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The unpublishing business

The ring of a newsroom phone can bring almost anything. A complaint. A great story. Some new "words" for your lexicon. A service issue you know zero about. An inquiry about your forebears. An endless monologue about nothing. Cold pizza.

For me, the most troubling always was:

'HELP. I can’t get a job. And it’s because of you.'

In the digital age, crime reporting means that some people who make minor mistakes, or have their charges dropped or reduced, or who redeem themselves, or who might be found innocent, can still be forever "guilty by Google," as Deborah Dwyer puts it. But should past, factual reporting be removed?

Dwyer is a former reporter and communications professional in her native state, Tennessee, who’s a Ph.D candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. But for now she’s in Columbia, MO, as a 2020-2021 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, continuing to research what she calls the “ethics and practicalities of unpublishing” — removing old but factual content from the internet, by request and for reason. Her mission: To create tools and collect best practices to make unpublishing, when and if it's deemed necessary, more manageable for newsrooms, and more fair for everyone.

Some news outfits are rolling out projects to address the issue, notably The Boston Globe with its Fresh Start initiative. Funding from the Google News Initiative is helping look for tech tools to assist its Right to be Forgotten policy. The Bangor Daily News in Maine now takes requests to delist old crime stories from search engines. And some Colorado newsrooms are "joining the movement."

I reached out to Dwyer to hear more about the challenges, the implications and possible solutions. The issue is a passion for her; she can talk about it all day (and we damn near did), so I've distilled her insights into a few key points here. Read my deep dive on the NC Local News Workshop for more of our conversation.
Some things we need to consider

Almost no one has a process for dealing with requests for unpublishing, or consistent standards for making the decisions. Dwyer has written about why that's crucial.

Few newsrooms are tracking what they do. "How in the world are we ever going to identify best practices, and some basic standards, if we don't even know what we're dealing with?" she asks. And "we don't even have anything that holds us accountable for the previous decisions we've made.”

It's an equity issue. Aside from the systemic inequities in the justice system, "who has the knowledge and the resources to even request that something be unpublished?" she said. We must "make it more equitable than just offering the opportunity to people who raise their hand." She has written in depth about that.

It’s a resource issue. Strapped newsrooms barely have time for "dealing with the fire at the moment — the one person screaming at them on the phone."

It’s a transparency issue. “How does the public even know to submit these? What are the protocols for decisions to be made?”
Dwyer's advice

Most important: Rethink your coverage decisions. Do reports of minor crime serve a real purpose? It's up for debate — but you can avoid questions later by being more intentional in the present. "Look at your reporting practices that can easily lead to unnecessary unpublishing requests, where are we identifying people, or using content that is of minimum value, potentially, to the public, yet is gonna be highly susceptible to unpublishing later on," she said. Here are some of her recent findings on that.

Track what you do. "I would say keep a record from the get-go," she said, "to make sure that your guidelines are as consistent as possible."

Don't put it in one person's hands. "Nobody ought to be playing God.... You've got to unpublish by consensus."

Be transparent. Make any policy clear to the public. The hurdle Dwyer is finding: Newsroom leaders say "the minute we start publicizing it ... we're gonna get more requests.” If you want a policy, you need to get past that.

Also: Stick by your policy. Devote enough resources to it. Be mindful of fault lines.
Next steps

“We're building a website at," Dwyer said, "where we'll have resources and news about unpublishing and an editor's forum where people can go and talk about some of those dilemmas they’re having, because there's not enough sharing going on from newsroom to newsroom.”

I'll let you know when that site is ready, and also about a webinar Dwyer is organizing through RJI in March on how reporting on crime and courts is evolving to meet the issues.

Meanwhile, you can hear more about Dwyer’s research when RJI fellows present an overview of their projects in a webinar next Tuesday, Feb. 16, at noon ET. [Register.]

