A community gathering in support of local news in North Carolina: Join us Jan. 13

With Christmas near and a New Year beckoning, we at the NC Local News Workshop celebrate the many ways local journalists and media helped people in our state understand and navigate unprecedented challenges in 2020.

In the year of COVID-19, we’ve seen North Carolina residents actively involved in local democracy in countless ways, including high levels of election participation, protests, community responses to the pandemic, and initiatives to address racial inequity.

Our local journalists and media organizations have worked ceaselessly, and often in creative and inventive ways, to inform their communities, even as they faced their own hardships, financial challenges, and family stresses.

That’s why we’re gathering people together on Jan. 13 from 8:30 am-1 pm for the first NC Local News Summit, hosted by the Workshop with support from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC. It’s a chance to make connections, learn what people are doing, and brainstorm together to solve problems or advance opportunities.

Local news needs community, just as communities need local news.

Read moreA community gathering in support of local news in North Carolina: Join us Jan. 13

NC Local for Dec. 16: As 2020 ebbs, there’s a fount of hope (and not just in a vial)

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Dec. 16 edition: Registration opens for the NC Local News Summit; . Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

I started my very first NC Local newsletter — back on April 29, a couple of millenia ago — by asking something of you:

Never call it a day until you’ve done these things: 

  1. Helped somebody.
  2. Done something for your own wellness.
  3. Thought about the future. 

Because I’m not as good at those things as I’d like to be, I probably didn’t fully realize that the first two points are actually one. Doing one is doing the other. 

It’s my great fortune that in just the past two years, I’ve worked with three extraordinary leaders who do understand that: Robyn Tomlin at The News & Observer, Mebane Rash at EducationNC, and Melanie Sill at the NC Local News Workshop. They, and many others in our small band, know that we can better empower our communities when we empower one another, and care for ourselves. 

As 2020 ends, the swell of collaboration and mutual support across our state’s news and information community, even among competitors, is a fount of hope. To call it a necessary concession in a year of trial would be to diminish its spirit. And it has come during a time of unprecedented isolation, stress, fatigue and physical peril.

So, while you’re still on the job, getting your communities the information they need — to assess the COVID vaccine, to anticipate and influence how Biden/Harris policies might change their lives, and to stay safe over the holidays — do me one more favor:

Make time to take a really long, deep breath. And give yourself a pat on the back. 

A related read: ‘It’s a silent epidemic’: Mental health in newsrooms needs more attention. Jessica Davies, Digiday.

NC Local for Dec. 9: Where the sun don’t shine*

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Dec. 9 edition: Sharif Durhams returns to NC as The N&O/Herald-Sun’s new managing editor, and answers a few of our questions; Report for America adds NC newsrooms for grant-funded journalist jobs in 2021; and more good work. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

Tuesday was an extraordinary day, to say the least, at Alamance County’s Historic Courthouse in Graham. Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News, was forcibly removed from a second-floor courtroom and handcuffed in a hallway outside — for asserting his constitutional right to be there.

Deputies — citing COVID restrictions and by order of visiting District Judge Fred Wilkins — had denied The Alamance News, Carli Brosseau of The News & Observer and Jordan Green of Triad City Beat entry to the courthouse. They were there to cover the case of a woman accused of felony assault with a deadly weapon against two girls at a Black Lives Matter protest in August. (The journalists also had been barred Dec. 2 from a hearing in another protest-related case.)

Their three news organizations objected to the denial of access and asked for a hearing. The motion, written by their attorney, Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, said the journalists had been told they could not enter unless they were parties to the proceedings. The denial also came without a written order specifying the reasons — something that U.S. Supreme Court rulings have said is required. And the journalists had been denied their right to a hearing on the decision. 

The objection (read it here) cited Article I, Section 18 of the state Constitution (“All courts shall be open”) and several precedents supporting a “common law and constitutional right of access to judicial records and proceedings.” 

‘This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.’

But when Boney, who was allowed inside to file the objection, tried to speak in its defense, Wilkins ordered him removed from the courtroom. Deputies took him out and handcuffed him briefly in a hallway. 

Boney told Green later that Wilkins had told him: “This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.”

Brosseau, in this Twitter thread, and Green, here, offer a running account of what happened. Here’s the Alamance News report.

All three newsrooms had to rely on interviews afterward to report the outcome of the case (two misdemeanor guilty pleas). [N&O] [Triad City Beat] [Alamance News]

“We plan to appeal and seek an immediate remedy,” Robyn Tomlin, president and editor of The N&O, told me this morning. Green told me that Triad City Beat also would seek appellate review.

(You’ll remember that one of Boney’s reporters, Tomas Murawski, was arrested in October while covering a voting march in Graham. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has urged the Graham police to drop those charges.)

 The RCFP has a guide to reporters’ newsgathering rights, including court access.

  ➵ * I know. It’s an idiom.

Meanwhile, down I-85 in Gastonia…

Gaston County commissioners had been scheduled to vote Tuesday night to authorize spending $100,000 to pursue a libel suit against The Gaston Gazette, but their meeting was delayed until Dec. 17 by what a county news release called “a potential COVID case,” Ann Doss Helms reports for WFAE.

