What we learned about NC journalism workforce

This column highlights the 2022 Diversity Audit for NC Newsrooms, a partnership between the NC Local News Workshop and UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. You can view the full research report and analysis here.

By Shannan Bowen and Erica Perel

Getting newsrooms to fill out surveys about the demographic makeup of their staff is about as hard at the state level as it has proven nationally. That’s one thing we learned in 2022, as our two centers set out to map the diversity of North Carolina’s newsrooms and compare it to the demographics of a changing, dynamic state.

But it’s far from the only thing we learned. The Diversity Audit of NC Newsrooms sent us on a project of discovery this year, and at the end, it has yielded information that will help us serve journalists, communities and newsrooms next year and beyond.

First, a few headlines.

Our research team compiled a list of more than 428 media organizations with newsrooms or news functions. Of the organizations we counted, 36 publishers participated in our survey about their organization. We also launched a survey for individuals of any organization or employment status, including freelancers. Participants of that survey included 152 people from 59 newsrooms across the state. Top findings included:

  • The 36 participating newsrooms reported a total of 633 staff members, including 111 staff in leadership roles.
  • About 70% of staff in participating newsrooms were white, consistent with similar surveys of newsrooms. Nearly a quarter of staff and 18% of leadership in participating newsrooms were Black.
  • Women were 52% of staff in participating newsrooms, a higher proportion than in the 2019 News Leaders Association survey. Women and men make up equal shares of leadership at participating news organizations at 49% each.
  • Half of individual survey respondents started their current position within the past three years.
  • More than 40% of respondents working at news organizations earn less than $50,000 per year, the approximate threshold of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center’s Living Income Standard for one adult and one child. 
  • 30% of respondents said they had some kind of disability, but only a few had sought accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, revealing a need for newsrooms to support their disabled staff.

While the participating newsroom’s staff numbers included hundreds of journalists, neither survey yielded enough participation for us to draw generalized conclusions about the data. This makes us unable to meaningfully compare the survey results to North Carolina’s demographic data from the 2020 Census.

Three of the state’s largest corporate-owned newsrooms (The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and WRAL) participated in the survey and their contributions added greatly to the understanding we now have of our state’s journalism workforce. But by and large, properties owned by corporate chains did not participate, despite direct outreach and reminders. In some cases, centralized record-keeping prevented local staff from accessing the data, and efforts to reach out to central offices directly bore little fruit.

The rural-urban divide in North Carolina was deeply reflected in results. More than 60 percent of organizational survey respondents are located in just four of 100 counties, and 55 percent of the journalists represented in the organizational survey worked in a single NC county—Wake.

Some Background

We started the year with a few hypotheses. First: a lack of representation in newsrooms leads to distrust, low engagement and, over time, less informed communities overall. We assumed that our state’s newsrooms are led by mostly white men and women and that their staffs lack the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they seek to serve.

In our view, the representation problems are systemic and complex. The solutions must seek to change newsroom policy and practice.

 The NC Local News Workshop launched the NC Media Equity Project in 2020 to help newsrooms learn and practice initiatives that progress their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals. In the first year of the program, six of NC’s largest newsrooms convened to discuss shared challenges specific to working in NC and to receive coaching on their individual goals. For 2022, the Media Equity Project’s focus was on retention and leadership development of journalists of color, as well as widening the talent pipeline.

But something was missing. We lacked the data to know the benchmarks and understand where to focus further efforts, and our two centers decided to partner on a statewide effort to survey newsrooms.

We were certainly aware of the challenges. But we also wanted to try this at the state level to take advantage of NC’s deeply networked journalism ecosystem. We believed the results would help us to better understand our statewide media ecosystem in a way that would lead to action and continued change.

The Audit Analysts 

Early in the survey promotion phase, journalist Laura Brache suggested including people of color and other underrepresented groups in the project, as the leadership and research staff of our two centers are made up of white women. We convened a panel of analysts, comprised of people of color, to review the data and write a memo about findings and recommendations. 

Their takeaways ranged from reflection about the type of news organizations that prioritize DEIB to what newsrooms need to do to better support people with specific needs. This resulted in a few important themes from our research findings:

Retention and Promotion of Diverse Leaders

“As a woman, it was alarming to see so few women (15%) identify themselves as being in a position of leadership and only a few more (17%) say they had been promoted into their current position,” wrote analyst Cierra Brown Hinton, who leads the southern publication Scalawag. “When I think about my intersecting identities this is even more alarming because we know that the more marginalized identities you hold, it’s likely that your experience is statistically worse. If the future of news includes women and femme folks we have to do more to make their leadership viable and careers sustainable.”

