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In the room

In a free society, we'll always need independent journalists to be our eyes and ears "in the room where it happens" — and also in the lives of people whose well-being is tied up in public debates.

The eyes and ears are fewer these days, as Penny Muse Abernathy famously documents in her UNC team's fourth Expanding News Desert report (read on for some of her thoughts on a path forward). But those eyes and ears are at least as vigilant as ever.
'You can never have too many'
By now you know that Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed SB 168, which had a provision that could have limited public access to information in death investigations. (We discussed its potential implications last week.) News reports on the bill, and on its passage by the General Assembly late on the night of June 25-26, led to days of protests, which raised public awareness to levels that a technical-revisions bill rarely reaches.

It happened because a vigilant reporter was in the room.

"I was sitting on the House floor, waiting for some of the reopening bills I had been covering to come through," Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun told me. "The fact that bills were passing unanimously or nearly unanimously late Thursday night made me skeptical. So I tried my best to scroll through the language and hunt for things that might have sneakily made their way into the many conference reports that were passing. This was one of those."

Sherman, who admits being a public-records geek, spotted the investigations provision. "I read it probably four times over to make sure I wasn't crazy, and read some FAQs about the medical examiner's process before tweeting it," she said.

After sunrise, she reached out for help from Nick Ochsner of WBTV and Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press, and wrote the story.

"I think most of the public interest in this stems from the fact that the bill was passed 'while you were sleeping,' but in reality this provision has been floating around in different bills for a while," she said. "We just missed it until now. It's a good reminder that you can never have too many eyes on the legislature, and government in general."
'There was so much misinformation'
This past Sunday, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, which would have piped natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia and eight North Carolina counties — Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson. The project's cost had soared by several billion dollars as it faced multiple legal challenges.
Several journalists reported for years on the environmental and human impacts of the plan, and their work helped to fill information gaps about permits, hearings, lawsuits and other essential facts. Northampton, which would have been the site of a huge compressor station, is one of six North Carolina counties with no newspaper, and Halifax, Wilson, Sampson and Robeson each have only one, according to Abernathy’s report
“I met dozens of people and visited some beautiful places” in more than two years of covering the ACP, Southerly magazine founder and EIC Lyndsey Gilpin of Durham told me this week. “The ACP was so massive in scale, and there was so much misinformation coming from officials and developers, that it took consistent reporting to figure out the nuances of what was happening — that it wasn't just the economy versus the environment, which was the narrative that was being pushed.” 

Gilpin wrote this enlightening overview for CJR in February on the challenges, and the importance, of covering such a story.
“Because there are so many local news deserts along the route,” she told me, “so much of the information communities got about the pipeline was through op-eds.” Deep reporting was harder to come by, and it leaned on the diligence of residents who collected and shared troves of information, hoping for coverage. 
Gilpin praised the work of Elizabeth Ouzts of Raleigh, for Energy News Network; independent journalist Mason Adams; Durham photojournalist Kate Medley; Lewis Kendall for INDY Week; Lisa Sorg for N.C. Policy Watch; and Adina Solomon and Asher Elbein for The Bitter Southerner.
You can hear Gilpin talk about the death of the pipeline with Anita Rao on WUNC’s State of Things.

Bulletin board

McClatchy update 
Today’s the day for McClatchy’s board to recommend a winner of its bankruptcy auction; smart money says it’ll be one of two hedge funds: Chatham Asset Management, the company’s current top investor, and Alden Global Capital. The Knight Foundation apparently decided not to offer a bid that might have made The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Herald-Sun in Durham part of a nonprofit chain. (Disclosure: I worked for The N&O until March 2019.)
Media and racism
The Media 2070 Consortium, a project of Free Press, will hold virtual gatherings over the next few months to examine the media’s role in racism and “to connect, dialogue and dream a way forward.” You can sign up here.
John S. Knight Community Impact Fellows are being chosen for a nine-month virtual fellowship to address information gaps in communities of color. There’s a Twitter chat about the program today (July 8) at 3:30 p.m. ET, and the deadline to apply is July 22.

Here’s a free webinar from Poynter (and the Ethical Journalism Network) that sounds helpful: Writing About the World in 2020: Dignity and Precision in Language. “From race and identity to global descriptions of places and circumstances, this webinar offers three decision-making tools to help journalists find the most precise words to ensure that all subjects and sources are described with dignity.” It’s on Wednesday, July 29, at noon.

ProPublica has added six spots to its Local Reporting Network for accountability journalism by local public broadcasting organizations. Reporters and their organizations “will spend a year working on deep-dive projects with financial support and guidance from ProPublica,” supported by a grant from the Abrams Foundation. Applications are due Sunday night (July 12); reporters will begin work Sept. 1. Get more info and apply here.

