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.] 

 

NC Local for Nov. 25: An election lesson in integrity, and some takes on how local media performed

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

They can have global consequences, but elections are local — and their integrity depends on the dedication of administrators, employees and volunteers, and the local journalists keeping an eye on the processes.

For those of us watching the watchers as county election boards canvassed and reported their results over the past few days, their work has been enlightening, and inspiring. And it isn’t over. The biggest thread yet to be tied — pun intended — is in the race to be the state’s chief justice, where a recount must be finished in the next week.

We’ve learned a lot more along the way. Nick Ochsner‘s reporting for WBTV has led to a State Board of Elections review of irregularities at an Anson County voting site. We’ve seen useful analysis, such as this scrutiny of notable shifts in sentiment around the state by Paul Woolverton and Brian Gordon in The Fayetteville Observer. And we saw a very human lesson in integrity, too:

Sara Knotts, like thousands of election administrators throughout the country, is extraordinarily devoted to her duty. But after her mother voted by mail and then died before Election Day, few have had their allegiance to democracy tested as emotionally as Knotts.

“I couldn’t even bring myself to start doing the briefings on the challenges and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I opened the folder, saw her name and realized I had been putting it off” —Danielle Battaglia of The News & Observer and Emily Featherston of WECT tell a story of love, loss and fidelity.

Speaking of what we’ve learned…

I asked two questions last week of a few folks who were involved in reporting the voting. A week ago I shared their thoughts on what the media should do now. This week, the second question: What should the NC media have done better? Here are their answers, edited for length:

Anoa Changa, attorney, electoral justice reporter for Prism, host of the podcast “The Way with Anoa” and host of Scalawag’s “As the South Votes” video series:

(Journalists should be) centering the needs and concerns of the communities (they) serve. Media can go a long way to debunking disinformation and helping to keep the electorate informed and engaged. I think NC media can just keep moving toward reclaiming space as the fourth estate and really prioritizing what’s good for democracy over everything else. 

Finally, having meaningful and representative coverage of the diverse groups and constituencies in NC is important. There has been some of this, but it can always be better.

Tazeen Dhanani, communications director, speaking for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice:

The media did a good job of setting expectations that results could take a while, not rushing to call anything and doing their best to explain the process of what was happening … 

Additionally, we are seeing a continued shift to people voting earlier and voting by mail – which the pandemic certainly influenced – especially in states like North Carolina. When it came to covering candidates and issues, a lot of news outlets still treated it like Election Day with candidate Q&As, specific issues, etc., running in the last few days before Nov. 3, but too late to really educate and inform the majority of voters. 

Cory Vaillancourt, reporter, Smoky Mountain News: 

The reporters I worked with all year long … went above and beyond the call of duty, literally putting themselves in the line of fire (virus, rubber bullets, right-wing anti-media conspiracy theorists) day after day…

It’s not about what North Carolina media should have done better — it’s about better support for independent media from the general public. Want more/better coverage? Support your local news media outlet. Want more misinformation, disinformation, foreign meddling, conspiracy theories, unfounded rumors and fear-mongering? Well, how’s that been working out for us all so far?

Lynn Bernstein, founder, Transparent Elections NC:

The news media should do more research into the public observation laws and ballot processing laws in North Carolina rather than just relying on county election directors. … 

As far as public observation goes, the election laws are really clear about this, but reporters did not let the public know what their rights were to observe…

“We’re still letting (politicians) set the terms of the narrative’ — Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie, elections integrity/open government reporter, Carolina Public Press:

We knew exactly what would happen post-election. We should have gotten our politicians on the record about understanding what would happen and when they’d have final answers, and had them tell us what they would do in such a situation.

 We did a terrible job of calling politicians out on lying, which they did with great frequency in their press releases. 

We also did a bad job of talking to our readers, understanding their needs and concerns, and bringing those directly to our politicians. We’re still letting (politicians) set the terms of the narrative, rather than allowing our readers to be the ones who set the news cycle and create the flow of information. 

Dawn B. Vaughan, government/politics reporter, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun:

We have to cover the presidential candidate visits, but because there were so many of them, that took coverage time away from more issue-related and down-ballot races stories. Still, I think we all did a good job of making sure the best coverage of NC politics came from NC media.

Also in this week’s newsletter: good work from Mary C. Curtis, AVL Watchdog, Cardinal & Pine and The Daily Tar Heel, and a Q&A with WUNC’s Anita Rao. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

Three NC newsrooms offer election coverage to other outlets — and it’s free

The newly launched Votebeat, a pop-up newsroom covering election access and voting integrity in eight states, has placed two reporters at WFAE public radio in Charlotte and is making coverage available for free to other news outlets, joining a welcome trend that extends the impact of journalism and supplements local reporting.