For now, Dwyer would love to hear from you — questions, concerns, opinions, ideas. You can contact her by email or on Twitter.
Dive deeper into the unpublishing debate in this post about our conversation.
More learning and resources

➡️ Pew survey: Most Americans support right to have some personal info removed from online searches.
➡️ Dwyer's page on the Reynolds Journalism Institute site, including some of her writings.
➡️ Dwyer's take on the Globe initiative: some elements to consider.
➡️ Joshua Benton's take on the Globe project, for Nieman Lab.
➡️ Dwyer says we need a better word than 'unpublishing' to describe the issue.
➡️ ICYMI: Defund the crime beatTauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli, Nieman Lab.
From the Workshop

Coming up: a data journalism workshop, and some hands-on training that will produce a local news story. It's via the NC Local News Workshop, associate professor Ryan Thornburg of the UNC Hussman School and the NC Press Association.

On Zoom at 2 pm Feb. 26, join Thornburg, student reporter Rachel Crumpler and News & Observer metro editor Thad Ogburn to learn how they acquired and analyzed data to produce a front-page story on discrepancies in public health funding. The session — How to use data to report about public health spending — is free, courtesy of NCPA as part of its winter convention. You can learn more and get a registration link here.

Participants then may apply to be one of five reporters in a free two-hour workshop March 15 at 3 pm, led by Thornburg and Workshop interim director Melanie Sill, to walk through the steps of using data to find and tell stories about local public health departments. Those five will report on their local department's funding and contribute to the statewide database. The deadline to apply is March 5.
    ➵ Learn more here. Questions? Email Melanie Sill.

Well done

A reading list for lovers of meaningful local journalism:

👏 Alexis Wray was the EIC at the A&T Register, the student newsroom at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, when she and her colleagues researched and confirmed a suspicion: Local news media were naming the HBCU as a sort of "locator guide" when reporting on unrelated crime nearby. It was just one example of how media inject unconscious bias into their version of the Black Narrative — and the student journalists did something about it. Wray tells the story in Scalawag.
   ➵ It's Black Narrative-Power Month at Media 2070, with a curated series of collaborative events exploring narrative justice. [Learn more.]
   ➵ A Scalawag collection: Essential Reading: Black History and Black Futures
   ➵ Check out #BlackFutureHeadlines on Twitter.

👏 Hannah Critchfield in NC Health News looks into a tragic prophecy fulfilled — the dramatic rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic … 👏 Dan Kane of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reports on the noble task of tracking domestic abuse — but a flawed process to select who got public money to do it …

👏 Taylor Knopf and Liora Engel-Smith of NC Health News tell us how the pandemic has boosted drug use👏 Christian Green in Carolina Public Press plays mythbuster on the COVID vaccines, examining the popular misconceptions, one at a time ...

👏 Nick Ochsner of WBTV in Charlotte reveals how a state program to quickly pay rent and utility bills for people affected by the pandemic is still sitting on most of its money … 👏 Courtney Mabeus in Carolina Public Press reports what happened in November to 419 ballots in North Carolina that had a late or missing postmark … 👏 Alex Granados of EdNC breaks the news of a dramatic rise in the number of North Carolina counties in economic distress (disclosure: I’m the part-time news and audience editor at EdNC, but I wasn’t involved in this report) ...

👏 Andrew Carter of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun brings the story of the rural high school basketball team that lost a game by 103 points, and the teacher-coach who is trying to "help forgotten kids in a forgotten place."
    ➵ There’s now a fundraiser for the program, BTW.

A doubleheader split

The Chronicle at Duke raised $39,770 to beat The Daily Tar Heel by about $3,000 in their latest fundraising Rivalry Challenge, which ended just before the Devils and Heels renewed their hoops feud in Durham. But that score is a win for both newsrooms.

Print advertising revenue “is down considerably this year, so this victory takes the budget pressure off,” Chronicle GM Chrissy Beck told me. “We invest all fundraising back into funding the student experience — training, internships, scholarships, experiences and tools — so this ensures we don’t need to cut any funding again this year.” Great news.

(The Heels prevailed in the nightcap, 91-87.)
Also from the campuses:

   ➵ The Chronicle and The Bridge, an online publication and social media outlet at Duke and UNC, were recognized by The Student Press Law Center in its collection of 21 Excellent Stories of Student Journalism Against the Odds, for their Bridging The Gap podcast on race, gender and marginalization at Duke. The law center assembled the collection to celebrate Student Press Freedom Day 2021. The DTH was also honored for its four-year fight to open campus sexual assault records.