Microloans for Journalists, which started by using money pledged by journalists to make $500 loans to other journalists in need, is now making outright $500 gifts. Find out how to give or receive assistance here
For your consideration

Local voice: Penny Muse Abernathy

I caught up with Penny Muse Abernathy, Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the UNC Hussman School, to chat about the second part of her team's latest report on news deserts: The News Landscape of the Future: Transformed ... and Renewed? It's hopeful reading about what she called "opportunities that we need to confront around journalistic mission, business models, technological capabilities and policies and regulations."

Highlights of our talk, edited for length and clarity:

If someone in the local news business asked you what they should be doing, this minute, to make local media effective and sustainable, what would you say?
I think you need to start with journalistic mission.
The communities that have lost a local newspaper are our most vulnerable. They're the ones that are economically struggling. They are often minority communities, and they are very isolated. These are the very organizations that need information in order to make wise decisions ... that can affect future generations. So the first thing is to look at your journalistic mission and decide what needs to be covered and what hasn't been covered ... and make a recommitment to journalism as a civic mission.
The second thing is to be realistic about what the prospects are for a business model. If you are living in a community with average or above average prospects for either economic growth or population growth, and you're locally owned and so have some kind of independence, as well as an owner who is both creative and disciplined, you have an average to above average chance of crafting some sort of business strategy that allows you to be sustainable. If you are in an economically struggling community, you have very limited prospects for doing that. ... The nonprofit, philanthropic support mirrors the for-profit prospects for affluent communities — you've got multiple options. But if you're in an economically struggling area, as many of the counties in North Carolina are, you don't have foundations that can support you. ...
So I think it’s going to take a rethinking and a recommitment at the regional and statewide level by organizations to make sure that those communities are covered, and that the issues that confront those communities are front and center in a way that can help us create laws and policies. It is also completely incumbent on the surviving news organizations in those areas to think of creative ways of partnering, whether it is with regional organizations or whether it's putting together their own partnership. 
If a lawmaker asked you the same question?
I think this requires us to really, seriously think about increased public funding, and it can come in any number of ways. 
It can come from increased public funding of public broadcasting. One way to think about it is to say, OK, the FCC identified eight critical information needs in 2012. Those involved education, environment, health, politics, infrastructure, economic development, public safety, and I think it was civic engagement, which included everything from cultural amenities on. And so ... how do you put together a network that covers those issues either regionally or from a statewide level?
There are other ways the government has chosen to support a free press, in everything from privileged mailing rates to posting legal notices in newspapers. There's one bill, for instance, that talks about mandating that a certain percentage of public service announcements that the government pays for need to go into local newspapers. 
One of the business issues ... is that Facebook and Google siphon off as much as 75 percent of the digital revenue in even the smallest markets. So that leaves the rest of us, television stations, legacy newspapers, digital sites, ethnic media, fighting literally over the digital scraps. So one of the bills, for instance, would offer a temporary safe harbor so that news organizations could negotiate with Facebook and Google.
There are other ways — you could think about tax breaks for certain things. And I think the good part is we do have the ear of a group of people right now. The bad news is, most of the legislation there is piecemeal. And ...  this looks like it's going to be a very protracted recession. I have been talking over the last week to publishers who are saying their revenue is down between 40 and 50 percent. And as soon as the Payroll Protection Plan money runs out, they're going to have to look really hard at staffing. 
So what I would say to a politician is to look carefully and understand what is exactly at stake. ... And I think the other part, too, is raising awareness among citizens — and those that can afford to subscribe, those that can afford to give ... they need to start supporting their local news organizations. One thing we have done (in the report) is ... we used the eight critical information topics that the FCC identified, and we just constructed a very simple exercise that anybody can use to basically rate their local news. And our hope is that what that does is reinforce the notion that you need to support good local news.
What's it like being the "voice of doom"?
(Laughs.) Oh, I hate being the voice of doom. And part of what I've tried to do is raise awareness. And I do feel that over the last two years, there's been increasing awareness among first, in the industry, and now among some policymakers. And philanthropy, I think, is finally coming to terms with this. I think we still have a ways to go to make everyone understand that we all have a stake in whatever replaces the local newspaper, in whatever form it is delivered. So I keep doing this because I want to make sure we have facts so that we can identify the areas that are most at risk and, I hope, take steps and create policies that address those.
Some more resources

Need your thoughts

How are newsrooms guiding journalists about reporting in public and in person these days, where there’s a real threat of illness, and the potential of unrest? We’d like to share your advice. Send me your wisdom here.

That's all for now. Please let me know your thoughts on anything happening in the news and information community in North Carolina.

Thanks for being here. Take care. See you next week.
— Eric
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