We’re listening…

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from Sept. 22 for more on this story, to learn about good news for Mountain Xpress in Asheville, to join us in recognizing student journalism throughout the state and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

Greetings, NC Local readers!

Shannan Bowen

“Wow, there are so many great people working in North Carolina!” I keep thinking about this comment from an out-of-state colleague during a conversation about my first few months as executive director of the NC Local News Workshop. I was describing to my colleague the new projects, businesses, roles and collaborations in news across our state.

I hear comments like this often. People outside North Carolina are truly impressed with the network of talented journalists and information providers and their dedication to informing their communities. Their work is being recognized nationally, too:

(More on the latter two from Eric, below.)

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do to strengthen the local news ecosystem in North Carolina.

Read moreWe’re listening…

Update: NC Media Equity Project

This week, the newsletter features my friend and mentor Melanie Sill, creator of this newsletter and the founding interim executive director of its home, the NC Local News Workshop. Check out the full NC Local newsletter from Sept. 8 for more from Melanie. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

How can North Carolina local news organizations engage and serve people they have long overlooked or undervalued — including Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents, and others who’ve been marginalized by media organizations’ culture and practices as well as in news coverage?

Melanie Sill
Melanie Sill

For nearly a year, six media partners and the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University have been working (individually and collectively) to make long-delayed progress on that complex question, brought together in a pilot program called the NC Media Equity Project.

The project was launched in the fall of 2020 by the Local News Workshop, which had just started up at the Elon School of Communications, inspired by national conversations and calls to action on addressing racism and inequity in journalism and media. Workshop leaders built the project in partnership with a half-dozen North Carolina outlets that had identified the need for change as urgent and were committing significant resources to DEI work (diversity, equity and inclusion).

While they represent different approaches to informing North Carolina, some of the outlets voiced similar goals and struggles — and, like much of the state’s media, were predominantly white in their staff makeup, coverage and audience. They recognized historic gaps and challenges in serving an increasingly diverse state, made more urgent in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and other events sparked new recognition of racism’s role in ongoing inequity — including in media.

We wondered: Could collaboration on DEI yield the kind of learning and broader gain we’ve seen from other kinds of collaborative projects in media?

Read moreUpdate: NC Media Equity Project

Where the citizens fill the gaps

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from August 25 for more on this report, to learn more about The Charlotte Observer’s new executive editor, Rana Cash, to read briefs about the news industry across the state, to view a list of who’s hiring among job postings on the Bulletin Board and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

What happens when a devastating flood comes to a place that probably qualifies as a news desert? How do the residents get essential information?

In the case of Transylvania County, in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, it’s the residents themselves who bridge the gaps —  sharing news in informal networks, on social media and in human contact. It’s a process that illustrates the incredible power of community engagement, but can include some of the perils of sharing information outside the rigors of professional reporting.

When Tropical Storm Fred rolled through the mountains last Monday and Tuesday, media from outside Transylvania County, including WLOS television in Asheville, covered some of the disruptions there. But by Wednesday, most of them had moved on to places such as Haywood County, where the toll at last report was five dead and one person missing.

But while no one died in Transylvania, the flooding there was severe. The Transylvania Times in Brevard, the county’s only newspaper, which publishes print editions on Monday evenings and Thursday mornings, reported on the storm on its website, but its staff is small — one editor and three full-time reporters.

Kevin Smith“So the TV station sees us as a niche,” Kevin Smith, PIO of the Transylvania County Schools since 2014, told me Sunday. “The radio station (he referred to WSQL in Brevard) is under-resourced. The newspaper comes out twice a week … they’re looking to modernize and smooth out the path to getting good information out sooner, whether it’s through a mobile app or through more daily use of social media, but frankly, they don’t have the resources to be the go-to news source.

“There’s no better way to put it: People have had to step in and fill the gap.”

Read moreWhere the citizens fill the gaps

Conservatives, the media, and trust

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from August 19 for an update on the UNC Public Records Project, insights related to census reporting, news briefs about the news industry across the state, a list of who’s hiring among job postings on the Bulletin Board and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

You probably know that Trusting News and the Center for Media Engagement partnered this year with 27 newsrooms, including Carolina Public Press, to learn more about how right-leaning Americans perceive local news, and how media can bridge a trust gap there.

Jordan WilkieThe newsrooms surveyed about 3,400 people. Designated newsroom staffers, including CPP’s Jordan Wilkie, did almost 100 follow-up interviews. The research, reported Monday, found that, yes, people on the political right believe journalists are biased against conservatives. Read the full report.

To better connect with those audiences, the report recommends that newsrooms:
  1. Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.
  2. Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using “conservative” or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.
  3. Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.
  4. Focus on story facts, not interpretation.
  5. Correct mistakes promptly to demonstrate trustworthiness.
  6. Don’t criticize only one side of an issue.