North Carolina newsrooms The News & Observer and Carolina Public Press also are offering political and election coverage to other outlets at no charge (this has been an ongoing offer.) There are some conditions. Here’s more:

  • Votebeat, spearheaded by nonprofit education newsroom Chalkbeat (read more here), is making all of its NC coverage available to other outlets.
    • From Chad Lorenz, Votebeat project director: The easiest way to find the articles are the author pages for our two NC Votebeat reporters, Coleen Harry (https://www.wfae.org/people/coleen-harry) and Michael Falero (https://www.wfae.org/people/michael-falero).
    • All the project’s content is aggregated on the Votebeat.org homepage, and the North Carolina content is all clearly labeled.
    • The content is free for you to pick up and republish. Votebeat asks only that you follow simple republishing guidelines, which you can find here.
    • If you’d like to be notified via email when new stories are available, sign up via this Google Form or email Gabe Schneider, assistant managing editor.
  • The N&O’s Fact-Checking Project content is also available to other publishers at no cost, but they are required to use the original (“canonical”) URL in posting it on their content management system. If you have questions or need help with the URL requirement, email Jordan Schrader, state government and politics editor.
  • Carolina Public Press’ election coverage, like all of the nonprofit newsroom’s content, may be republished for free: Find the guidelines here.

Did we miss anything? Let us know.

Tips and sources for NC newsrooms covering election uncertainty

Some national stories are local everywhere, and the current political power struggle over the 2020 presidential election transition is one of them, sparking questions and conversation among our viewers and readers.

Local news outlets can bring the story home and help audiences navigate misinformation and disinformation on social media. They can host debate and local voices through discussion forums (radio talk shows, television interviews, newspaper letters to the editor or op-eds).

They also can share insights from nationally recognized experts (including NC-based scholars) on political information or disinformation (see the list below)

Here are a few resources for North Carolina newsrooms:

  • Joy Mayer and the nonprofit Trusting News project have a fresh list of tips to help newsrooms show people why their work can be trusted at this chaotic, confusing time in the presidential election process. “Have you heard members of your community say that “the media” is helping steal this election?” the Twitter thread begins.
  • Daniel Kreiss, a UNC assistant professor (listed below) and member of the Election Coverage and Democracy Network of scholars, shared this thread from the network today on how journalists can cover the story now.
  • First Draft News offers a US2020 Dashboard with live insights on what it calls “information disorder” (for instance, on interest in alternative social media platforms such as Perler) and a by-request Twitter feed from its team.

Local sources for reporting on disinformation and misinformation include these from the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at UNC-Chapel Hill:

  • Daniel Kreiss, Associate Professor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media: Media, platforms, electoral politics. Email dkreiss@email.unc.edu
  • Shannon McGregor, Assistant Professor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media: Social media, public opinion, political campaigns, platform content policy, shannonmcg@unc.edu
  • Francesca Tripodi, Assistant Professor, School of Information and Library Science: Media ecosystems, search and recommendation tools, ftripodi@email.unc.edu
  • Deen Freelon, Associate Professor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media: Coordinated disinformation campaigns, racially targeted disinformation, freelon@email.unc.edu

From the Elon University School of Communications:

Email msill@elon.edu with additions to this list.

Meet our advisory board: 26 local perspectives on NC’s news needs

The hometown feeling came through almost right away during the first meeting of the NC Local News Workshop’s new First-Year Advisory Board — 26 people from journalism, communications, education, libraries, history, public affairs, and more, who care about local news as a civic asset, in part because it matters to the places they hold dear.

Hope Mills. Durham. Wilmington. Northeastern NC. Many of our board’s members grew up in North Carolina, and their passion and concern about the loss of local reporting and its impact came through in their comments, even through our Zoom screens.

Hendersonville, southeastern NC, the Triad. As they introduced themselves, board members spoke passionately about the importance of strong local news, and the need for new thinking to sustain it.

Some focused on gaps in information for people whose dominant language is Spanish; others focused on a new generation of young people who don’t connect to hews in the same ways as their parents.

Our board, listed below and in more detail, includes not just accomplished journalists and news leaders, but also others who play key roles in supporting community information, truth-telling, and civic connection.

We’re honored to welcome this group as individual and collective wisdom for our efforts to build systemic support for high-quality local news in North Carolina.

