NC Local for March 31: Full-court press in Asheville, and the public wins

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 31, including Carolina Public Press joining a national project on trust in news, McClatchy layoffs, and a long list of links to free help and funding opportunities. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

When the Asheville City Council decided it would close the doors today for the first day of a two-day gathering, in a session to “strengthen alignment, teamwork and trust,” it didn’t reckon on another kind of alignment and teamwork — and a legal covenant of trust.

Local media reported on the plan to violate the state’s open meetings law, including Mountain Xpress Managing Editor Virginia Daffron, who wrote that “we take our watchdog role seriously” and that previous team-building exercises had illuminated “personal histories and philosophies that Council members and senior city staffers brought to their work.” Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press, Matt Bush of Blue Ridge Public Radio and Joel Burgess of the Asheville Citizen Times also reported on the issue.

Amanda Martin, general counsel to the NC Press Association, and Frayda Bluestein, professor in the UNC School of Government, advised that the gathering — at a public facility, with two facilitators paid with public money — was a meeting, subject to the law.

The Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, Asheville Watchdog and Mountain Xpress joined to argue that point Monday in court, and Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steven Warren agreed Tuesday. Today’s teamwork session will be open to the media and public.

“After a year in which the public has had less access to public officials and the public process, we felt that this was the wrong time to lock a meeting that’s previously been open,” Daffron told me after the ruling. The joint effort, she said, “shows all local government entities, not just Asheville City Council, that we’re committed to advocating for everyone’s right to have access to the workings of their government.”

In an odd postscript, the council then canceled its planned livestream of the event — and decided instead to offer a recording later on YouTube.

Speaking of vigilance…

Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun has won the 2021 Sunshine Award for Journalism from the NC Open Government Coalition for her late-night detection and reporting of a legislative provision, buried in a 17-page bill, that could have kept many records on North Carolina death investigations secret.

The reporting was followed by protests and the governor’s veto of the bill, Senate Bill 168. Sherman talks about how it happened in my newsletter of last July 8.

Sherman credited her editor, Jordan Schrader, and reporters Nick Ochsner of WBTV and the aforementioned Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press with helping her report the story.

By the way, those folks are all among the members of the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, which is celebrating a year of collaborative investigative reporting. Happy Birthday, watchdogs.

    ➵ Read more about how that network operates in my newsletter last May 26.

Local voice: Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon
Fitzsimon

I caught up with Chris Fitzsimon to get an update on States Newsroom, a network of newsrooms reporting on policy and politics, based in state capitals, with the administrative, financial and editing support of its national office based in Chapel Hill. Launched in 2019, States Newsroom continues to expand, in its network of newsrooms and in its content sharing. Fitzsimon is the director and publisher.

 As of today, with the launch at 10 a.m. ET of the Idaho Capital Sun, there are 21 newsrooms — 18 affiliates, which States Newsroom has created, and three partners, which it supports (including NC Policy Watch, a progressive news and commentary outlet where Fitzsimon was a founder and executive director). It plans to add affiliates this year in New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico and Oregon.

Originally financed by the Hopewell Fund, a nonprofit that incubates social change endeavors, States Newsroom is now an independent, donor-supported 501(c)(3).

 It also recently refined a republishing tool, Fitzsimon said, to make it easier for other newsrooms to use its content — any media outlet is free to do so, with credit. “We reach out to some of the rural papers to let them know it’s there, if they want to use it,” said Fitzsimon, who added that much of States Newsroom’s mission is to fill coverage gaps left where news outlets are shrinking.

The newsrooms average four or five reporters and editors, and each has a physical office. Fitzsimon has two national editors who oversee the editors in the states — my friend and former N&O colleague Mary Cornatzer, and Andrea Shaw, a North Carolina native who came from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, plus a Washington bureau chief, Jane Norman, who came from Politico. Fitzsimon said he plans to add another national editor at some point.

Highlights of our chat, edited for length and clarity:

What does States Newsroom bring?

