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Eric here. I'm looking for different voices, with different points of view on local news and information, to be guest writers of NC Local. Read on for details...

‘Well, you comin’ to the house, ain't ya?’

I'm a little surprised Nick Ochsner didn't drive off the road when he heard that.

An absentee ballot scandal had broken in Bladen County, after the 2018 election. Ochsner, chief investigative reporter at WBTV in Charlotte, was new to the story, and he was on his way to Bladen from Raleigh, working the phone, trying against hope to find a guy everyone from here to Washington wanted to talk with: McCrae Dowless. 

A friend of a friend of a friend actually put them in touch — and suddenly, not only was Bladen’s most notorious political operative on the horn, but Ochsner had an invite to come on over and set a spell.

In the space of a day, Ochsner had gone from sitting in his mom’s house in Raleigh — marveling at the attention being paid to Bladen County politics and wondering whether he should jump in — to visiting McCrae Dowless’ house in the middle of nowhere, trying to get the guy at the center of it all to spill some tea.

Talk about getting in somebody’s kitchen.

Michael Graff, meanwhile, was also turning some Bladen earth. Graff, now the editor and newsletter author at Axios Charlotte, was reporting the story for Politico, and he kept crossing shovels with Ochsner, whom he’d known for years.

“I would be in rooms interviewing somebody,” he recalls, “and the phone would ring, and it would be Nick, calling the same person.”

Two months later, they were talking about teaming up to write a book on it all. They did, and it’s here — The Vote Collectors: The True Story of the Scamsters, Politicians, and Preachers behind the Nation's Greatest Electoral Fraud. The book goes much deeper than the story of the scandal that invalidated a congressional election — into the history of how race, voting rights and electioneering have intertwined for well more than a century there, and into the political dysfunction that threatens democracy in the rural South. 

Graff’s the guy with the great eye, the patient ear, the touch with words, the thirst to know the history and understand the context. Ochsner’s the guy who’ll get the documents, get the goods, chase you down and stick a mic in your face. Their skills dovetail, apparently without ego getting in the way. And, as with all good collaborations, that’s what makes their partnership work.

I got to chat with them a few days ago. You’ll want to read our full conversation, but I’d like to share, here, what they said when I asked them what lessons we should take away from this story:
Graff: To give a damn about the places that are forgotten in the cities where most of us live these days. I mean, part of the reason that this happened is because of the strains on life there. It’s just a fact. People in places that are forgotten are easily taken advantage of. ... You think about the money that's ballooning in politics these days and the desperation that's falling on places like Bladen County, it just makes them ripe to be taken advantage of, and I think we really, really ought to pay attention to that — because when you don't have a lot of money, you either play the lottery or you go to the little gambling venues, or you take jobs working in political campaigns, and you're willing to do things that you might not otherwise do. 
Ochsner: I think my biggest takeaway is the importance of local media. Right? And the role that local media plays or what happens when there isn't a robust spotlight on a town or community from good journalism. There are people who work hard to cover Bladen County, but there aren't enough of them. When you start getting down there and pulling back the curtain, what you found was often not very pretty. I think it's a reminder of the role that journalists play, and the important role that we have to play in small rural communities, just as important as the role we have in bigger towns and bigger metro areas.
The hardcover book drops on Nov. 16, but the e-book is already available. You can order either or both here. Meanwhile...
Read our full conversation
Ochsner's on the left and Graff on the right in the photo above. Credit: Logan Cyrus.

From the Workshop


In the interest of lifting up new voices (and giving mine an occasional break), the NC Local News Workshop is looking for guest writers for this newsletter. If you have something of interest to say to North Carolina's news and information community, drop us a note with your proposal. (And because your time has value, there's an honorarium.)

And here's another opportunity:

As you may know, the Workshop, with support from the NC Local News Lab Fund and Dogwood Health Trust, is hiring a Research and Community Listening Fellow who will lead our efforts in Western North Carolina communities to understand residents’ needs for news and information and their challenges in getting it, their news consumption habits, topics they want to know more about, and other insights. [Learn more and apply by Nov. 19.] 

News about the news

The sixth annual NewsMatch campaign is under way. As you probably know, NewsMatch boosts the fundraising capacity of participating nonprofit newsrooms by matching individuals’ donations in the last two months of the year with gifts from a national coalition of funders. [Learn more here.]

My friend Lizzy Hazeltine, fund coordinator at the NC Local News Lab Fund, this week offered a very helpful thread introducing the North Carolina participants in this year’s campaign. Feel free to give, and double the impact of your generosity.
🗞️ The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would use federal payroll tax credits to help keep local journalists working, has been dropped from the House version of the Build Back Better bill as representatives trim the spending bill's cost. The Senate could move to have it restored, so it isn't dead, but its prospects have dimmed. Rick Edmonds of Poynter has more details.