I asked Wilkie for his thoughts about the process. While he’s not as sanguine about the effort as its organizers are, he said he and his CPP colleagues want to keep working with Trusting News.

“While I found this initial report a bit underwhelming, it is a step in the right direction,” he told me, “and building on this work is how we get to more meaningful answers and analysis of how newsrooms can build trust across widely divergent audiences. That’s important for our bottom lines and for democracy.”

Read moreConservatives, the media, and trust

The beginning of an era

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from August 4, which explains how Elon’s School of Communications‘ is starting a free initiative to inspire high school students to explore careers in journalism, how you can sign up to attend our free, one-hour Diversifying Your Sources workshop on Aug. 12 via Zoom with Melba Newsome and how to determine the best source for the latest COVID-19 news. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

When The News Reporter hit the streets in Whiteville last Friday, the Thompson-High family had owned the paper for 83 years. On Tuesday, the masthead had a new name on top. But it’s still in the family, so to speak.

image of a newspaper front page
Justin Smith, who has been editor of The News Reporter since 2018, is now the owner and publisher.

Justin Smith, who has been editor of The News Reporter since 2018, is now the owner and publisher, having bought the 125-year-old Columbus County institution from siblings Les High and Stuart High Rogers and keeping it in local hands — something that Les High, who had been the publisher, calls “critical.”

The News Reporter, of course, is best known outside the region for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953 along with the Tabor City Tribune for their stalwart reporting on the Klan. That was 15 years after the paper was bought by High and Rogers’ grandfather, Leslie S. Thompson, who passed the publisher’s role to his son-in-law, Jim High, in 1959. Jim High’s son, Les, succeeded him, and Rogers has been the director of special projects. Their family just won the Tom and Pat Gish Award for Courage, Tenacity and Integrity in Rural Journalism, as I reported last week.

Les High this year founded the Border Belt Reporting Center and in May launched the Border Belt Independent with a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. The Independent does in-depth coverage of key issues in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties.

Read moreThe beginning of an era

Partners — with perks

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from July 28, which includes related reporting on the impact of rising U.S. Postal Service rates, updates about Sherry Chisenhall’s departure from The Charlotte Observer, the latest job postings and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

Bag of The Chatham Brew Coffee
The Chatham Brew Coffee

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

“When we bought The Chatham News and The Chatham Record two and a half years ago,” publisher/editor Bill Horner III told me the other day, “the very first thing we did was to combine them to make it The Chatham News + Record. And that created some confusion. One of the things I heard was confusion about the new name … and the other thing I heard was, ‘I didn’t know Chatham County had a newspaper.’

“So obviously, you want to try to leverage anything you can to create brand awareness.

“And I’m not a coffee geek at all, but … Chatham County has a pretty cool coffee culture. A lot of neat, eclectic coffee shops. We did a really nice two-page photo essay and story about the coffee culture, and one of the things that I learned in that story was that Aromatic Roasters (in Pittsboro) was the only roaster of coffee in Chatham County. So, at that point the light bulb went off, and it took me about five seconds to connect the dots: ‘This is a place that we need to approach.’”

With support from one of his business partners, Kirk Bradley, who’s a coffee aficionado and an Aromatic Roasters fan, Horner reached out to Erin Munson, managing partner at Aromatic, and made the pitch for a co-branded breakfast blend, which was perfected after several experiments and taste tests.

Read morePartners — with perks

Join the UNC public records project

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from July 21, which includes related news about McClathcy’s promotion of Robyn Tomlin, details about the latest podcast episodes from North Carolina journalists, reporting from throughout the state and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Late last month, the NC Open Government Coalition at Elon, working with the NC Local News Workshop, launched a project to “educate the public about the inner workings of UNC’s public records system and to spur collaboration among journalists covering the state’s flagship university.” 

The Coalition began by joining with a group of journalists, professors, and nonprofit organizations to file eight initial requests with UNC for public records related to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recruitment to UNC. UNC has responded in some fashion to three of those requests, and project leaders are “working through an impasse” on one of those, Coalition director Brooks Fuller told me Tuesday. You can see the requests and track their progress on the project page on MuckRock, which also has a link to view and download the responsive documents. 

Read moreJoin the UNC public records project

Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch talks about Nikole Hannah-Jones, UNC, the art of reporting, fairness and the faults of journalism

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from July 14, which includes related reporting on this UNC story, details about courtroom access issues impacting journalists across the state, the inspiring story of a mother and daughter who became community health workers and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Joe KillianI caught up late last week with investigative reporter Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, who broke the biggest stories in the saga of UNC and Nikole Hannah-Jones, to talk about that story, about his philosophy of reporting and about the triumphs, challenges and faults of local journalism.

