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When the Asheville City Council decided it would close the doors today for the first day of a two-day gathering, in a session to “strengthen alignment, teamwork and trust,” it didn’t reckon on another kind of alignment and teamwork — and a legal covenant of trust.

Local media reported on the plan to violate the state’s open meetings law, including Mountain Xpress Managing Editor Virginia Daffron, who wrote that “we take our watchdog role seriously” and that previous team-building exercises had illuminated “personal histories and philosophies that Council members and senior city staffers brought to their work.” Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press, Matt Bush of Blue Ridge Public Radio and Joel Burgess of the Asheville Citizen Times also reported on the issue.

Amanda Martin, general counsel to the NC Press Association, and Frayda Bluestein, professor in the UNC School of Government, advised that the gathering — at a public facility, with two facilitators paid with public money — was a meeting, subject to the law.

The Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, Asheville Watchdog and Mountain Xpress joined to argue that point Monday in court, and Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steven Warren agreed Tuesday. Today’s teamwork session will be open to the media and public.

“After a year in which the public has had less access to public officials and the public process, we felt that this was the wrong time to lock a meeting that’s previously been open,” Daffron told me after the ruling. The joint effort, she said, “shows all local government entities, not just Asheville City Council, that we’re committed to advocating for everyone’s right to have access to the workings of their government.”

In an odd postscript, the council then canceled its planned livestream of the event — and decided instead to offer a recording later on YouTube.
Speaking of vigilance...
 
Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun has won the 2021 Sunshine Award for Journalism from the NC Open Government Coalition for her late-night detection and reporting of a legislative provision, buried in a 17-page bill, that could have kept many records on North Carolina death investigations secret.

The reporting was followed by protests and the governor's veto of the bill, Senate Bill 168. Sherman talks about how it happened in my newsletter of last July 8.

Sherman credited her editor, Jordan Schrader, and reporters Nick Ochsner of WBTV and the aforementioned Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press with helping her report the story.

By the way, those folks are all among the members of the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, which is celebrating a year of collaborative investigative reporting. Happy Birthday, watchdogs.
    ➵ Read more about how that network operates in my newsletter last May 26.

Local voice: Chris Fitzsimon
 
I caught up with Chris Fitzsimon to get an update on States Newsroom, a network of newsrooms reporting on policy and politics, based in state capitals, with the administrative, financial and editing support of its national office based in Chapel Hill. Launched in 2019, States Newsroom continues to expand, in its network of newsrooms and in its content sharing. Fitzsimon is the director and publisher.
 
As of today, with the launch at 10 a.m. ET of the Idaho Capital Sun, there are 21 newsrooms — 18 affiliates, which States Newsroom has created, and three partners, which it supports (including NC Policy Watch, a progressive news and commentary outlet where Fitzsimon was a founder and executive director). It plans to add affiliates this year in New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico and Oregon.

Originally financed by the Hopewell Fund, a nonprofit that incubates social change endeavors, States Newsroom is now an independent, donor-supported 501(c)(3).
 
It also recently refined a republishing tool, Fitzsimon said, to make it easier for other newsrooms to use its content — any media outlet is free to do so, with credit. “We reach out to some of the rural papers to let them know it's there, if they want to use it,” said Fitzsimon, who added that much of States Newsroom's mission is to fill coverage gaps left where news outlets are shrinking.
 
The newsrooms average four or five reporters and editors, and each has a physical office. Fitzsimon has two national editors who oversee the editors in the states — my friend and former N&O colleague Mary Cornatzer, and Andrea Shaw, a North Carolina native who came from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, plus a Washington bureau chief, Jane Norman, who came from Politico. Fitzsimon said he plans to add another national editor at some point.
 
Highlights of our chat, edited for length and clarity:
What does States Newsroom bring?

I think there's still a need for daily, insightful reporting about what happens in state capitals — holding the politicians accountable, but also trying to explain to people what the decisions made in the state capital ... have to do with their lives. I still believe that state government, when you combine the impact it has on people's lives and the lack of attention it gets in many places, is the most important level of government that we can report on. And I think we're doing it in a couple of ways.

One is, we're doing it with our reporting — and in every state we have really good journalists, with reporting and commentary. But also we've established this service where a lot of rural papers that can't afford AP, can't afford a reporter, carry our legislative coverage.

There was some early controversy about your funding. Tell me about your financing now.

I think there's been some misunderstanding from the beginning. We were incubated at something called the Hopewell Fund. That was literally just a financial sponsor because we wanted to start the journalism before we had our 501(c)(3). Last November 1 we began operating as a national freestanding nonprofit ... and we list every entity that has given us $500 or more on our funding page. So it comes from foundations, family funds, donor advised funds, individuals, local foundations in states.

Do donors direct money to specific newsrooms?
 