Hinton suggested providing professional development and career training opportunities with the intention of investing in and retaining women and femme folks in the newsroom. “Show all staff, but especially women and femme folks, that you are invested in their development,” she wrote in her analysis. “Provide resources, access, and time for conferences, fellowship programs and other trainings. Check norms and practices that prohibit or inhibit their success.”

Cultural Transformation and Prioritizing DEIB

Brache, another analyst who is also a reporter for the News & Observer, suggested that newsrooms make DEIB part of their company’s strategic plan, and also part of employees’ annual goals.

“Requiring employees to have a DEIB goal, regardless of their role, is another way to ensure everyone in the company is being held accountable for making the newsroom a place for everyone,” she wrote.

Developing NC’s Talent Pipeline

Hiring, promotion and retention was a topic discussed by nearly every analyst. 

Analyst Tony Elkins, a product director for Gannett, advised that newsrooms should “not ask diverse people in your own network to send you candidates.” Instead, he said hiring managers should work on building their own connections with schools and associations. “It’s important that the work of bringing in diverse candidates not be the role of diverse staff,” he wrote.

Brache pointed out that it was obvious from the survey results that newsrooms are not hiring enough people who are Hispanic or Latino: “Considering North Carolina is the state with the fastest-growing Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S., newsrooms are completely missing the mark in making sure this community is represented in their newsrooms, especially if their non-Hispanic/Latino employees do not fluently speak Spanish or other languages and dialects of Latin American Indigenous peoples,” she wrote.

Recruiting applicants is not the only step.  Low pay in an era of inflation is a barrier to hiring, retention and promotion of talented journalists who reflect the state’s diversity. More than 40 percent of the individual survey responses reported earning less than $50,000 per year.

Eileen Rodriquez, who works as a reporter for public radio station WFFD, suggested in her analysis that though competitive pay for new journalists might not be available at first, other perks could help them grow and develop instead of pass up on an opportunity. One way to do this, she advised, is to create and flag mentorship opportunities for young journalists. “Get them introduced to older journalists that could provide mentorship and/or one-on-one training to new journalists,” she said. “While on the job, upward mobility is harder for queer (and) women journalists of color.”

Accountability and Auditing as a Practice

“Perhaps one of the most tangible results of this initiative was the practice of auditing,” said analyst Adriana Chavela, who leads Hola Carolina. “This survey was an audit of newsroom composition. Critically, a source audit is needed to identify change in culture, and a shift in journalistic practices. To make diversity count, we must keep a count. Knowing who your audience is, and representing the diversity of that audience is critical.”

But many organizations don’t track source diversity—especially without being asked to do so.

“There are several causes of concern in the initial finding. The first being the lack of participation, or reporting, from some of the state’s largest journalism employers in newspapers, digital media, television and radio),” Elkins said. “This is a potential signal these companies may outwardly support diversity efforts, but are not putting in the work, or transparency, to make substantial change. The findings also highlight a large divide (in responses) between traditional print companies and broadcasting (television). With journalism resources and positions contracting, it’s important (that) a concerted effort across all platforms make a commitment to filling positions with more diverse candidates.”

Hinton said that as a Black media leader herself, she was disheartened to see the lack of participation from white media leaders. She said “the outsized participation in DEIB efforts by people of color and lack of participation from white folks is in alignment with what is generally true. This is definitely a trend to keep an eye on as more intentionality is put into efforts to bolster participation in the audit. For now, we know Black leaders did show up as we generally do.”

Where We Go From Here

We aim to share lessons learned with other ecosystem-building organizations in hope that they’re inspired to conduct statewide diversity audits such as this. 

Our organizations have plans to apply the findings from this year’s audit to our future work. The NC Local News Workshop, for example, will implement some of the analysts’ recommendations in the ongoing NC Media Equity Project next year. And we’ll each work with organizations in our state by providing coaching and resources to help them move the needle on their DEIB goals.

“The demographics of the U.S. are rapidly changing. Those organizations that remain immobile in profound structural change run the potential of being left behind,” Dr. Kaia Shivers wrote in her analysis.

“Many organizations have existed in such strict boundaries that often where to start in peeling back years of implicit biases will take years of concerted effort that must incorporate in full, the communities they report on. In particular, the state’s past of generations of discriminatory practices also must be remedied in news agencies. While North Carolina is at a crossroads, its newsrooms can be a template of progress.”

 

View the full report here.