The lawsuit challenges a Gazette report Nov. 12 that raised questions about the board’s adherence to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

It may seem obvious, but Helms and Nick de la Canal of WFAE have four constitutional experts on the record saying that public bodies can’t sue for libel, citing New York Times v. Sullivan.

Each of the seven commissioners, and the board itself, are plaintiffs in the suit, which says the Gazette story “impeaches Plaintiffs in their trades or professions.” It asks for actual and punitive damages.

Stay tuned on that one, too.

NC Local for Dec. 2: How a reporter’s vacation trip produced a prize-winning health series

Taylor Knopf

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Dec. 2 edition: Sign up for the first NC Local News Summit, resources and tips for covering COVID-19’s surge, and try out a new national map of Black community media]

This one starts with a European vacation that turned into work. Along the way are impromptu train rides, weeks of nausea and naps on the floor. It ends with a prestigious award — and maybe, just maybe, some changing perceptions.

The protagonist is reporter Taylor Knopf. I worked with her for a minute when I was the interim political editor at The News & Observer in 2016, before she moved on to cover mental health for founder and editor Rose Hoban at the nonprofit North Carolina Health News. After learning that Knopf had won a first-place AHCJ Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for her six-part series called Lessons From Abroad, I called her to get the backstory.

It starts in 2018. I’ll let her tell it:

————

I had booked these tickets to Paris for Andy and me, just as a vacation to get away. (Andy is her husband, Andy Specht, the PolitiFact NC reporter at WRAL.) A couple of months later Rose comes to the group and says, “Hey, we have this opportunity to get a last-minute Solutions Journalism grant.”

I had recently read a story in, I think, the Atlantic, about a drug consumption room or a safe injection site in Paris. And I thought, we’re going to Paris, maybe I could stop by there — I mean, that’s a solution that we don’t have here in the United States to the opioid problem. And I was probably the main person writing about opioids for North Carolina Health News. So I proposed to Rose … I could tack a day or two onto my trip and visit this. 

(Eric here. Hoban told me that her reaction was: “Are you sure you want to do this on your vacation?” Well, she was. With only a few days to write a proposal, Knopf hopped on the phone.)

I had to start making contacts in Europe in the harm reduction community, and that’s kind of hard to do because I don’t know anybody over there, right? And there’s the language barrier. So I started with, I think it was somebody who used to work at WUNC who knew somebody who worked in England who knew somebody who worked in Paris. So it was this chain of people, and finally, they said, “You know who’s really at the forefront of harm reduction in Europe? It’s Switzerland. And here’s the guy who’s really leading the effort.” So I start talking to this guy in Switzerland on the phone, and he just had all these great ideas for people I could talk to there.

And then I heard about heroin assisted treatment there … and he’s like, “By the way, it’s only a six-hour train ride from Paris.” So I made this grant proposal that had started with, “Hey, I’ll just drop by a Paris drug consumption room” to this elaborate four-city tour in Europe that spans the course of 10 days. 

(She got the grant, changed her itinerary, and left for France a week earlier than planned, alone — to report on harm reduction programs in Paris and Bordeaux.)

And then Andy flew into Paris … and we immediately boarded the train and went to Switzerland, and the first two to three days were actually just me working and Andy carrying my stuff and taking photos … I mean, I took Andy into a heroin assisted treatment facility when people were literally injecting in the room next to us. We got coffee with a heroin patient afterward, and that was our evening that day. Andy was a really good sport about it all, and I think he found it super interesting, too, as another reporter.

 (The actual vacation followed — hiking in the Alps, visiting family in Germany, and back to Paris. And then…)

The last few days of the trip, I started to feel sicker and sicker, and the trains were starting to get to me, like motion sickness. And the very last night in Paris, I vomited all night. Just barely could make the flight the next day because I’d been up all night sick. And I was like, wow, maybe this has all just gotten to me, all this traveling and time change, and I’d really poured myself into the trip, so I thought I was just making myself sick. But as soon as I got home, I checked the calendar and I was like, ooh — actually, this could be something else.

(And it was. It was their son, Theo, who was born the following summer, and is most definitely something else.)

And then, obviously, I had to start writing. I had to piece together all of the video, photo, and audio, everything, and I was so sick. I took naps on the floor in between writing. But it paid off.

(The photo above, showing Knopf interviewing Thilo Beck, the head psychiatrist at a heroin treatment facility in Zürich, was taken by Specht — who may or may not have a future on the visual side, if he grows tired of all that fact checking.)

The reverb 

Knopf said she’s heard from people throughout the country, from doctoral students to the State Department — but “the most we can ask for is the start of a conversation around these harm reduction methods that are currently illegal in the United States.”

The award — first place in the Public Health (small) category of the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism competition, held by the Association of Health Care Journalists — is the first AHCJ award for NC Health News. A look at the other winners will tell you what kind of company Knopf is in.

“I have been entering AHCJ contests 15 years and never won a damn thing,” Hoban, who edited the series, told me — “and here, on her first go, she wins a … first place. I nearly lost all of my best buttons! I’m so proud of her.”  

[Read the series.] 

[Read Knopf’s tips for reporting such a project.] 

[Find out more about Solutions Journalism, including available training.]