We're certainly welcome to that, if people want to make a contribution to fund a position at a specific outlet. Obviously, we wouldn't take foundation money if there were any restrictions on our content or how we covered stories. 
 
What's it like expanding and hiring during a pandemic?
 

Well, it's very difficult, and I think the strength of our model was that I and Andrea Verykoukis, our deputy director…  spent a lot of time on the phone learning about the state and the journalists and the culture and trying to figure out what was missing in that state and who's available and what are the stories that we could help amplify, how we can work with existing outlets — and that's much easier to do at a coffee shop, when you can really get to know somebody. It's been difficult and different, but not impossible.

I'm looking forward to the days when reporters can cover every story in person. There’s nothing like being at a governor's press conference or legislative hearing, when you're in the room and you can see who's talking to whom, and you think about body language and what that means … when a person who's impacted by a policy is in the room and you can talk to them immediately. Just the whole nature of reporting, I think, is much better because it's all based on people, and people have three dimensions, not two.

Do all of your partners have physical newsrooms?
 
Every newsroom has an office. Of course, they've all been working virtually through the pandemic. But yeah, we think it's really important for young reporters to be in the same space as more veteran folks and with the editor — so many good ideas and context and all those things are much easier if you can shout across the hall or talk at the coffee pot.
 
You’ll soon be in half of the state capitals. Do you keep expanding?
 
I don't know. I think we're probably going to take stock of where we are and try to decide, depending on how the landscape looks and what's needed out there. We've actually had some folks in states call us and ask us if we would consider coming there and partnering with them or granting affiliates, so we're exploring those opportunities. We always want to build capacity in the states that we have, obviously.
 
Tell me what you're proud of.
 
We're really proud of the Minnesota Reformer (it's a finalist for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment in the Scripps Howard Awards), and I think in every state where we are eligible, we've won press association awards from our peers. But I think it’s the fact that we're being reprinted in so many places and people recognize the credibility of the reporting. I'm mostly proud of the journalists that we've hired and the editors that we have and just the reporting that they do every day. You know, there are so many models out there and so many things that people are trying, and I think what we do is the bread and butter of what journalism is about. The national publications follow our stories and cite our work quite often, so we're helping bring some of these state stories to a national audience.
 
What's the No. 1 lesson you've learned that might help other editors and publishers?
 
There's a hunger — a hunger for traditional, thoughtful, insightful reporting about what's happening in (readers’) states, in state government, and how it affects their lives. … It's even greater than we thought. 
 
And I think the second thing is that we have to continue to figure out what the future of journalism is and how it all works, but we have to do the work while we're figuring that out — there's so many important stories to tell … The model that we set up was, editors in our states don't have to spend a lot of time fundraising, they don't have to manage HR, they don't have to do all the bureaucratic things ... We want them to do the journalism every day. That's enough of a job with four or five or six people. So, our theory is, let's do the journalism as best we can, as often as we can, as relentlessly as we can, as we continue to raise money and refine the model and do all those things. But we can't let these stories go untold while we're all trying to figure it out.
The Minnesota Reformer report that's a Scripps Howard finalist, "The Bad Cops," resulted from a lawsuit that obtained disciplinary files from the Minneapolis Police Department. It found what it called a "pattern of mismanagement" in holding officers accountable.
 

The beauty of a good narrative


‘The industry underestimates how much people understand and appreciate good storytelling. Loving stories is an inherent human trait.’

That's Lyndsey Gilpin of Durham, founder and EIC of Southerly and a JSK Community Impact Fellow, talking about the value of deeply reported narrative journalism in this piece by Lauren Harris for CJR. Gilpin (and Harris) also mention the challenges to delivering great narratives — the need for resources and time to do them; the need to focus on impact and audience reach; and the urgency of the more banal but crucial information (Where can I get a vaccine this week?).

But there's power in story.

Katie Jane Fernelius knows, and her chronicle of Rocky Mount for The Assembly, about its glory, its collapse, its rebirth and that railroad line that runs down the middle — is it a fissure or a zipper? — resonates with Southern truths about race and place. Photojournalist Hanna Wondmagegn's eye helps tell the story. (ICYMI: Here's more about The Assembly, the new statewide digital magazine that's heavily invested in long-form reporting, in my interview this month with founder Kyle Villemain.)
 
Other work well done...

👏 Secret until now, records reveal clash over the Trump DOJ’s demand for NC voter data. Tyler Dukes of The News & Observer/Herald-Sun and Travis Fain of WRAL. 

👏 The Battle for Alamance: Part One by Joe Killian and Part Two by Lynn Bonner, NC Policy Watch.

Listening across the trust divide


Carolina Public Press has joined a project led by Trusting News and the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas to learn from what conservatives think of local journalism (as opposed to “the media” in general) and to close the gap in trust.

