot of people not very happy,” she said.

One of those people was Curtis N. Ofori, now a D.C.-based investment banker and accountant. Ofori was a 21-year-old junior at U-Va. in 2004, when another student accused him of raping her in her room. After an investigation, an associate dean wrote that Ofori “used very bad judgment,” but said the university “was not able to conclude at the clear and convincing level” that he committed sexual assault, so it found him “not guilty,” according to a copy of a letter detailing its findings. Police investigated, but city prosecutors declined to file charges, Ofori’s lawyer would later state in a letter to the Hook.

Susan Russell, the mother of Ofori’s accuser, nevertheless led a years-long campaign to publicize her daughter’s case, hoping it might lead to reform. She created a website for rape victims and posted fliers around campus to drum up interest; she filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department over the university’s handling of her daughter’s case; and she testified before state lawmakers in support of legislation that would have had city or state police take over from campus police in investigating rape cases.

Her daughter, meanwhile, sued Ofori in Charlottesville Circuit Court in 2006 but withdrew the case, according to her mother, amid mounting legal costs. (Russell’s daughter did not respond to The Washington Post’s attempts to reach her.)

In late 2011, the Hook published a cover story by Stuart about the Russell family’s efforts, including a detailed description of the alleged rape, under a stark headline: “Unsilenced: How this mother fought to protect her daughter … and yours.” The story named Ofori as the alleged perpetrator, even though he had not been convicted or held responsible for any crime.

Ofori tried several times to have the accusations expunged from the public record. In 2012, his lawyer sent the Hook a letter demanding the newspaper pay $250,000 and remove the article from its website, according to documents Spencer shared with The Post. The newspaper refused. Ofori then sued the Hook for libel in U.S. District Court in Washington that year, seeking $2 million in damages for “false and defamatory” accusations in the article. Ofori later withdrew the lawsuit.

He also attempted to use other means to clear his name. A public database shows that, in 2011, he filed a request asking Google to stop linking to a Center for Public Integrity page containing a document prepared as part of the Russell family’s aborted legal effort; Ofori wrote in his request that it was “false” and defamatory because it was never filed in court. (That page has since gone offline.) Ofori sent Google a similar takedown request in 2020, this time targeting a copy of the Russell document published by the Hook.

Meanwhile, the Hook faced problems of its own. After struggling in the wake of the Great Recession, it merged in 2011 with its longtime rival, the C-Ville Weekly. The merger was completed a few months before the Hook published Stuart’s article concerning Ofori. Spencer later sold his stake in the paper to C-Ville, whose owners decided in 2013 to shut the Hook down.

Thereafter, the paper’s digital remnants — roughly 22,000 articles — served as a public reference source for nearly a decade. Until the entire archive vanished without warning in June.

Among the vanished stories: Spencer’s painstaking reconstruction of a 1959 plane crash that haunted central Virginia; a prizewinning investigation of the conflicts of interest driving up costs for the region’s water management program; a deeply reported feature on a 1982 fraternity road trip gone wrong and its devastating ripple effects over a quarter-century; and all the reader comments posted below each story, which in the years before social media could evoke the voice of the Charlottesville community, former staffers say.

A truly motivated researcher might find the dusty print copies of these articles in a library (or Spencer’s attic). But an average reader curious to learn about those subjects won’t find any of these stories when searching the web.

“Journalism is supposed to be the rough first draft of history,” said Sean Tubbs, a journalist who relied on the Hook’s old stories to build a database for the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. “When someone ostensibly paid to kill the archive, they cut off a direct link for the public to learn from these articles.”

It’s a bit of “a murder mystery,” said McNair, who joined forces with Spencer, Stuart and other old colleagues from the Hook this summer to investigate what happened.

The Hook’s alumni said they believe that C-Ville sold the archive sometime around the end of 2021 or early 2022, when a public registry was amended to show a new, unidentified owner for the Hook’s website. Spencer said one of C-Ville’s owners told him that the sale’s proceeds “meaningfully contributed” to the company’s operations during the pandemic.

That was their first clue.

“Someone paid a significant amount of money for something that had little monetary value but was very valuable to them,” Stuart said.

C-Ville Weekly’s principal owner, Blair Kelly, hung up on a Post reporter when first asked about the sale. But in subsequent interviews, he and Bill Chapman, a part owner of C-Ville Holdings, confirmed they sold the archive. They said they never learned the buyer’s identity, because a lawyer had acted as a go-between, but they wouldn’t provide any more details about the sale to The Post. C-Ville’s publisher, Anna Harrison, did not respond to requests for comment.

Spencer was at a loss as to why someone would want the archive taken down. But in the late summer, a longtime reader of the Hook tipped him off to another possible clue.

The tipster had noticed that, beginning in January — shortly after Spencer thinks the Hook’s archive was sold — an entity calling itself Experiential Solutions began sending takedown requests to Google, complaining that various news sites, blogs and discussion forums were infringing on the Hook’s copyrights. As catalogued on a Harvard University-hosted database called Lumen, the requests continued through late August and targeted 18 different webpages that reference alleged violent incidents at U-Va. The vast majority of the pages have one common denominator: the Ofori case.

An analysis by The Post found that 14 of the 18 targeted pages referenced Ofori, his accuser or her mother, or linked to Hook articles that did. Three of the pages cited the Hook’s 2011 article detailing the rape accusations. One of Experiential’s complaints targeted the same Russell document that Ofori tried to get delisted from Google in 2020. Google acted on at least 10 of Experiential’s complaints, removing those pages from search results.

Some of the offending pages contained only glancing references to Ofori or his accuser’s family. One linked to a Hook article about campus crime statistics, underneath which Susan Russell had posted comments about how police and university officials handled sexual assault allegations.

The slew of takedown requests appears to be unique in the Hook’s history. A search of the Lumen database turned up no prior complaints related to the Hook, besides Ofori’s 2020 complaint and another takedown request from an unidentified complainant in 2016 that targeted the Hook’s Ofori story.

Ofori did not respond to multiple phone calls or messages left at his home and the company he co-directs, Greenhall Capital Partners, an investment firm in downtown Washington.

The Post could not locate any corporate documents for Experiential Solutions. A Google spokesman offered no comment beyond pointing to the company’s takedown request instructions, which require complainants to simply fill out a web form and swear that they own the copyrighted material or represent someone who does.

That leaves Spencer and his former colleagues with the same questions they had when the Hook’s archive disappeared in June: Who bought it? Who took it down? And will it ever return?

McNair offers a rhetorical shake of the head.

“The irony is we have this technology to preserve [digital information], and yet it’s more vulnerable than ever,” he said. Information “was safer when we wrote things on stone.”

Avi Selk and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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