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Now that's dedication

This one starts with a European vacation that turned into work. Along the way are impromptu train rides, weeks of nausea and naps on the floor. It ends with a prestigious award — and maybe, just maybe, some changing perceptions.

The protagonist is reporter Taylor Knopf. I worked with her for a minute when I was the interim political editor at The News & Observer in 2016, before she moved on to cover mental health for founder and editor Rose Hoban at the nonprofit North Carolina Health News. After learning that Knopf had won a first-place AHCJ Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for her six-part series called Lessons From Abroad, I called her to get the backstory.

It starts in 2018. I'll let her tell it:
I had booked these tickets to Paris for Andy and me, just as a vacation to get away. (Andy is her husband, Andy Specht, the PolitiFact NC reporter at WRAL.) A couple of months later Rose comes to the group and says, "Hey, we have this opportunity to get a last-minute Solutions Journalism grant."

I had recently read a story in, I think, the Atlantic, about a drug consumption room or a safe injection site in Paris. And I thought, we’re going to Paris, maybe I could stop by there — I mean, that’s a solution that we don't have here in the United States to the opioid problem. And I was probably the main person writing about opioids for North Carolina Health News. So I proposed to Rose ... I could tack a day or two onto my trip and visit this. 

(Eric here. Hoban told me that her reaction was: "Are you sure you want to do this on your vacation?" Well, she was. With only a few days to write a proposal, Knopf hopped on the phone.)

I had to start making contacts in Europe in the harm reduction community, and that's kind of hard to do because I don't know anybody over there, right? And there's the language barrier. So I started with, I think it was somebody who used to work at WUNC who knew somebody who worked in England who knew somebody who worked in Paris. So it was this chain of people, and finally, they said, "You know who's really at the forefront of harm reduction in Europe? It’s Switzerland. And here's the guy who's really leading the effort." So I start talking to this guy in Switzerland on the phone, and he just had all these great ideas for people I could talk to there.

And then I heard about heroin assisted treatment there ... and he's like, "By the way, it's only a six-hour train ride from Paris." So I made this grant proposal that had started with, "Hey, I'll just drop by a Paris drug consumption room" to this elaborate four-city tour in Europe that spans the course of 10 days. 

(She got the grant, changed her itinerary, and left for France a week earlier than planned, alone — to report on harm reduction programs in Paris and Bordeaux.)

And then Andy flew into Paris ... and we immediately boarded the train and went to Switzerland, and the first two to three days were actually just me working and Andy carrying my stuff and taking photos ... I mean, I took Andy into a heroin assisted treatment facility when people were literally injecting in the room next to us. We got coffee with a heroin patient afterward, and that was our evening that day. Andy was a really good sport about it all, and I think he found it super interesting, too, as another reporter.
(The actual vacation followed — hiking in the Alps, visiting family in Germany, and back to Paris. And then...)

The last few days of the trip, I started to feel sicker and sicker, and the trains were starting to get to me, like motion sickness. And the very last night in Paris, I vomited all night. Just barely could make the flight the next day because I'd been up all night sick. And I was like, wow, maybe this has all just gotten to me, all this traveling and time change, and I’d really poured myself into the trip, so I thought I was just making myself sick. But as soon as I got home, I checked the calendar and I was like, ooh — actually, this could be something else.

(And it was. It was their son, Theo, who was born the following summer, and is most definitely something else.)

And then, obviously, I had to start writing. I had to piece together all of the video, photo, and audio, everything, and I was so sick. I took naps on the floor in between writing. But it paid off.
(The photo above, showing Knopf interviewing Thilo Beck, the head psychiatrist at a heroin treatment facility in Zürich, was taken by Specht — who may or may not have a future on the visual side, if he grows tired of all that fact checking.)
The reverb
Knopf said she's heard from people throughout the country, from doctoral students to the State Department — but "the most we can ask for is the start of a conversation around these harm reduction methods that are currently illegal in the United States."

The award — first place in the Public Health (small) category of the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism competition, held by the Association of Health Care Journalists — is the first AHCJ award for NC Health News. A look at the other winners will tell you what kind of company Knopf is in.

"I have been entering AHCJ contests 15 years and never won a damn thing," Hoban, who edited the series, told me — "and here, on her first go, she wins a ... first place. I nearly lost all of my best buttons! I'm so proud of her."  

[Read the series.]
[Read Knopf's tips for reporting such a project.]
[Find out more about Solutions Journalism, including available training.]

    BTW: NC Health News is celebrating its ninth birthday and 3,000th story at noon Thursday, and you’re invited to join on Zoom to hear (and ask) about the team's work. [Register.]
Covering COVID: Don't keep your distance
The numbers are spiking. Another holiday of get-togethers is coming. And so are the vaccines — but how soon?
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

At the same time, more people seem to have pandemic fatigue. They're weary of mitigation measures — and of hearing about the virus, all the time.

