To explain redistricting: A sound idea

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Blessed are the state political reporters, for North Carolina may soon actually have a two-year budget. Then comes an even bigger task for the legislature, one that could determine the outlines of state spending (and policy) for a decade to come: Redistricting.

Tyler Dukes
Tyler Dukes

It’s obviously a crucial process, but as WUNC Capitol bureau chief Jeff Tiberii said, it “remains pretty wonky.” The challenge for news providers is to explain it so people understand how it works, and all the ways it affects their lives.

One way is the spoken word.

That comes naturally to a radio reporter like Tiberii, but others around the state also are finding that audio storytelling can help folks decipher the process. One is investigative reporter Tyler Dukes at The News & Observer. Last week Dukes dropped the first episode of a special, scripted presentation of The N&O’s Under the Dome podcast, called Monster: Maps, Math & Power in North Carolina.

(The title is, of course, a reference to the Gerrymander, a mythical beast that was born in Massachusetts in 1812 but has spawned many generations of offspring with tar on their amphibian heels.)

Being a data guy, Dukes opens by painting a mental picture of a truly astronomical number. Then he walks us through some surprising history featuring several voices familiar and not, and illustrates how technology has changed the process through the eyes of a high school kid. A couple of minutes in, I was hooked.

I talked with Dukes to find out how Monster was conceived, and one thing he told me nearly knocked me from my chair.

“I think I pitched this on August 27,” he told me Monday. “Even today I’m still writing scripts…  So there is a bit of building the airplane as we fly it.”

He wasn’t starting from scratch, though. Demystifying the inscrutable is what data reporters do. Dukes, who came to The N&O a year ago, had dug into redistricting and done some explainers while a reporter at WRAL, and he refined the art while teaching a class at Duke called “Gerrymandering and the Press.”  

“When we were prepping for the Census release and we were thinking about the redistricting process and how do we cover it this year,” he told me, “I got kind of stuck on this idea that I’ve got all this really interesting stuff gathered in one place that probably has some wider appeal for people who are interested in this topic and want to understand it.”

Dukes credits NC Insider general manager Clifton Dowell, who’s involved with the Under the Dome podcast; Dukes’ boss, McClatchy Southeast investigations editor Cathy Clabby; the newsroom’s entire political reporting team; and Davin Coburn, McClatchy’s executive producer for audio, for invaluable help and support. The second of four planned episodes will debut Friday.

His advice for aspiring podcasters? “Start way earlier.”

“This stuff takes time, and it is complex,” he said. “I think it benefits from a lot of feedback and a lot of editing and refining, and some of that stuff is big, it’s organizational, and some of it is more about the little nips and tucks you can make in an audio story to really make it sing. It’s different than going out and doing a couple of interviews and trying to turn around a print story … down to the technology, all the way to the scripting and the production on the back end.”

He also advocates using in-house expertise — “trying to find those folks right in your own neighborhood,” like Coburn, who know the tools and techniques.

Coming next week from WUNC

Over at WUNC, when politics reporter Rusty Jacobs did an episode about redistricting on the Tested podcast, which is also the July 23 episode of the WUNC Politics Podcast, Tiberii introduced it with something smart. He asked listeners to contact him with questions, concerns, stories and thoughts about redistricting, for a fall podcast series.

That four-week series, “Behind the Lines,” starts next Tuesday (Oct. 5), Tiberii told me this week, and it will bring the insights of lawmakers, political scientists, constituents and journalists.

“We’re trying to lay out some of the insider terms, provide important North Carolina history along with national context, and remind listeners why this is such a key political moment,” he said.

Resources for podcasting

◼️ For inspiration and help, Dukes likes Transom, which calls itself “a performance space, an open editorial session, an audition stage, a library, and a hangout.”

◼️ My EdNC colleague Alli Lindenburg recommends the Inside Podcasting newsletter.

◼️ I find a lot of how-to aids, meditations on the form and terrific work at Bello Collective, which also has a newsletter and a collection of starter guides called Podcasting 101.

🔊  There are a lot of political podcasts doing great work throughout North Carolina, and I’d like to share their lessons. If you’re doing a podcast, let me know what you’re up to. If you’re not, let me know what you’re listening to.