A conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick | Photo by Christine Rucker

Phoebe Zerwick is a longtime investigative journalist who is now director of the journalism program and professor of the practice at Wake Forest University. Her book, “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt,” is the story of the remarkable life of a Black man and his wrongful conviction of a 1984 rape and murder in Winston-Salem, his exoneration after nearly two brutal decades in prison, and the consequences that followed, both heroic and tragic.

I had the privilege of speaking with Zerwick recently about the book and the case, and about the roles, approaches and limitations of local journalists in reporting on the criminal justice system and the people who find themselves in it. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

EF: You wrote about the Darryl Hunt case for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003. Talk about what you found then that surprised you, what the media may have missed.

PZ: I was assigned to take a deep, fresh look at Darryl Hunt’s case in 2003, right after he filed a motion for a new round of DNA testing so that the DNA profile could be run against what was then a new thing — databases of DNA of convicted offenders. And it was a case that, of course, had been covered by my newspaper regularly for 19 years. So I and all of our readers knew many of the facts of the case, including the fact that he claimed he was railroaded, that he claimed he was innocent, and that there were many holes in the case against him. That’s important because a lot of these cases have been neglected, going on without public scrutiny, and that was not the situation here. 

Read moreA conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

It’s not quite time to shrug

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 11 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

COVID found me on Friday.  

I’m slowly getting better, but I’m still not well. My testimony: This pandemic is far from over, the variants are real and not a political ploy, and even if you’re healthy and have been pretty smart about this virus, it can still pack a punch. I had two vaccinations and a booster, and I’m glad I did — they’ve made this more like a bout of flu than the deadly terror it has been for too many. 

What amazes me, frankly, is how many of my acquaintances also have it. (Non-contact acquaintances, that is — I’m not “patient zero” here.) Cases are rising again in North Carolina and elsewhere — and probably more than the state dashboard shows because some people, using only home tests, may not be reporting their results. And some aren’t even testing. Fortunately, most of the cases seem mild to moderate, but people are definitely sick.

Read moreIt’s not quite time to shrug

Building Better Newsrooms

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 4 for more from the Workshop, including more on the 2022 Diversity Audit, industry news and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Shannan Bowen, Executive Director

The Workshop is partnering with UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media on a series of workshops, conversations and events about workplace resilience. We hope to convene people around ideas for improving newsroom jobs, policies and structures. I agree with CISLM director Erica Perel that sustainability isn’t just about business models. As Erica said so eloquently, “Making local journalism jobs themselves more sustainable—better pay, hours, working conditions and opportunities for growth across media and ownership types—is also important to the future of local news.”

We’re calling this series “Workplace Resilience: Building Better Newsrooms.” We kicked it off in March at our NC News & Information Summit with a session titled “The Care and Feeding of Early-Career Journalists.”

Read moreBuilding Better Newsrooms

Spotlight: How student journalist Xanayra Marin-Lopez meets unfilled Appalachia community needs

Hi there! My name is Gaby Rivas-De Leon, and I am the communications intern at the NC Local News Workshop this semester. In keeping with the workshop’s dedication to helping North Carolina news organizations serve their communities, I am guest-writing the top of today’s newsletter to highlight a community near and dear to my heart: college journalists! Being a journalism major at Elon University has been one of my most fulfilling experiences. It’s a passion that has taken me near and far, from covering a local mural in downtown Burlington to shadowing a sustainable farm in the heart of Paris…

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from April 27 for more news from the NC Local News Workshop, notable industry updates from throughout the state, job listings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Gaby Rivas-De Leon, Guest Writer

Xanayra Marin-LopezCollege journalists are the ultimate jugglers, balancing school work and the high-speed world of the industry. They aren’t just studying journalism anymore. Because of the growing media divide in small communities around the state, college journalists are tasked with covering both their college towns and the surrounding communities. They are often the only news source or voice there.

“We should not underestimate the role of college journalists in their communities. They’re attending local government meetings, filing public records requests, waking up in the middle of the night to cover breaking news, and often for little or no pay,” said Shannan Bowen, executive director of the Workshop. “Some of the communities these journalists cover have no other daily local news source. These communities both need and value the student news organizations and the reporters who work for them.”

Read moreSpotlight: How student journalist Xanayra Marin-Lopez meets unfilled Appalachia community needs

Trust and inclusion in immigrant narratives

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from April 20 for more news from the NC Local News Workshop, kudos for journalists across North Carolina, industry updates, job listings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Liz RobbinsA highlight of the incredible month I spent on that Thursday back in March at the NC News & Information Summit was chatting with Liz Robbins, and learning a little about her work researching local news ecosystems and immigration reporting. Her latest work deeply involves our North Carolina community.

Robbins was a New York Times reporter for 19 years — starting in sports, where she covered the NBA and the Olympics, and later reporting on immigrant communities and immigration policy. After teaching immigration reporting at Columbia Journalism School, she became director of journalism partnerships at Define American, a nonprofit founded by Pulitzer-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas that works to humanize the narrative around immigration. 

During one Summit session, after our first chat, she quietly walked to the back of the room where I was standing and slipped me something. It’s a toolkit she produced with Define American on the use of anonymous sources in immigration reporting, and the care we need to take while building trust with people who literally put their lives on the line to talk to us. It felt a little like a sacred scroll in my hands — “Sorry, I can’t let you keep it,” she whispered — and as I read it, I grew even more impressed. This thing covers every contingency, every question I would ever have. It’s people-centered, mindful, thorough, eminently useful — something every reporter, including those who don’t “cover immigration” as a beat, should read.

