A journalist’s story: How I almost became executive editor of a fake newspaper

The Gainesville (Ga.) Times reported this week that a 25-year-old man who set up a “fake newspaper” called the Gainesville Observer was jailed and expected to be charged with deception and theft of services.

A Romenesko reader was interviewed by that man, Joshua Brian Randolph (aka Kevin Cobb), and offered the executive editor position last winter. He wrote yesterday: “If you promise not to use my name (I don’t want my current employer to know about this) and if you’re interested I can send you an email about it.” Here’s a tightened version of it:

Back in January I was on JournalismJobs.com and I saw an ad placed by a new newspaper in Georgia that was looking for an executive editor. Since I have the experience and it’s always been my dream to start a newspaper, I quickly applied.

Fake publisher: Joshua Randolph (aka Kevin Cobb)

Fake publisher: Joshua Randolph (aka Kevin Cobb)


Now it is true that hindsight is 20/20; I should have realized then that something was up when the “paper” was first called The Gainesville Daily Post, but in later job ads it was referred as The Gainesville Observer. (When I asked Kevin Cobb about that, he said it was a mistake made by his assistant.)

Not hearing anything after two weeks, I sent another email and Cobb asked for my resume — even though I had already sent him one. An email followed saying that I’d been selected as one of the top three candidates and that he’d like a phone interview.

I was asking “publisher” Cobb lot of questions during the interview. I couldn’t find him online — not on Facebook or LinkedIn. But he told me of a few newspapers where he worked at as editor, and said that he was 34. He nicely danced around my questions about the three mysterious investors who were backing the paper. He didn’t say much, but that was because it was first starting and he said he didn’t want the competition, The Gainesville Times, (which he called a “good-all boy” club) to know. That sounded believable.

Right before we hung up he offered me the job./CONTINUES

So here I was, very happy to have my dream job, but something kept bothering me. After the interview I called the three newspapers to see if Cobb ever worked there. I just wasn’t 100% comfortable with this “Kevin Cobb” even though he seemed sincerely passionate about journalism. The papers, though, wouldn’t confirm or deny employing him and I couldn’t find his name in any of their online archives.
offer
Still I decided to take a chance and accept his offer. He promised me $60,000, full moving costs and to fly down there to meet these investors. I should have known that something with up when I asked him for the offer letter with all the things that we agreed on, and he called it an “officer” letter. Also, letter wasn’t on a stationary, but on a regular plain Word doc, and it didn’t mention any of the things that we talked about besides the salary (such as insurance, moving costs, etc.).

He promised a revised letter and we started discussing plans for the paper. There were more problems, though: In the job interview he said the staff would be about 10, but when we spoke he said it would be 20. I asked him what the employee newsroom budget was and he said it was $75,000. I thought I heard him wrong and that he really meant $750,000, so I asked again; he repeated that it was $75,000.

A week went by and I still hadn’t received the offer letter. A few times he claimed that he had emailed it to me, but I never received it. He finally emailed it to me (on a plain, white paper with no company letterhead or anything to show that this was a professional operation)

He said that the investors would only split the moving costs instead of the full coverage he promised me and there wasn’t much in the offer letter that we spoke about. I actually emailed him what needed to be in the offer letter (something that shouldn’t be done) and he sent it back where he actually just copied and pasted what I wrote.

At this point I’m upset and my wife, who is in the business world, is really furious with what has been going on. We both couldn’t believe this guy. We both know that offer letters weren’t handled like this and the whole situation was quickly going downhill.

After a few emails between me and “Kevin Cobb” things turned nasty. I was telling him how he should have handled my hiring process because he clearly didn’t know what he was doing. It became such a mess that day that I “quit.” I guess “walked away” would be more accurate since I hadn’t (thankfully) sign any paperwork.

I knew that I made the right decision. My wife and I figured that he would be too difficult to work with and he really didn’t know what he was doing. At the time we guessed that one of his investors (which now we know there are none) was probably a bank loan or an uncle helping him out.

*****

After seeing your morning briefs item, my mouth dropped open when I found out who the real “Kevin Cobb” is and that he’s 25 years old and not 34 like he told me.

I’m happy I dodged a bullet, but my heart goes out to the real journalists who were hired by Cobb. I asked a friend yesterday: “What type of reporter can be scammed like this?” But my friend and I then agreed: The economy and industry are so bad that people are desperate. And believe me I’m ashamed of myself for saying that about those reporters because I had a level of desperation too.

And it’s true. People want to work and when you have a passion for something (in this case news) you go to where you think the work is. I’m hoping that by sharing this story that people will know what to look out for so they can avoid having their dreams crushed.

* Theft charges likely for man accused of starting fake newspaper (gainesvilletimes.com)

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