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The year of working together


What you don't need for Christmas — or in this final 2020 edition of NC Local — is my take on this consequential year.

So instead, this week I asked a few smart people: What work in North Carolina journalism inspired or enlightened you this year, and what gives you hope for 2021? (We’re also asking this as people register for the first NC Local News Summit on Jan. 13; more on that below.)

There's a theme here:
Lovey Cooper, managing editor of Scalawag (whose essay Reckoning with white supremacy: Five fundamentals for white folks was featured in CJR's The best journalism of 2020: Covering racial justice):

In a year chock full of confusing nationwide developments and competing headlines, I've noticed that North Carolina Health News has done an amazing job at emphasizing intersectionality by localizing huge national stories for their specific existing audience, and avoided alienating their existing audiences...

I've been consistently impressed not only with their ability to rapidly and thoughtfully respond to the obvious COVID-19 mayhem as it influences and changes their priorities, but also in their reliability and commitment to telling new, in-depth stories around racial justice, incarceration, environmental justice, and elections with that same health-centric lens.

From my work with Scalawag, I know this has been a difficult year for long-term planning, timing, and execution on robust reporting projects and those nitty-gritty engagement questions, when the next day's news cycle seems to have already moved on.

 
Something I hope to see more of in 2021 is this commitment to using the "current moment" not solely as a trending news priority for clicks, but as a lens through which to offer new entryways into the kinds of work we do throughout the year.

So often we see a siloing of "niche" publications as separate from "the news of the day," but this year has shown that you'll never know when your expertise will be called upon. Being prepared for that moment by clearly laying out those direct connections between "what everyone is talking about" versus "what we've been talking about all along" is huge for keeping new audiences engaged in your work far past that viral moment, and I commend them for it! 
Lyndsey Gilpin, founder and EIC of Southerly; JSK Community Impact Fellow:

If it weren't for the work of Enlace Latino NC, we would be in the dark about what is happening in rural and urban Latinx communities across the state during the pandemic. Enlace, through its Spanish-language site and its collaborations, has put faces and names to the statistics about Latinx people being disproportionately harmed by COVID. One set of stories I loved was with The News & Observer, about COVID-19 impacts on Latinos. Another was this series by Victoria Bouloubasis about the effects of extreme weather in rural communities.  

One of my favorite things about running a journalism organization based in North Carolina is how collaborative and supportive other newsroom leaders and local news advocates are. This is becoming more and more true throughout the South, and that makes me hopeful for the future of this industry. Together, we can reach more people — especially folks this industry has left behind, like rural areas and communities of color. We can produce better, more thoughtful, well-rounded stories, and help each other fill gaps.
Nick Ochsner, investigative executive producer at WBTV, founding member of the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network, and a chef whose culinary skills are under review:

I was inspired by the coverage of Senate Bill 168, the legislation that passed in the dark of night that included a provision that would make many death investigation records secret. This little-noticed provision would have had a huge impact on the public's ability to get information about in-custody deaths. It passed both chambers of the legislature and was headed for a signature from Governor Cooper but for the eagle eyes of Lucille Sherman, a young, relatively new politics reporter at The News & Observer. Thanks to Lucille, we were able to call out the secrecy provision, protesters demanded Gov. Cooper veto the bill, and he did (and, if he hadn't, lawmakers were ready to repeal that provision)... 

It's a reminder that local journalism can and still does have a huge impact on state and local government. It also makes me hopeful heading into 2021 because we have a crop of young journalists that have joined outlets across the state (print, broadcast and digital) and are adding vigor and enthusiasm to their coverage and making the rest of us better as a result.
Penny Abernathy, leader of the Expanding News Desert project at UNC who is retiring as Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics  (more on that below):

Strong local journalism nurtures grassroots democracy and builds community. The past year has shown how much we all need credible and comprehensive information to guide the quality-of-life decisions we make every day as residents in the state’s largest and smallest communities. 