   ➵ Provocative headlines are becoming a Tar Heel tradition. The latest, straight from the Pack backers' playbook, is on a rebuke of students’ rush to Franklin Street after the win over Duke, and law enforcement’s response — Editorial: Go to hell, Carolina.
More news about the news...

🗞️ Once again, legislators have filed bills that would let some counties run public notices on their own websites, and not in newspapers. The proposals would have implications for government transparency and information equity, as well as revenue. And this year the proposals were filed as local bills, to avoid a governor's veto, as Colin Campbell explains. NCPA Executive Director Philip M. Lucey makes the case for “no.”
   ➵ Here's where you can contact legislators.

🗞️ The Journalism Grants Directory, created in 2019 by Jane Elizabeth when she was managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, is now part of the Local Media Association’s NewsFuel program, which connects newsrooms with funding sources. Under Elizabeth’s guidance, the directory had grown to include hundreds of funding opportunities, tips and resource guides and was shared with the wider news ecosystem. Elizabeth left the McClatchy newsroom late last year to focus on media consulting.

🗞️ The N&O and Herald-Sun will be printed in Fayetteville starting in April, eliminating 48 full-time and 33 part-time jobs at a production facility in Garner. President and editor Robyn Tomlin, in an email to employees, cited “long-term cost savings” for the difficult decision and said the papers were “deeply grateful to the entire production team.” 

🗞️ As of this morning, Charlotte Agenda is officially Axios Charlotte.

Listen up

🎙️ As its most unmerited "Headliner of the Week" honoree (in May 2016, I think), I'm a longtime fan of Domecast, the political podcast from NC Insider and The News & Observer. Now it has been relaunched as the Under the Dome podcast and drops twice a week — with a preview of the week on Mondays, and a deep issue dive on Fridays. 

"The goal with the new format is to get people the information they want or need to know quickly, and with context," Lucille Sherman, an N&O state politics reporter, told me this week. The first deep dive, last Friday, was on the inequities in broadband internet access across the state — an issue laid bare by the pandemic. On Monday, the team looked at the legislature's efforts to reopen schools, pass COVID aid and talk about how much money it can play with.

"We're trying to play to our advantage of being the largest politics team in the state, equipped with reporters who have a wide range of interests and talents," Sherman said, "and I think this new format really helps us lean into that and serve readers in a new way."
   ➵ Subscribe on: Spotify | Apple | Stitcher | iHeartRadio | Amazon | Megaphone
Bulletin board
Job postings
📌 Reporters, Community Newspapers Inc., Franklin region.


📌 The Knight Media Forum March 2-4 will look at how innovators in local news and their supporters are responding to COVID, systemic racism and misinformation, and at emerging approaches to audience engagement and sustainability. The impressive lineup of speakers has some North Carolina flavor, including Hilda Gurdian of La Noticia, Alicia Bell of Free Press and Seth Ervin of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. It’s also free. [Learn more and register.]

📌 Chris Rudisill, director of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, and reporter Lauren Lindstrom of The Charlotte Observer will discuss how solutions journalism can address the issue of affordable housing on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s “Coffee and Conversation” series Friday at 10 am.

📌 The Indie News Challenge is assembling cohorts for nine-week workshops to propose and build a community news project. [Learn more.]

Free help
📌 Aspen Institute has a webinar Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 4 pm ET to help journalists report responsibly on the COVID vaccines.  

📌 The #ONAinfoequity database, product of a three-month effort led by Free Press’s Vanessa Maria Graber and Online News Association board member Anita Li, can help newsrooms build a strategy to engage underrepresented communities.

📌 Are you ‘pandemic fine’? How to ask for help in your newsroom (and your life). A conversation between Holly Butcher Grant of the National Press Club Journalism Institute and reporter Sarah Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

For your consideration...

That's all for now. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next week. Take care. 

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