First-Year Advisory Board 

Erica Allison, CEO/OWner, Formation PR + Brand, Hendersonville

Robert G. Anthony Jr., Curator of the North Carolina Collection and director of DigitalNC, UNC-Chapel Hill

Leslie Boney, NCSU Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement and Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues

Vanessa Bravo, Chair and Associate professor of Strategic Communications, Elon University School of Communications

Paul Cuadros, Associate professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and Chair and Executive Director of the Latino Scholars initiative

Seth Ervin, Chief Innovation Officer, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Lariza Garzôn, Executive Director, Episcopal Farmworker Ministry

Lizzy Hazeltine, Fund Coordinator, NC Local News Lab Fund (ex officio)

Cierra Hinton, Co-Director of Strategy and Operations, Press On; Executive Director/ Publisher, Scalawag

Deborah Holt-Noel, Host, UNC-TV’s Black issues Forum and NC Weekend

Tamara Jeffries, Associate professor and Chair of Journalism & Mass Media, Bennett College

Ju-Don Marshall, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President, WFAE

Fiona Morgan, Journalist, researcher, and consultant, Branchhead Consulting; former journalism director, Free Press

Philip Napoli, Professor of public policy and Associate Dean, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University

Nick Ochsner, Investigative Executive Producer, WBTV

Orage Quarles III, Board Chairman, McClatchy Journalism Institute, Freedom Forum board member, retired longtime newspaper publisher

Fran Scarlett, Chief Knowledge Officer, Institute for Nonprofit News

Michael Schoenfeld, VP for Public Affairs and Government Relations, Chief Communication Officer, Duke University

Sarah Sloan, Producer and independent journalist, Working Narratives and Shoresides

Monique Smalls, Communications Director, LabCorp

David Squires, Journalism lecturer, NC A&T State University, contributing writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated

Pat Stith, retired Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist, The News & Observer

Ryan Thornburg, Associate professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Robyn Tomlin, President and Editor, The N&O/Herald-Sun, Southeast Regional Editor, McClatchy

Keven Zepezauer, President, CEO and Publisher, Restoration News Media and The Wilson Times

Karin Zipf, Professor of history, East Carolina University

From NC Local: The right to know, takeaways from the Workshop’s public records training session

By Eric Frederick

NC Local newsletter editor
Obviously, reporting on public meetings has changed this year, with most of them going virtual. Journalists, as always, have faced issues getting public records, and data are even more crucial now to public health and safety. The challenges of reporting on police actions have been amplified, and we’re dealing with legislative secrecy.

The NC Local News Workshop and the NC Open Government Coalition at Elon, working with the NC Press Association, held a session Aug. 26 where journalists and experts shared what they’ve learned about getting public information in these times.

Panelists were communications lawyers Amanda Martin and Mike Tadych, and reporters Tyler Dukes of WRAL; Emily Featherston of WECT; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Victoria Bouloubasis, a freelance investigative reporter who has been working with Enlace Latino NC; Kirk Ross of Carolina Public Press; and Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. [Watch the Zoom recording.]

Key takeaways:

Read moreFrom NC Local: The right to know, takeaways from the Workshop’s public records training session

Covering Voting for Voters: Register now to inform your local journalism

NC BOE site

North Carolina’s election season begins this Friday, Sept. 4, as the first absentee ballots in the nation start going out by mail. Get information and resources on how you’re covering the election process at a special convening on Zoom with elections officials and journalists, sponsored by the NC Local News Workshop, NC Open Government Coalition, and NC Press Association.

Register now for “Covering Voting for Voters,” scheduled for Sept. 9 from 9-10:30 a.m. Share your questions, and links to your own coverage so we can highlight it. Translation will be offered for participation by Spanish speakers.

Panelists include:

  • State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell
    Karen Brinson Bell
    Derek Bowens
    Derek Bowens

    and Durham County Director Derek Bowens, who will outline what they think voters should know about the election process and what the public can expect.

  • Reporters including Jordan Wilkie from Carolina Public Press, Will Doran from The News & Observer, Paola Jaramillo of EnlaceLatinoNC, Wake Board of Elections member and Twitter election information provider Gerry Cohen, on what local journalists should be looking out for in their counties.
  • News organizations including Scalawag, The N&O, QCityMetro, and The Daily Tar Heel about building election coverage around community and voter needs.
  • John Hernandez from the American Press Institute and its Trusted Elections Network on resources for covering misinformation.

Send questions or comments to Melanie Sill, NC Local News Workshop executive director.

Meanwhile, catch up via Zoom recording on two recent events focused on public records and covering COVID-19 for Spanish speakers: Check our events page for those links.