There is increased bipartisan support in Congress for policies that support the creation and distribution of local journalism, and our beleaguered news organizations have begun to get more financial support from a variety of stakeholders, including ordinary citizens and philanthropic organizations. All of this gives hope that 2021 will be the year we come together – at the local, state and national level – to solve the issues confronting local news.
Issac Bailey, James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy, Davidson College, and author of Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland:

My hope is growing because of the chatter I hear about new investments in news products, whether through non-profits who are targeting specific communities to get them better information about COVID, or potentially new private news ventures. I hope that continues and that investment grows.
Ju-Don Marshall, chief content officer and executive vice president, WFAE:

There is so much inspiring work happening across North Carolina. Carolina Public Press and North Carolina Health News stand out for me because of their COVID-19 related coverage in general but especially around infection rates and safety issues for prisons and nursing homes. That said, the most innovative work I’ve seen this year is from the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative’s partnership with local artists to illustrate the story of the pandemic through a graphic novel. (WFAE is a member of the collaborative.)  

When I returned to North Carolina three years ago, there wasn’t a lot of interest in collaborations, so to see the way they’ve blossomed this year is inspiring. As a result, we’ve seen coverage gaps start to close in some critical areas: affordable housing, elections, COVID-19, issues affecting communities of color, etc. 
Lizzy Hazeltine, growth consultant who is fund coordinator at the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, which supports the NC Local News Workshop, the home of this newsletter:

This year confronted us with how a lack of news and info access can lead to suffering, and how being informed can offer safety, and maybe even hope. I'm particularly encouraged by the way news organizations and community organizations worked together to reduce the number of our neighbors who didn't have the information to keep themselves safe.

I hope that the hard-won victories from 2020 are the foundation of what's possible in 2021. People pulled off so much equity-driving, community-serving relational work and effective reporting in a miserable, harrowing year. The influx of support from local and national funders is well-deserved recognition that North Carolina organizations are addressing problems with national relevance. I hope that the work here, and the way organizations are doing it, leads to more funding and more attention on our state's momentum.
John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record, lecturer and director of adjuncts at the UNC Hussman School and writer of the Media, disrupted blog:

Against a background of newspapers gasping for air, accountability journalism continues its brave fight to keep people informed about how the powerful work. Despite regular layoffs, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer have continued their commitment to in-depth investigation into the wrong-headed actions of the government and the state's institutions. The Daily Tar Heel has been unyielding in questioning the university's actions on everything from Silent Sam to how it's handled the pandemic. The Asheville Citizen Times has pushed hard on issues of importance to Buncombe County, too.

But accountability journalism doesn't stop with investigations. Papers across the state have kept their coverage focused on the pandemic and the racial issues raised by the death of George Floyd. I am thinking especially of newspapers in rural, more conservative parts of the state. Hardly a Sunday passes that stories about the virus aren't featured on the front pages of the state's smaller papers.

The same is often true of stories about efforts of Black citizens marching or meeting with town officials to hammer away at institutional racism. Hard issues to tackle when half of the country throws around "fake news" whenever they encounter stories they don't like.
 
It takes tough journalists to pursue truth and demand accountability. All of these efforts inspire the hell out of me.

As for hope: For me, it's in the innovative spirit. ... The recent purchase of the Charlotte Agenda (more on that below) indicates that there is a market for a different kind of news coverage. Triad City Beat has done the same in a different way in the Triad (and been an important investigative voice). The News Reporter in Whiteville has been at the forefront of trying to make the shift from print to digital. I hope there are other efforts, particularly in communities outside the metros. It doesn't escape me that, until the Agenda sale, those three I mentioned were not owned by large corporations. But it does give hope that small initiatives with a mission focus can help their readers and communities.
Jane Elizabeth, media consultant who has been an editor in several newsrooms, most recently as managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun:

I’m so inspired by the public recognition I’ve seen this year — during the pandemic, protests, natural disasters and more — of the value of professional journalism. Local journalists have stepped up like never before and responded to their readers’ questions, concerns and information needs. Those audiences have really propelled journalists through an extremely challenging time, and it’s been a valuable learning experience for everyone. 
 