“We're always interested in hearing voices from people across the spectrum,” CPP news editor Laura Lee told me. “And, you know, it's pretty striking, but there's a Gallup poll showing about 10% of conservatives have trust in (media). So an opportunity to connect with people in our audience who identify as right-leaning or conservative seemed like a good listening opportunity.” 

Carolina Public Press is asking people who identify as conservative to take a 10-minute survey and sign up to be among three to five people who will get a followup interview by CPP reporter Jordan Wilkie. The survey questions cover attitudes toward news providers, trust in journalism, suggested improvements, news habits and demographics. 

Carolina Public Press is always looking for gaps in coverage and audience, Lee said. “Any time you can hear from an audience about how they make their news judgments, what sources they go to, what gives them confidence ... that's useful information.”

Findings will be released this summer.
 
More news about the news

🗞️ Jordan Green, a founder and senior editor at Triad City Beat, is now covering far-right extremism full time for Raw Story. Associate editor Sayaka Matsuoka will become managing editor at TCB, and Green will remain as editorial advisor — his “institutional memory is priceless,” publisher and executive editor Brian Clarey told me.

🗞️ Zeynep Tufekci of UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, a top scholar on the interaction of technology and society who has done much work on COVID-19 misinformation, will help to build the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University as a visiting professor this fall.

🗞️ McClatchy will lay off at least 26 staffers over the next five months by outsourcing its page design and typesetting, Kristen Hare reports for Poynter. McClatchy, of course, owns The Charlotte Observer, The N&O in Raleigh and The Herald-Sun in Durham.
 

From the Workshop


The NC Local News Workshop wants to help those covering the release in the coming months of the 2020 U.S. Census data — including data that will be used for electoral redistricting. (The release is expected in September.) If you’re looking for training, resources, specific help, or partners, email interim executive director Melanie Sill.

Bulletin board

 
Job postings
 
📌 Banking/finance reporter, The Charlotte Observer.
📌 Sports editor, The Sanford Herald.

📌 The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative is looking for temporary interns or freelancers to help with data collection, to be done in person at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, for a major data project. Work can start immediately; hours are flexible. [Learn more and apply.]

Newsletters

📌 Poynter has started The Collective, a monthly newsletter to “pass the mic,” as its logo says, among journalists of color — to amplify voices, share experiences and get advice. The TEGNA Foundation is providing financial support, meaning contributors can get freelance fees. [Propose a submission.] [Subscribe.]

📌 The Media 2070 and News Voices projects at Free Press are launching a monthly newsletter on “what’s new, thought-provoking and transformative at the intersection of media and racial justice.” Each edition will present “one big idea” that “could move us all closer to a future where media have helped bring about a just society.” [Subscribe. ] [Learn more about Media 2070.]

Opportunities
 
📌 Add more nuance and context to the language you use in your reporting on incarcerated people: A free, one-hour webinar led by ethics experts at the Poynter Institute with panelists from The Marshall Project, April 21 at noon ET. [Enroll.]

📌 The News Leaders Association's First Amendment Award recognizes journalism about protecting or advancing FOI principles or overcoming resistance to application of the First Amendment. [Enter by April 23.]
 
Free help
 
Some strong guides to assessing communities' access to news, engaging readers and building equity in newsrooms have dropped in the past month:

📌 Impact Architects, commissioned by the Google News Initiative, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund, built a playbook to help news organizations and funders evaluate a communities’ access to quality local news and information. It can help identify gaps and opportunities — and it looks more at unmet needs than at the presence or absence of information and news sources.

📌 America Amplified, a national public media collaboration funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has produced a playbook to guide a newsroom through innovative ways to engage communities.

📌 Do you respond to Facebook comments on your work? If so, you can turn enmity into engagement by acknowledging commenters' emotions. Check this research by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.

📌 The Trans Journalists Association offers Best Practices for Trans-Friendly Workplace Policies.

For your consideration (and sustenance)


➡️ The gift that keeps giving? Philanthropy, rather than just being a bridge to journalism's next business model, can actually be a crucial part of that model, Steven Waldman of Report for America argues. The key is to make philanthropy a consistent third revenue stream, along with reader revenue and advertising, by treating it not as a "sudden burst of good fortune," but by creating permanent funds or endowments. Strong guardrails are needed, of course, to make sure the journalism remains independent. Read more on Waldman's vision.
   ➵ Jane Elizabeth, when she was managing editor of The N&O/Herald-Sun last year, led the creation of this excellent guidebook for getting grants for journalism and this directory of potential funding sources.
   ➵ The Lenfest News Philanthropy Network has announced several new courses and workshops. Get the details here, and you can sign up for a newsletter to stay informed.
That's all for now. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next week. Take care. 
Eric

 
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