I think there’s still a need for daily, insightful reporting about what happens in state capitals — holding the politicians accountable, but also trying to explain to people what the decisions made in the state capital … have to do with their lives. I still believe that state government, when you combine the impact it has on people’s lives and the lack of attention it gets in many places, is the most important level of government that we can report on. And I think we’re doing it in a couple of ways.

One is, we’re doing it with our reporting — and in every state we have really good journalists, with reporting and commentary. But also we’ve established this service where a lot of rural papers that can’t afford AP, can’t afford a reporter, carry our legislative coverage.

There was some early controversy about your funding. Tell me about your financing now.

I think there’s been some misunderstanding from the beginning. We were incubated at something called the Hopewell Fund. That was literally just a financial sponsor because we wanted to start the journalism before we had our 501(c)(3). Last November 1 we began operating as a national freestanding nonprofit … and we list every entity that has given us $500 or more on our funding page. So it comes from foundations, family funds, donor advised funds, individuals, local foundations in states.

Do donors direct money to specific newsrooms?

We’re certainly welcome to that, if people want to make a contribution to fund a position at a specific outlet. Obviously, we wouldn’t take foundation money if there were any restrictions on our content or how we covered stories. 

 What’s it like expanding and hiring during a pandemic?

Well, it’s very difficult, and I think the strength of our model was that I and Andrea Verykoukis, our deputy director…  spent a lot of time on the phone learning about the state and the journalists and the culture and trying to figure out what was missing in that state and who’s available and what are the stories that we could help amplify, how we can work with existing outlets — and that’s much easier to do at a coffee shop, when you can really get to know somebody. It’s been difficult and different, but not impossible.

I’m looking forward to the days when reporters can cover every story in person. There’s nothing like being at a governor’s press conference or legislative hearing, when you’re in the room and you can see who’s talking to whom, and you think about body language and what that means … when a person who’s impacted by a policy is in the room and you can talk to them immediately. Just the whole nature of reporting, I think, is much better because it’s all based on people, and people have three dimensions, not two.

Do all of your partners have physical newsrooms?

Every newsroom has an office. Of course, they’ve all been working virtually through the pandemic. But yeah, we think it’s really important for young reporters to be in the same space as more veteran folks and with the editor — so many good ideas and context and all those things are much easier if you can shout across the hall or talk at the coffee pot.

 You’ll soon be in half of the state capitals. Do you keep expanding?

 I don’t know. I think we’re probably going to take stock of where we are and try to decide, depending on how the landscape looks and what’s needed out there. We’ve actually had some folks in states call us and ask us if we would consider coming there and partnering with them or granting affiliates, so we’re exploring those opportunities. We always want to build capacity in the states that we have, obviously.

 Tell me what you’re proud of.

 We’re really proud of the Minnesota Reformer (it’s a finalist for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment in the Scripps Howard Awards), and I think in every state where we are eligible, we’ve won press association awards from our peers. But I think it’s the fact that we’re being reprinted in so many places and people recognize the credibility of the reporting. I’m mostly proud of the journalists that we’ve hired and the editors that we have and just the reporting that they do every day. You know, there are so many models out there and so many things that people are trying, and I think what we do is the bread and butter of what journalism is about. The national publications follow our stories and cite our work quite often, so we’re helping bring some of these state stories to a national audience.

 What’s the No. 1 lesson you’ve learned that might help other editors and publishers?

 There’s a hunger — a hunger for traditional, thoughtful, insightful reporting about what’s happening in (readers’) states, in state government, and how it affects their lives. … It’s even greater than we thought. 

 And I think the second thing is that we have to continue to figure out what the future of journalism is and how it all works, but we have to do the work while we’re figuring that out — there’s so many important stories to tell … The model that we set up was, editors in our states don’t have to spend a lot of time fundraising, they don’t have to manage HR, they don’t have to do all the bureaucratic things … We want them to do the journalism every day. That’s enough of a job with four or five or six people. So, our theory is, let’s do the journalism as best we can, as often as we can, as relentlessly as we can, as we continue to raise money and refine the model and do all those things. But we can’t let these stories go untold while we’re all trying to figure it out.