I hope newsrooms will continue these connections. That recognition of mutual need will help sustain the business of journalism.
Some other thoughtful takes:
 
➡️ Why I’m hopeful about local news in 2021. Teresa Gorman, senior program associate for local news in the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund.

➡️ 5 Business Model Shifts for Local News in 2021 and Beyond. Mark Glaser, Trust, Media and Democracy.

➡️ ‘Ready for transformative change’: How the Media 2070 creators are building on the newsroom reckonings for 2021. An interview with three leaders of the Media 2070 project by Holly Butcher Grant for the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

➡️ There are flickers of hope for local journalism. So far, it’s not nearly enough. Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post.
 
Speaking of getting together...

Local news needs community, just as communities need local news.

All of that energy and innovation and mutual support in North Carolina local news should be shared and enhanced, as well as celebrated. That’s why we’re gathering people on Jan. 13 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the first NC Local News Summit — to make connections, learn what people are doing, and brainstorm to solve problems or boost opportunities. Speakers and breakout session leaders who will be at the summit have a grounding in North Carolina and a national vision.

The session is hosted by the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University with support from the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

➡️ [Learn more.] [Register now.]

News about the news


Penny Abernathy, who has led the most essential research on the state of local news, on the growth of news deserts and on possible paths to a better future, is retiring as Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’ll become a visiting professor at Northwestern’s Medill School.
 
The good news for us is that, with Medill’s Local News Initiative, she’ll continue working on solutions to the challenges that face local news providers.

   ➵ One of the best hours I spent in 2020 was late one July afternoon, chatting with Abernathy about her work and about the future. The highlights are here.

My friend and colleague Ferrel Guillory is also retiring from the UNC Hussman School after 23 years of service there. Gerry Hancock pays tribute to his life in journalism in this piece for EdNC, which Guillory co-founded and where he continues as vice chair of the board and editorial advisor (and where I work part-time as news and audience editor).
 
And this is what 2020 calls 'winding down' ...

A whole lot of news has dropped in the past week:

🗞️ Gaston County commissioners have dropped their libel suit against The Gaston Gazette but are looking into pulling their legal notices from the paper, Ann Doss Helms reports for WFAE. Moving those notices elsewhere could cost the paper $70,000 to $100,000 a year but, as retaliation for news coverage, would be “a flagrant violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights,” North Carolina Press Association counsel John Bussian told Austin Weinstein of The Charlotte Observer.

🗞️ Axios, which is expanding into local markets, is buying The Charlotte Agenda, a thriving digital start-up founded in 2015 by Ted Williams, in a deal reported to be worth nearly $5 million. Williams will still run the site, which will now be known as Axios Charlotte.

🗞️ Bervette Carree, a North Carolina native and a graduate of N.C. A&T State University, will become news director at ABC11/WTVD-TV in the Triangle on Jan. 11. Carree is executive producer at WXIA in Atlanta and has been executive producer at WGHP in High Point and a producer at WRAL in Raleigh, WCNC in Charlotte and WITN in Greenville.

🗞️ There’s some movement in the right direction, at least, regarding media access to Alamance County courts, as Carli Brosseau reports for The News & Observer.

🗞️ Good news: It appears that the latest federal COVID-19 relief bill expands eligibility for forgivable Payroll Protection Program loans to nonprofits and local news organizations that weren't eligible for such aid earlier this year because their parent companies were too large.
 

Well done


👏 Two North Carolina projects won NABJ Awards Salute to Excellence honors last weekend, in the Market 16 and Below television division: Justin Hinton and Sean Braswell of WLOS in Asheville in the General Assignment News: Short Form category for "Following Dad’s Whistle"; and Steve Crump of WBTV in Charlotte in the Investigative category for "Revealing an Unsolved Lynching."