Categories DEI

Collaboration and connection drive news needs in Western NC

By Fiona Morgan,

Consultant to the Workshop

 

Collaboration and connection were the major themes in a conversation about local news and information held just before Thanksgiving on the campus of Western Carolina University in a rural, mountainous part of North Carolina.

About 40 people attended the event, held Nov. 17 at WCU’s Hinds University Center. People came from the towns of Cullowhee and Sylva, from Haywood County, and from as far as Asheville. Many participants noted that working together is a part of Western North Carolina culture, a way of turning limited resources into abundance.

The forum itself was a collaboration between the NC Local News Workshop, Carolina Public Press, Blue Ridge Public Radio and the WNC Health Network. Our goal was to hear from residents of Western NC about the news and information they want to see, and to give them an opportunity to speak directly to journalists from local media organizations. It was also part of the Workshop’s major ongoing project in Western NC to understand the news and information needs of various communities in the region.

Most of the event was devoted to small-group discussions in which community members sat beside journalists and shared ideas, questions, concerns and hopes for their communities–and thoughts about how storytelling and fact-sharing can help strengthen those communities. 

The desire for more positive coverage, in contrast to the conventional crime- and disaster-driven news cycle, is a theme in practically every community listening gathering about local news. So we delved into the how and what of those stories. Insights and ideas abounded.

We heard a desire for stories about “unknown heroes” in the community, stories that embrace the complexity and diversity of Appalachian history and culture, that highlights Black creativity and entrepreneurship, and reporting that gives local residents a chance to influence public decisions and to hold local government and organizations accountable.

“We can get paralyzed by the size of problems, but to see someone working on a solution is inspiring and helps us feel less helpless,” one participant commented. 

 

A positive approach

As people entered the room, they were invited to share responses to the question, “How do you get local news and information?” Word-of-mouth, radio, and Facebook were popular ways of finding out what’s happening. As for what people most wanted reporting on, the standout answers were “What people and organizations are up to,” “solutions to local problems,” “racial justice,” and “information about public decisions before they happen.” (Shoutout to the Listening Post Collective for inspiring this activity–check out their playbook for civic media.)

Throughout the event, graphic facilitator Caryn Brownelle Hanna took visual notes of the conversation on a large paper canvas, producing a record the Workshop will share with participants.

After a greeting from WCU external relations director Christy Agner, who read the university’s land acknowledgement honoring the Cherokee land and history, Lily Wright, of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, opened the conversation by sharing her perspective as a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Wright previously helped to lead a recent forum on the Qualla Boundary for the NC Local News Workshop. 

Working to preserve Indigenous language and culture has made her passionate about the need for positive coverage of people of color. “News outlets don’t need to show a two-sided story,” she told those of us gathered in Cullowhee. To truly showcase diverse points of view, “be four-sided, six-sided, 10-sided.”

Shelby Harris, a reporter for Carolina Public Press, talked about her reporting on how North Carolina plans to spend $5.4 billion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, particularly in the western part of the state, and how some of that spending will increase broadband access for hundreds of thousands of NC residents. 

 

Themes in common

Small groups of five or six people discussed questions like, “What’s great about your community that you wish the media would report on?” and, “What solutions are people in your community exploring that you’d like to report on?”

Participants used Post-It notes to record thoughts and ideas. By grouping those notes, we could see themes emerge:

Housing, health and food access were the biggest topics that arose, with an emphasis on how those needs are intertwined. Participants had stories of grassroots responses to those community needs, such as a farmworker who makes sure his neighbors have enough to eat.

Pride in Appalachian culture, in all its diversity, was a major theme, emphasizing the common histories among Cherokee and African American residents. For newcomers to the region from Mexico and Central America, language access was a key concern. We discussed the need for news and other forms of information in Spanish.

Some urged reporters to consistently center community voices: 

  • “When an issue comes up, include the voices of those affected.”
  • “Undercovered communities [should be] part of regular news coverage.”

There were calls to cover elders and aging in a more “positive light,” and to consider that approximately one third of the population of seven counties in the region are over the age of 60. Likewise, there was a desire for coverage of youth in the region, particularly opportunities for young people and youth initiatives among the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.

Racial justice was a strong theme, particularly with regard to accountability coverage of local governments and organizations, “making it clear we’re putting pressure on you.” 

“It’s important to talk to each other and get news involved to spread [information] further than our inner circles,” one participant said. 

 

Voices from the public health community

Public health perspectives were a key part of the evening, thanks to the partnership of WNC Health Network. In between rounds of small-group conversation, we heard from community leaders in that field. 