While I was talking with Rose Hoban the other day, I asked her: What should North Carolina media be doing to keep people's attention now, and make sure they're getting the information they need? "I'm working on a story about just that, right now," she said.

Her advice: "Focus on the local."

“It's really about local relationships, local leaders, local people — making that a priority. But primarily local leaders. 
“I got to thinking about this because (Gov. Roy) Cooper and (HHS Secretary Mandy) Cohen were like, OK, now that the election’s over it's all going to be depoliticized. And I was like, how? That doesn't happen just by waving your hands around and saying, ‘OK, it’s all done.’ So how do you get from here to there? And so I started talking to people, and what came up is that it really has to do with leadership — local leaders ... In particular, in a state like North Carolina, things like faith leaders — can you get them on board to talk to their flocks, about, you know, what's really needed?
“A lot of it is how the message gets framed.”
But the media can’t frame the message themselves, she said. “That's like asking for someone to stick their middle finger right in your face.” Instead, “we’re asking about the framing they’re doing.”

Roy Peter Clark at Poynter offers a dozen excellent tips for writing about COVID-19 now, and many of them echo Hoban's theme: Keep it close to home. My favorite is a version of my own frequent advice: Remember that every story is a one-on-one conversation with a single reader. 
More good advice
➡️ Personalize and humanize COVID-19 fatigue. Lynn Walsh, Trusting News.

➡️ With COVID-19, give local context — not just raw numbers. Mollie Muchna, Trusting News.
Good work
➡️ I like this human, local story by Kayla Berenson in Queen City Nerve about a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher who is also a mom with a son who has severe asthma. Berenson shares this mother’s experience as she tries to figure out what to do when in-person instruction returns to her workplace. 

➡️ Jay Price of WUNC also listened to local voices: 'We Kind Of Let Our Guard Down': COVID-19 Is Now Spreading Faster In Rural N.C. Than In Cities.

➡️ This series — The High Cost of COVID-19 — looks at the pandemic’s effect on Black and Latino communities. It’s a collaboration among WFAE, the Charlotte Ledger, Q City Metro and La Noticia.
➡️ Poynter is offering a two-hour webinar to help you report on the COVID-19 vaccines, December 14 at 2 p.m. It’s free; a $15 donation is appreciated. [Register.]

➡️ The daily Covering COVID-19 newsletter, from Al Tompkins at Poynter, is good for triggering story ideas and helping you think of questions you’ll want to answer for your audience.
From the workshop

Save the date: January 13 — The first NC Local News Summit. 
The NC Local News Workshop, with support from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, will convene a virtual gathering of people and organizations based in North Carolina, and some allies from outside the state, who are reinventing and strengthening civic life and democracy through news or related disciplines. Journalists, journalism researchers, related nonprofits supporting the field, professional organizations, philanthropic funders, library science and misinformation specialists, and journalism educators are invited, among others.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., a main session and group workshops will help participants connect around key questions, such as:
  • What do we know and need to know about our state’s community information needs, and how to meet them?
  • How are we doing with advancing equity in local news?
  • What are we learning about building community-based financial support?
The idea is to train our collective brainpower on local news needs and opportunities, do some networking, learn about one another’s work, and spark ideas for action.
You can sign up and help shape the agenda by filling out this Google form. Feel free to share the link.
Putting Black community media on the map
There’s now a directory and map of the roughly 300 or so community media organizations that primarily serve Black communities in the United States, including 14 in North Carolina.

The collection includes newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, digital newsrooms, nonprofits and other outlets. You can sort it by physical and digital location, format, publication schedule, audience, ownership and contact information.

The directory, which is evolving, is being produced by the Center for Community Media’s Black Media Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. 
Bulletin board
Well done
👏 An analysis finds some interesting trends in the ballot challenges by both candidates in the state chief justice race: Newby ballot challenges in race for chief justice show outsize impact on Black voters. Tyler Dukes, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.
    ➵ Also check out this analysis of how North Carolina is getting more liberal and more conservative — at the same time: Somebody Voted for Roy Cooper and Donald Trump. Who Are These Voters? By Michael McElroy in Cardinal & Pine.


📌 Applications are open for the First Amendment Coalition’s 2020 Free Speech & Open Government Award, which recognizes work that advances freedom of expression or information and includes a $1,000 prize. [Apply by January 15.]
For your consideration
📌 Online Attacks on Women Journalists Leading to ‘Real World’ Violence, New Research Shows. Julie Posetti, Jackie Harrison and Silvio Waisbord, International Center for Journalists.
    ➵ Reminder: Reynolds Journalism Institute offers a free app, JSafe, to help female journalists fight harassment, threats, bullying and assault. Users can document incidents, store evidence and find resources. [On the Apple Store.] [On Google Play.] [Learn more.]
That's all for now. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next week. Take care. 

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