Read moreTrust and inclusion in immigrant narratives

A conversation with Angie Newsome of Carolina Public Press

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 13 for more news from the NC Local News Workshop, the latest “story recipe,” accolades for journalists across the state, industry updates, job listings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

I got to chat the other day with Angie Newsome, founding executive director of Carolina Public Press, after CPP announced that she would be stepping down as ED by late summer or early fall. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Angie Newsome
Angie Newsome

Now that it’s official that you’re leaving, how does it feel?

You know, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point, where I feel like I can, want to, need to, should — let the organization live beyond me, which has been a goal of mine for a long time. So it’s pretty incredible to reach that milestone, but it is bittersweet to be leaving something that I’ve poured my heart and soul into for more than a decade. It’s a roller coaster… But at the end of the day, I have such an incredible team of people that I get to work with now, and the board is really great, so I’m just trying to ride the wave…

What made you want to do CPP in the first place?

We saw a huge need. When we started we were focused in the 18 westernmost counties, for investigative and public service news. And at that point, there was this whole movement of people across the country who were journalists who had come out of a traditional background, who wanted to try going into the nonprofit world and trying a different model of providing news. That was really inspiring to me, and I wanted to see if it could work in the western part of the state. We just wanted to be one solution.

Read moreA conversation with Angie Newsome of Carolina Public Press

Peeling back a ‘simple narrative’

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 6 for more news from the NC Local News Workshop, kudos for journalists across North Carolina, industry updates, job listings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

One of the best pieces of journalism in our state in the past week was Mandy Locke’s examination, with the North Carolina News Collaborative, of a provision in last year’s state budget that had some serious unintended consequences.

Mandy Locke
Mandy Locke

After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, calls rose for more transparency about officers’ use of deadly force. But as Locke reports, a criminal justice reform bill passed last year did the opposite — actually increasing the secrecy around such incidents in North Carolina.

Locke, a friend and former News & Observer colleague, is an independent investigative reporter who also teaches journalism at Wake Forest University. To do this project, she applied for a grant from The Pulitzer Center and invited the collaborative, a coalition formed in 2019 including 23 news organizations, to be her publishing partner. It’s her second project with the group.

One thing that intrigued her as her reporting progressed, she said, was how vulnerable we can be to well-crafted “simple narratives” from public officials — until we peel back the layers.

Read morePeeling back a ‘simple narrative’

‘Closing the chapter’: A conversation with Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen of Raleigh Convergence

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 30 for more from the NC Local News Workshop, accolades for journalists across the state, industry updates, job listings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Sarah Day Owen WiskirchenRaleigh Convergence was born of Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen’s curiosity about how people navigate their lives. It’s ending this week with a reluctant but necessary decision about navigating her own.

A Florida native, Owen Wiskirchen came to the Triangle in late 2018 with her husband and baby son from California, where she had been an editor and social media leader with the USA TODAY network. She also packed a vision born years earlier when she was editor of a magazine aimed at readers 25 to 34 in Des Moines, Iowa. She often pondered what people needed to manage their lives better — and what that would look like if it were built from the ground up, without any legacy-media baggage.

In April 2019, she launched Raleigh Convergence — a hyperlocal, newsletter-first media company providing news and information that was meant to be relevant to daily lives, connective, representative, participatory, healthy and actionable. She chose the newsletter platform, she told me, because it’s “a way to start and end a news experience with prioritization, versus the infinite scroll of social media or 24/7 news cycle.” It soon grew to three editions a week.

As editor and publisher, she saw the newsletter as the hub of her endeavor, with a website and other offerings — including a portal and ambassador program for area newcomers called The New Neighbor Project and a platform for community storytellers called Converging Stories — as spokes, all optimized to meet readers’ needs.

Read more‘Closing the chapter’: A conversation with Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen of Raleigh Convergence

From the Summit: Ideas, Inspiration & Insight

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 23 for more highlights from the NC News & Information Summit, news about Sunshine Award winners, kudos for journalists across the state and moreSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Shannan Bowen, Executive Director

An image from the 2022 NC News & Information SummitI’m still in awe of the fellowship, generosity and energy I witnessed last week when about 100 of our media and information colleagues from across the state—and beyond—came to Elon University for the first in-person NC News & Information Summit. They openly and graciously shared ideas and insights about topics like transparency, access to news, hiring practices, election coverage and more. And many met or reconnected with others for the first time in person since the pandemic began. This opportunity to gather—safely, with masks and proof of vaccination—led to discussions about ideas for new products, collaborations, resources and news innovation in North Carolina. The convening confirmed that our state is fortunate to have such a talented network of news and information professionals and others who are dedicated to ensuring that local news thrives and reaches North Carolinians in all communities.

Read moreFrom the Summit: Ideas, Inspiration & Insight

‘I hate seeing a good story going untold’

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 16 for more on this story, the latest on the NC News & Information Summit, updates about new hires across the state, kudos for journalists across North Carolina and moreSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Before you say, “This is kinda meta for NC Local, isn’t it?” … yes. It is.

Not long ago, as I was grousing a bit about the challenge of writing a narrative newsletter on the regular, my good friend Melanie Sill (founder of this one) had a beautiful suggestion: Talk to some other people doing the same thing. Write a newsletter about … writing a newsletter.

So I called three of my favorites: Jeremy Markovich, who writes the ridiculously entertaining, offbeat North Carolina Rabbit Hole; Melba Newsome, who writes the mission-driven, newsy Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate; and Kate Queram, who makes hard (and even depressing) news disarmingly engaging in News from the States Evening Wrap from Chapel Hill-based States Newsroom.

For me, writing NC Local, the biggest challenge often is deciding which main topic I’ll tackle each week. With a newsletter, that process sometimes feels … lonely. So I asked those folks to talk about how they do it.

Read more‘I hate seeing a good story going untold’