Killian came to Policy Watch five years ago after a decade at the News & Record in Greensboro, where he reported on police, courts, higher education, politics and government. His work now “takes a closer look at government, politics and policy in North Carolina and their impact on the lives of everyday people,” his Policy Watch bio says. 

Here’s our interview, edited for length and clarity:

Read moreJoe Killian of NC Policy Watch talks about Nikole Hannah-Jones, UNC, the art of reporting, fairness and the faults of journalism

What comes next for supporting NC local news to fuel democracy

This post is featured in the NC Local newsletter for June 9, which also includes links to a handout and video recording of last week’s Census coverage prep session, and information on a campaign finance tool and training via the NC Open Government Coalition and the Open Raleigh Brigade of Code for America. Sign up to get NC Local delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.

Melanie Sill

The newsletter called NC Local launched three years ago with a simple aim: I wanted others to hear about the experiments, successes, and amazingly committed people I was encountering all over North Carolina as a journalism adviser for a foundation called Democracy Fund.

I figured I’d wind the newsletter down if there weren’t enough readers or when I ran out of things to write about. Neither happened: NC Local keeps adding subscribers and has blossomed as Ryan Tuck took it over in 2019 and Eric Frederick came on as its editor in 2020. 

My role shifted, too, and in June 2020 I came on as the interim leader of a new entity called the NC Local News Workshop, housed at the Elon University School of Communications, which took a major step forward last week when Shannan Bowen arrived as executive director. Our state is lucky to have her in this job: More on Shannan in a minute, but first I want to tell a little more of that story of local news transformation in North Carolina, and why it both excites me and leaves me worried.

North Carolina is home to groundbreaking research on the local news crisis (really a civic crisis), and we’ve drawn national notice for the collaboration, scholarship, new voices, and new approaches taking root here. As a NC Local reader, you’re in on this storyline and read about the players, their problems and successes each week.

Yet you also read here about the big challenges for local news everywhere as a sustainable enterprise: How to find and reach readers and viewers (who have so many choices); how to represent and serve people and communities (Black, Latino, blue collar) who have been poorly served by news in the past; what funding model is right, and how to find revenue in any model; how to deal with anti-press hostility and support journalists; how to counter misinformation and disinformation; how to earn credibility in a cynical media environment.

These are wicked problems, and I’ve been encouraged when people and organizations come together to take them on, in partnerships or more broadly. That’s part of the Workshop’s mission: To bring people together, and to provide resources that serve more than one entity.

Read moreWhat comes next for supporting NC local news to fuel democracy

We support Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenured appointment

The NC Local News Workshop stands in support of Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who would bring valuable expertise back to our state as the new Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism.

As an organization that supports high-quality local news for people in North Carolina, we celebrated the recent announcement of Hannah-Jones’ new role as a gain for journalistic excellence across the state. We work in partnership and alliance with the Hussman School and Dean Susan King, and appreciated the dean’s note that with Hannah-Jones’ appointment, ”one of the most respected investigative journalists in America will be working with our students on projects that will move their careers forward and ignite critically important conversations.”

Our own work has shown us that many NC journalists seek guidance and methods for reporting accurately and honestly on race and racism, and the appointment of one of the nation’s top journalists at our state’s flagship public university offers a resource for rigorous reporting in the public interest.

Thus, we are deeply concerned by reports that UNC leaders’ decision to withhold tenure in the appointment (breaking a precedent from two prior Knight chairs) may have been based on political opposition to the substance of Hannah-Jones’ journalism, in particular her pathbreaking role in leading the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project

An environment in which a respected educational institution retaliates against an accomplished journalist for political or ideological reasons would chill press freedom as well as academic freedom, and we share concerns raised by UNC Hussman faculty members and other current Knight chairs in recent letters.

Hannah-Jones, who began her professional career at The News & Observer and reported deeply on the Durham Public Schools, developed her reputation through continued exemplary journalism at The Oregonian, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. 

Her work has been recognized with many of our nation’s top honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship and election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Her reporting has greatly expanded public knowledge and understanding of complex issues related to the historic and enduring roles of race and racism in our society. She has been honored by UNC-Chapel Hill as a distinguished alumna and as a member of the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

Hannah-Jones cares deeply about advancing journalistic excellence, and few reporters have contributed as generously to the betterment of the profession. She has championed investigative skill-building and professional development for journalists of color by co-founding the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism. She also has worked tirelessly to contribute to training and education for journalists through speeches, workshops, training sessions, mentoring and advocacy, including support for colleagues and students in North Carolina. 

We support Nikole Hannah-Jones and endorse her tenured appointment on its merits.

The NC Local News Workshop, a nonprofit organization housed at the Elon University School of Communications, supports transformative approaches to journalism and civic information as a public service for all North Carolina residents. Learn more via our website or contact Melanie Sill, interim executive director.