Dionne Greelee-Jones described how her organization, Impact Health, had only recently been created to implement the Health Opportunities Pilot program across 18 Western NC counties and the Qualla Boundary. She said sharing information is critical, because lack of awareness about opportunities and available resources is a big challenge – a challenge she intends to surmount through collaboration. “Impact Health is new,” she said, “But we look at this as legacy work. We have roots here in WNC, and there is too much brain power in our space to fail.”

Collaboration is also vital for Norma Brown’s work with UNETE, the organization she founded to promote health equity. Her organization works across five counties through more than 70 collaborations. “Support your community health workers because they are definitely the answer to many of the challenges we are trying to solve here,” Brown said. 

Marianne Martinez shared the news that her organization, Vecinos, will soon be opening a wrap-around community health clinic on the WCU campus to serve uninsured farmworkers. And Radonna Crowe, who works in public health and human services for the EBCI described the ways her tribe has navigated COVID and shared public health information since the pandemic began.

 

News and information leaders reflect

After the event, Adrienne Ammerman of WNC Health Network reflected on the discussion. In 2019, her group formed a collaborative of collective impact health communicators from public health agencies, hospitals, and community-based partners across the 18 western counties and the Qualla Boundary.

“We felt it was important to have representatives from our community health improvement and health communications work in the region at the table with journalists and other community members, because we have a shared goal of ensuring that western North Carolinians have a voice in and access to credible information that they need, and that reflects the diversity, assets, and challenges of their communities,” Ammerman said. “It was a beautiful evening of relationship-building that will help enrich the information landscape of our mountain region.”

Lilly Knoepp is Blue Ridge Public Radio’s first full-time regional reporter based in Sylva. She explained that BPR recognized the need to report on the region west of Asheville. During the event, she and content director Catherine Komp highlighted the partnership between local media and other groups as central to that goal. 

“Collaborative journalism is important for the future of local journalism in this region,” Knoepp said. 

Angie Newsome, founder of Carolina Public Press described her organization’s mission as a statewide nonprofit news organization, and its roots in Western North Carolina. She urged community members to support independent, non-commercial journalism.

The Workshop is continuing its research and community listening across WNC. Our researcher, Brenda Murphree, has shared initial insights from her research on information needs so far, and she has invited participants to take and share her survey as the research phase comes to a close. Findings are coming soon, and will be shared in 2023 as a resource for local news media and community members.

Communities deserve equitable newsrooms. Here’s how some are leading the way.

By Gabriela Rivas-De Leon,

NC Local News Workshop Intern

 

I was recently navigating newsroom directories and noticed new titles that haven’t been commonplace over the past several years, especially here in North Carolina. You’ve still got your traditional beat reporters — politics, environment, education. But there are some new roles that have much more nuanced titles; positions like equity reporters or community engagement editors are more than ever surfacing in newsrooms around North Carolina.

Though the noble hope is that reporters have always had an unprejudiced and nondiscriminatory lens, we know that not to be the case. As editor Lisa Vernon Sparks, the Race, Culture & Community Engagement Editor at the Charlotte Observer, said, the rise in journalist jobs focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion is less about improving an already perfect industry, and more about starting to level the playing field.

A journalist of 20 years, Vernon Sparks talked with me at length about how she has seen Black and brown communities disregarded or disenfranchised by newsrooms. The newsroom she works for is a for-profit business that she said often has been run by an overwhelmingly white majority whose chief job has been catering to the (white) majority’s interest. Historically, communities of color have had “parachute” coverage, meaning that journalists would only cover tragedies or unrest, rarely going beneath the surface to see what systemic forces were at play. 

“About five years ago, you started hearing about reporters or editors talking about intersections, like ‘I covered the intersection of race and housing, or I covered the intersection of race, politics and religion.’ The reporting is now about how these fault lines intersect with each other, and what kind of stories we can get out of them,” she said. 

Vernon Sparks recommended some resources that work solely to help newsrooms navigate how to produce community-driven, accountable journalism that is aware of its past biases and uplifts rather than excludes. The American Press Institute launched the Source Matters tool, which focuses on tracking and improving the diversity of sources in a news story, and also manages Better News, which provides holistic guides to create sustainable newsrooms. The Maynard Institute, whose chief mission is to promote diversity and institutionalize equitable coverage, hiring and business practices, hosts Newsroom Transformations and Diversity Trainings. 