👏 Some more useful work on COVID-19: Ali Ingersoll of WRAL found some enlightening trends by studying the death records of more than 260 victims in Wake County ... Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer reported how a prison became a hotspot ... Max Millington of Cardinal & Pine interviewed sociologist Allison Mathews about how to help people understand and trust the vaccines ... and Liora Engel-Smith of NC Health News reported on an urgent need for older rural residents — incontinence and hygiene products.

Engagement and jubilation


“In 2021, we’ll see a number of innovative publishers, particularly ones focused on niche audiences, devise clever ways to engage their audiences with online events,” says Rodney Gibbs of The Texas Tribune, an events pioneer, in his forecast for Nieman Lab. Scalawag and the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative are ahead of the curve. 
 
Scalawag has hosted several online events to engage its audience and build awareness. Some are focused on content, executive director-publisher Cierra Hinton told me, and some are celebrations, like its latest — a jubilee called Communing this month that celebrated cooking, cocktails and storytelling.

“We did it cooking show style, but the cooking involved strong narrative storytelling related to our content,” Hinton said.

Scalawag's events are "all about fun, getting to know folks, and celebration," she added.
 
The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative — a partnership including The Charlotte Observer, La Noticia, QCity Metro, QNotes, WCNC-TV and WFAE — hosted a jubilee Dec. 13 with uncommon, a design studio that specializes in augmented and virtual reality and interactive installations. “We wanted to gather to celebrate all that we’ve learned in 2020 and set the stage for where we go in the new year,” Chris Rudisill, CJC director, told me.
 
More than 50 guests could choose an avatar and move around a virtual space where they could interact and talk about local journalism. 
 
“With a cake delivery, swag, spatial conversation technology, and Zoom, we got to play with all of those things together and provide feedback opportunities for newsrooms while creating a fun space for relationship and community building,” said Alicia Bell, organizing manager with Free Press, a media and justice advocacy group that’s also part of the collaborative, along with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University. 
 
The jubilee included two “Power Half Hours” where attendees shared their thoughts on local journalism and the collaborative's work in small groups with reporters and publishers, Rudisill said.
 
“A lot of people, in our small groups, commented on the need to center race equity in our collaborative work, and I’m glad we got to practice that by partnering with Black and Brown vendors,” Bell said. “How we do the work is just as important as whatever the work is we’re doing.”
Bulletin board
 
Job posting
 
📌 Reporter, The Watauga Democrat.

Opportunities
 
📌Trust 101: Trusting News is offering a free, monthlong online course beginning Jan. 19 that will teach research-backed strategies for earning trust — for journalists, and also for educators. [Apply by Jan. 4.]

📌Report for America, which puts emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities, is now building an “experienced” corps of journalists with eight or more years on the job. [Learn more and apply.]
 
In a giving mood?

Here's a newly enhanced way to help local news: The Google News Initiative and Abrams Foundation are investing a combined $1 million in the 2020 NewsMatch fund — and that means that every participating newsroom that raises $11,500 from its audience by Dec. 31 will get not only an equal matching gift from NewsMatch, but a $2,500 “GNI Bonus.”

The North Carolina participants (and your potential beneficiaries): AVL Watchdog, Carolina Public Press, Enlace Latino NC, Foundation for Financial Journalism, North Carolina Health News, Scalawag, Southerly, The Local Reporter, The War Horse and WFAE.
 
And ICYMI...
 
📌 Here is The Kansas City Star's reckoning with its racist past.

📌 One of my favorite writers in these (or any) parts, Barry Yeoman, offers his annual list of the best longform journalism of the year.
Surely that's enough for one crazy year. NC Local is taking a break next week.
I hope you're all getting a break, too. Thanks for all you're doing.
See you in 2021. Take care. 
Eric

 
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