🗞️ The nonprofit Diversity Pledge Institute, dedicated to advancing diversity in journalism, has launched. It will offer individuals a free program of mentorship, training and advancement, with an emphasis on BIPOC journalists and members of the LGBTQ community. DPI also will offer tailored services for media businesses to boost recruitment, retention and advancement of employees from diverse backgrounds. [Learn more.]
🗞️ Briefly: NC Health News has a redesigned website, organized to offer easier access to topics (check the tab in the menu) and to nearly 10 years of archived content. Founder and editor Rose Hoban and the staff explain here ...  Apple News has expanded its local news curation service to Charlotte ... Billionaires Reid Hoffman and George Soros are behind a new public benefit corporation called Good Information Inc. that "aims to fund and scale businesses that cut through echo chambers with fact-based information," Sara Fischer reports for Axios.

Well done

When Kyle Villemain, founder and EIC of The Assembly, reported a deep profile of UNC President Peter Hans that was published Tuesday, he broke some news — including Senate leader Phil Berger’s confirmation that a consolidation of the UNC and community college systems is part of an ongoing conversation.

I chatted briefly on Twitter with Villemain on Tuesday night, and he said he was happy to see a quick followup story by Alex Granados, posted Tuesday afternoon by EdNC. Granados reported that Thomas Stith, president of the state’s community college system, had written an email to the college presidents “to make you aware that this potential restructuring concept has been made public.”
   ➵ Disclosure: I’m a part-time editor at EdNC but played no role in Granados’ story.

👏 When the state GOP hired, as its new top spokesman, the editor of a website that spread misinformation about Jan. 6 and the 2020 election, Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer connected a lot of dots to examine a division among top state Republicans about their approach to Trump supporters, and to the 2022 elections, including the U.S. Senate race.

👏 When Omar Abdullah, a Raleigh police detective accused of using a confidential informant to frame at least 15 Black men on drug charges, was fired last week, I was reminded of a September story by Jeffrey Billman in The Assembly, about the partnership between Abdullah and the indicted informant, and the plight of defendants caught up in the system in which they operated. It's a bracing report, worth revisiting.

👏 A lot of great work throughout the state was honored last weekend when the RTDNAC Award winners were announced. Here's a list of the winners.

Also worth your time...

👏 Decades of legal battles over pollution by industrial hog farms haven’t changed much for eastern NC residents burdened by environmental racism. By Melba Newsome, North Carolina Health News.

👏 Offshore wind part 1: Big business for North Carolina. By Charles Duncan, Spectrum News.

👏 When NC motel owner mandated vaccines, things got messy. So he started cleaning up. By Théoden Janes, The Charlotte Observer.

Stephan Pastis is the creator of Pearls Before Swine.
Bulletin board

Job postings

📌 Service journalism editor and service journalism reporters, The Charlotte Observer.


📌 Applications are open for the 2022 Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media, for women in their first five years of formal leadership experience in news media. [Learn more and apply by Nov. 30.]

📌 Are you free this afternoon at 4? Nikki Usher, associate professor at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, will talk about how journalism can perpetuate power structures and her new book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, at Duke University. All are welcome at 153 Rubinstein Hall, or you can register to attend on Zoom.

📌 If you’re still planning your EOY fundraising campaign, you might want to join News Revenue Hub, the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network for a beginner-level webinar on framing your appeal. It’s next Monday, Nov. 8, at 1 p.m. ET. [Learn more and register.]

📌 Poynter is looking for college students interested in fact-checking and misinformation "to produce social content and lead virtual media literacy trainings at schools across the country" as 2022 MediaWise Campus Correspondents. [Apply by Nov. 12.]

Free help ...

📌 The Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern has rolled out a subscriber engagement index for local news organizations, to help them determine what content engages their digital subscribers. It also gauges retention rates, revenue rates, frequency of readership and audience loyalty.

📌 The Center for Cooperative Media has created a Project Manager Playbook for Collaborative Journalism to help define the increasingly essential role of those who manage news collaborations.
... and some free advice

📌 I've made it a habit to ask everyone I interview how they'd like me to refer to them in my writing, including what pronouns they prefer. The National Center on Disability and Journalism, in its new style guide, has the same advice for journalists writing about people in the disability community. Each person is distinctive. Some prefer people-first language (such as person with a disability), and others like identity-first language (disabled person). But everyone will appreciate it when you ask.
   ➵ The Trans Journalists Association has a style guide that also addresses language, and has tips on how to accurately and ethically report on trans people.
For your consideration...

As part of her new Q&A series called News Makers, Erica Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC, talks with Scalawag executive director-publisher Cierra Hinton about the future of funding for journalism nonprofits, Scalawag’s theory of change, and other topics. It’s well worth your time.

Are you searching for a job? Here’s real talk about possible red flags. By Marquita Brown, The Collective/Poynter.

◼️ Cancel culture: Why do people cancel news subscriptions? We asked, they answered. Nieman Lab.

◼️ What we can learn from three years of data on the gender gap in news reporting. By Prashanth RaoMaite Taboada and Shari Graydon for Poynter.

◼️ Does your news outlet need an app? Depends on your business model and resources. By David Tvrdon, The Fix.
That's all for now. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next week. Take care. 

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