The first-ever Director of Careers and Culture at the Marshall Project, Emma Carew Grovum, demonstrates that changing the journalistic culture from the inside out is just as profitable for newsrooms as it is for the communities they serve. 

An inclusive work culture and environment should be as commonplace as the coffee pot in the break room, and Carew Grovum’s chief piece of advice was to take it back to the basics. 

“Treat people like humans. Remember that you are human, and that so are your teammates, sources, and audience members. Too many journalists and newsroom leaders have contributed to a culture where we give passes for treating people like tasks,” she said. 

An incredibly important part of creating an inclusive work environment is acknowledging but not relying solely on journalists of color. As Carew Grovum said, an equitable newsroom is one where journalists from all backgrounds can show up as their authentic selves, without having to box part of their identity away. She also wrote in an article for Source that allyship comes in many forms—as easy as posting jobs on Facebook Groups or killing the concept of one-time-only diversity and inclusion training. The process of equitable newsrooms starts at the personal level, and as Carew Grovum pointed out, it starts with creating a space where journalists from historically marginalized backgrounds get past simply surviving this industry and have the opportunity to thrive. 

Several other newsrooms in NC have identified the need for reporters focusing on race and equity in their communities as one major step toward representing the communities they seek to serve. WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news source, has a content strategy devoted to race and equity coverage. This includes their EQUALibrium series, for example, which explores race and equity issues in the city. ABC11, based in the Triangle, also focuses on race and equity as a coverage area and has hired reporters to focus on this reporting.

For EducationNC, a nonprofit provider of news, data, analysis and research on public education, reporter Rupen Fofaria brings race and equity topics to the center of education coverage in NC. He has recently written articles about challenges that teachers of color face, the school accountability model, a profile of someone whose life was changed from a community college program, and much more.

“The message I would give to any organization that’s interested in equity work is focusing on how equity, vision and statements can translate into action,” he said. 

At EducationNC each article is audited to see whether it targets or includes under-reported issues through such lenses as socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and immigration status. The EdNC team keeps a close look at how content is posted, making sure that the language and photos used in social media narratives align with their values. They’ve implemented an equity audit process that feels in tune with their newsroom, and will help them create products to better serve North Carolina. 

ABC11, EducationNC and WFAE were participants in the NC Local News Workshop’s Media Equity Project and have expressed their dedication to ensuring more equitable reporting practices. How is your newsroom covering race and equity? Send us a note at NCLocal@elon.edu so we can continue the conversation.

A Focus on Retaining Journalists of Color—and Helping them Succeed

By Shannan Bowen

Executive Director, NC Local News Workshop

We need more journalists and leaders of color in North Carolina newsrooms.

This is not an opinion; it’s a fact that also applies beyond our state.

I know that many editors and reporters in North Carolina recognize this issue. Newsrooms have published diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, changed governance structures and launched other initiatives to diversify their staffs and operations. Participants in our first program of the NC Media Equity Project overall agreed that recruitment and retention of journalists of color are two of the most important focus areas for staff development.

But hiring more journalists of color is only one step.

During a session this spring at our NC News & Information Summit, three journalists of color — Eileen Rodriguez, Dante Miller and Laura Brache — shared their experiences working in local news and the challenges in developing their career paths. I told someone after that session that these are the women who should be leading newsrooms in North Carolina.

But we — collectively and individually — need to do more to ensure they get to those positions.

That’s why the Workshop, which exists to help our local news organizations tackle such challenges by providing resources and programs, has launched a leadership development program specifically for news professionals of color in our state. Six journalists from a range of organizations are participating in Upward:NC, a program designed and led by Emma Carew Grovum, the founder of media consultancy Kimbap Media.

“Local newsrooms are having a hard time hiring, especially when it comes to journalists who can help shift the demographics of a team and better reflect the lived experiences of a community. But they’re also struggling to keep talented journalists of color who are being courted by opportunities with remote work options and higher salaries,” Carew Grovum said. “Upward steps in to disrupt this narrative and says, ‘Let’s identify your future leaders, and let’s invest in them together.’”

Carew Grovum designed the Upward program as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow

“One of the biggest concerns I heard from journalists working in local news when I did the research component of my fellowship was the intense feeling of isolation in their news organizations and teams. ‘My bosses/colleagues just don’t understand where I am coming from’ was a common theme I heard from my interviews,” she said.

The cohort model of Upward creates a small, tight-knit community for the fellows. “The connections between the cohort simply cannot be understated in their journey: whom they turn to for wisdom and comfort, how they support and challenge one another. In the end, it’s our goal that each person feels less alone in their journey as a leader of color,” Carew Grovum said.

The participating journalists, nominated by their supervisors, include:

Lars Dolder, editor of The News & Observer’s Insider

Jamila Elder, assignment editor at WRAL

Kendrick Marshall, service journalism editor at The Charlotte Observer

Dante Miller, community engagement producer, WFAE

Sarah Mobley Smith, senior editor of WFAE’s race and equity team

Jade Packer, Director of Children’s Media & Education Engagement at PBS North Carolina

 

They will meet as a cohort for workshops on leadership development topics ranging from “how to manage up” to salary negotiation, which will include guest speakers from throughout the country. The participants also will receive one-on-one mentorship and coaching with Carew Grovum, and will participate in meetings with their supervisor and an executive sponsor from their organization.

When I talked with Carew Grovum about applying this program at a state level, she stressed that collaboration is key for the vitality of newsrooms in the future. “In order to best serve our communities, the best local journalism will come from connections and partnerships, the very kind we hope to build within Upward.”

My hope, from my perspective supporting our state’s news and information ecosystem, is that we see leaders of color in more newsrooms across our state. By doing so, we will ensure that communities of all types are included, represented and engaged by local news. And at the same time, we’ll transform the idea of what news leadership and representation looks like.

As Carew Grovum said, “Too many newsrooms and news communities are losing talented folks of color right now. There’s a lot of lip-service being paid around hiring journalists of color, which means folks may have increased options to move around. Retention really should be an ongoing game, but too many news leaders have back-burnered this work during the crisis of the pandemic.”

I know a leadership development program is only one approach of many that could and should happen. And as a woman who is white, I know I do not have all the answers. I’d appreciate and welcome any feedback or ideas from others in our ecosystem. My email and DMs on Twitter are open; I look forward to hearing from you!

The candidate questionnaire in 2022: Part of the core franchise, and maybe more

Even in a sea of political news, local candidate surveys (and other coverage) stand out in races and campaigns that often get little attention or news coverage — if they’re done right, and if people can find them

Low tech and high touch, questionnaires posted online can offer an on-demand answer when people go looking for information on local races and candidates. Especially when the questions address at least one or two specific local issues, the survey responses offer an “in their own words” response for voters to evaluate and compare with other candidates.

Yet there’s a cost. The questionnaires take time to construct, and are intensely local. Some candidates don’t return them; others need lots of reminding, and some don’t fill out their own responses. And they need to be easy to find, both on news websites and in search results.

How can news and information providers get the most out of candidate questionnaires, for their audiences and for their missions and organization needs? We turned to three editors to share insights and advice: Jane Porter, editor in chief  of Triangle-based INDY Week; Jordan Schrader, state government and politics editor for The News & Observer/The Herald-Sun, and Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham News + Record.

Schrader says candidate surveys and information helps boost subscriptions, and web traffic shows their use by IndyWeek readers. Elsewhere in the country, a few organizations — such as KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio — have built audience numbers and financial support  around being essential for local elections information.

We’ll be talking about candidate questionnaires and other ways to both inform voters and strengthen the local news franchise through election coverage, next Wednesday during our “NC Election Prep: Focus on Democracy” event, sponsored by the NC Local News Workshop, at Elon University’s School of Communications. The event has reached capacity (there’s a waitlist), but we will be sharing out tips and resources afterward via the NC Local newsletter and other channels.

The NC Local News Workshop’s senior advisor Melanie Sill emailed a few questions to the North Carolina editors; here are their responses.

 

  1. What candidate questionnaires do you do, and how long has your publication been offering them?

Jane Porter, The INDY: We send candidate questionnaires to all candidates who run in all elections that take place in Durham, Orange, and Wake counties, including municipal, countywide, judicial, school board, NC Senate + House, NC council of state, federal/Congressional, and presidential. The Independent Weekly/the INDY has offered questionnaires for 35 years.

Bill Horner III, Chatham News+Record:: We provide questionnaires to candidates in all local contested races, from statewide on down. We did them in Sanford for as long as I can remember; we’ve been providing them at the News + Record from the start.

Jordan Schrader, The News & Observer/Herald-Sun: We’ve been doing voter guides for a long time, including for all of the big elections in the six-plus years since I’ve been here. But we’ve expanded the questionnaires beyond what they included even a few years ago. This year we are doing questionnaires in both the primary and general elections, asking issue and biographical questions and covering candidates for Triangle-area judicial, legislative, congressional and local positions as well as for statewide offices.

 

  1. With so much information out there, why produce questionnaires?

Porter: I feel there are several benefits to candidates and voters who take the time to answer/read questionnaires. They’re a fairly good way for candidates to share information about themselves, their policy positions, and their platforms with voters and a good way for voters to learn about candidates and help them decide who to vote for. There’s also an accountability aspect to having candidates put their positions in writing and, for the smaller races especially, to go on the record about controversial proposals if they so choose. We’re lucky in that the large majority of candidates do return completed questionnaires to us to offer for our readers.

Horner: Well, back before the web, candidates passed out cards or brochures (always so poorly done) with information and something about their platforms. They were usually either terribly brief, way too pitchy and slick, or shared too little about what made the candidate a viable choice. These days, I like providing questionnaires because as a voter you can cut to the chase and get the most pertinent information at a glance: mainly (for me), what track record does the candidate have when it comes to service, and second, what’s the endgame for them – how do they plan to leverage the public’s trust to make a difference within the group to which they’re elected and to the constituency? (Plus, I’m always curious about stuff like “last book read” or their personal political hero, questions I don’t often see these days on questionnaires.)

Schrader: There’s a lot of information about certain elections, but it’s not easy for voters to find basic, dependable information about the candidates on their ballot, especially near the bottom of their ballot. We see this as part of our mission of giving readers information they can use to make decisions. It also helps fulfill our mission of holding politicians accountable, since we can compare what they do once elected to their promises and positions while running for office.

 

  1. What do you know about how your audience or community uses this part of your election coverage?

Porter: The candidate questionnaires are one part of our elections coverage each cycle. We do our own reporting on many races and make endorsements in many races and we know we get the highest amount of traffic annually when there are elections going on. Our analytics indicate that people do read the candidate questionnaires in addition to our elections reporting, so we continue to send the questionnaires out and make them available to readers on our website (we don’t publish any questionnaires in print). 

Horner: We get comments about the questionnaires from readers, and our audience looks for them each election cycle. So do the candidates. That’s just anecdotal feedback, but it’s consistent.

Schrader: ​​The voter guides have brought new subscribers to the N&O, especially questionnaires for down-ballot candidates with limited information available elsewhere. That’s encouraging because it takes a great deal of our staff’s valuable time to produce the questionnaires.

 

  1. What’s the biggest challenge?

 

Porter: There are many. For our staff, the biggest challenges are logistical. Writing and sending the questionnaires out to candidates, keeping track of who returns them, formatting them for our CMS, uploading and posting them is labor intensive and time consuming. 

Questionnaires also tend to be very dense; it’s hard to make them visually appealing online and some voters just aren’t prepared to read a bunch of long questionnaires to help them decide who to vote for. Some readers may prefer to watch videotaped interviews with candidates, for example.

We also don’t want the questionnaires to stand in for actual reporting—interviewing candidates in person, tracking records of incumbents, speaking to sources about candidates running for political office, seeing what information about candidates is publicly available is all important. Anyone can write anything on a questionnaire. So while they’re an informative tool—and ours are, as they’re free, accessible online, and most candidates tend to respond to them and respond to them thoughtfully—we don’t want to rely on them too heavily to inform our coverage or our endorsements. We want to do our due diligence as journalists in addition to offering readers/voters this resource.

Finally, writing questionnaires for some of the smaller races—for municipal races in suburban Wake County, as an example—it’s hard to know how best to tailor the questions since we don’t have the staffing capacity to do much in-depth coverage of these areas. But we know our readers live in these municipalities and we want to give them some information about candidates who are running for office in their towns. 

Horner: Increasingly, it’s candidates who either don’t return them by the deadline or just ignore them. How much do you hound the candidates about getting them returned? If you set an early deadline but don’t begin publishing them until a few weeks later, what about the straggler who misses the deadline but gets the questionnaire in a few days before publication? 

But really the larger issue is how often the responses get massaged by the local party leadership – so it’s not their individual voice, but largely influenced by the local party head, who rewrites bad responses. I’m sure we’ve published lots of responses over the years the candidates didn’t write themselves  Sometimes it’s painfully obvious because they come back so polished. (And other times, when they’re rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, that’s painful, too. We always publish them as we get them.)

Schrader: Carving out the time to write, send, collect, edit, publish and promote these questionnaires is a big enough challenge already, but that’s compounded when we have to repeatedly remind candidates who haven’t responded.

 

  1. If an outlet wants to offer questionnaires, what are your two most important tips or lessons?

 

Porter: 1. I would say do the research to ensure the questions target the issues that are most meaningful to or consequential for voters, and also for your audience. Be very specific and intentional with your questions. 2. And send the questionnaires out as early as possible, so the candidates have time to complete them and so you have time to figure out how you’re going to present them!

Horner: First, think hard about the content in your questionnaires. Brainstorm it, be intentional. Make it relevant and useful and digestible. Be thoughtful about things like what biographical information to include, word limit for responses, etc., and make the questionnaire work for the voters. (For example, consider providing a hybrid questionnaire – one for print, the other, with some additional questions and more room for responses, for online.)

Second, plan them out well and stick to whatever guidelines/deadlines you create, and tell the candidates you’re doing that. Get confirmation they received the questionnaires. If the word limit is 50, cut the responses off at the 50th word. If the deadline is Sept. 30, then send out a reminder the day before and reinforce: if we don’t get your responses, we’ll publish each of the questions under your name with a “did not respond” in the answer line.

Schrader: 1. Be sure people can find them. We’d like to think voters are going to visit our homepage to read our full voter guide, but they’re more likely to Google a candidate’s name or position while trying to fill out their ballot. Our questionnaires need to show up in their search result. 2. Err on the side of fewer questions, and consider imposing character limits. Voters have limited time and may want to quickly read a series of these questionnaires at a glance.

The NC Diversity Audit: How Everyone Can Get Involved

All readers in North Carolina who are looking for high-quality information should feel reflected, respected and represented by coverage in their area.

But how do we measure progress towards this goal? There are national diversity surveys that seek to understand the staff makeup of newspapers or broadcast organizations, but no one was measuring diversity, equity and inclusion at a statewide level — and, as organizations that support local newsrooms in the state, that data is critical in helping us provide programming reflective of our community needs.

The North Carolina Local News Workshop reached out to UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media to partner on an ambitious effort: a statewide diversity survey that aims to learn about the staff of each news organization—regardless of type or size—in every community of our state.

Our goal is to reach all the news organizations and all the journalists in North Carolina, regardless of whether they work in print, digital or broadcast. And we hope that the strong relationships among the state’s well-networked news ecosystem, where journalists collaborate on projects regularly, will create desire to participate.

The diversity audit includes two surveys, an organizational survey is meant for news executives to provide overall data about their organization. And an individual survey.

The individual survey has powerful potential:

  • It gives individual journalists the power in choosing how they want to identify and whether they want to participate, regardless of their newsroom’s decision to participate. The survey is anonymous, and individual data points will be protected.
  • Because each question in the individual survey is voluntary, we can cover more ground than the organizational survey can, with questions about sexual orientation and disability, for example.
  • The survey covers the growing number of journalists who do not work full-time in a newsroom, and would allow us to learn more about this important demographic.

We need as many responses as possible to the individual survey to provide the clearest picture we’ve ever had about the journalists who work in our state.

Why us? Both centers are focused on creating long-lasting local newsrooms. The NC Local News Workshop, based at Elon University, focuses specifically on North Carolina. UNC CISLM has a broader local news focus, but as part of UNC, has a mandate to serve the state. And we both believe that for local newsrooms to be sustainable, they must be more equitable and they must both reflect and serve the communities they cover.

And at a time when many organizations need scarce grant funding, it made sense for our two organizations to tackle this project with the research and staff capacity that we already had, in the spirit of Design-Do (a concept from the Table Stakes initiative). 

But the two of us in our respective leadership positions—we’re both white women working at predominantly white organizations—also recognize that we must broaden and diversify the team that will be looking at survey results and providing recommendations. We are recruiting a panel of Diversity Audit Analysts to provide expertise, analysis and recommendations based on the results of the audit. Here is more information on the panel, including participation details and how to apply. Please reach out if you have questions. 

We want to be as transparent as possible, both as we launched the survey, and about our methods and goals. And we want help. In that spirit, we have an ask: Please take our surveys, and help us spread the word.

  • Here is the link to the organization-wide survey. A newsroom leader, or someone in HR, with access to EEOC data should take the survey. Please note that we are not asking newsroom leaders to make assumptions about the identities of their staff:  https://unc.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6qURQ0QLsBzZiYK

 

  • Take the individual survey yourself, and share your experience with journalism colleagues and friends. Those who complete the survey can enter into a drawing to win a $50 gift card. Let your colleagues and staff know they are free to take the survey if they choose. The link is here: https://unc.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_7ODn1lw8AJvWWjA

 

  • Share the audit with any journalism organizations, listservs or social media groups you belong to.