Connecting North Carolina's news & information community

Politics and the "citizens agenda"

New attention for NC's 1990s election experiments 

Why has the journalistic wayback machine taken us back to the 1990s and a couple of North Carolina experiments with voter-focused election coverage? Consider:
  •  "The Road Not Taken," by press critic and New York University associate professor Jay Rosen, who argues that a 1992 Charlotte Observer-Poynter project called "the citizens agenda" should be a model for 2020 election coverage. 
  • "Campaign Coverage Needs an Overhaul: Here's One Radical Idea," Margaret Sullivan, former newspaper editor and New York Times public editor and current Washington Post media critic, expands on Rosen's case in light of early coverage of the 2020 presidential race.
  • "Covering the 2020 Election: Horse Race or Citizens Agenda?" Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Morrill, who was part of the '90s experiments and is on the beat now, wrote for Nieman Reports about the pros and cons, including thoughts from Rich Oppel, who was Observer editor in '92.
I'm another veteran of these campaigns: As a senior editor at The News & Observer, I helped organize "Your Voice, Your Vote," a 1996 statewide collaborative effort with The Observer and other media outlets across North Carolina. "Your Voice" used public opinion polling to identify top concerns among voters, focused election coverage on those issues and asked candidates to respond to questions about them.

The impulse driving these efforts was the same frustration about political journalism that many voice today: Daily political coverage has a short attention span, focuses too often on gaffes and personalities (especially in the age of instant news via social media and the web) and often seems disconnected from the worries and needs of the nation.

I checked my recollections of "Your Voice, Your Vote" with retired Observer editor Jennie Buckner, who also led other significant "public journalism" efforts including a series on crime called "Taking Back Our Neighborhoods."

Buckner recalled that some candidates complained that "Your Voice" didn't leave room for covering their campaign messages and agendas. Earnest and thorough, the issues coverage at times also "felt very civics-textbook sometimes,” she noted. 

"So did it get read? I hope it did," she said. "I felt like we were trying to do the right thing for sure, and i felt that it was very useful to put the reader, the citizen, back in the spotlight.”

The '90s are history, but the problems remain fresh. Most coverage seems made for people who follow politics intensively. Basic information often is hard to find, especially for local and state elections.

I thought the best result of our "Your Voice" project was getting us in journalism to think about our place in democracy: Do we stand with political insiders and venture out to hear voters, or do we stand with voters and aim for coverage that looks out for their interests?

Last week's NC Local highlighted some ways EdNC and The News & Observer are inviting North Carolinians into the discussion about legislative priorities. At The New York Times, politics editor Patrick Healy is using Twitter to explain the thinking behind the paper's coverage and to ask for feedback.

Keeping “the citizens agenda” at the center of coverage doesn’t take big polls or fancy platforms: Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to what people in your community are asking, and finding ways to respond in your coverage.

Your ideas on local journalism's future

Today's focus: Is nonprofit the way to go?

Thanks to all the NC Local readers who replied to last week's newsletter with thoughts about what's needed and what might work for sustaining high-quality local news in North Carolina. I'll draw on these responses in upcoming weeks to keep the conversation going. Send more comments and suggestions anytime (just hit reply).

Several people thought nonprofit news looked like the model of the future, based on high-profile success stories across the country as well as public media's established fundraising structure.

The Institute for Nonprofit News, which now has close to 200 members nationally including several in North Carolina, released its first index on the sector a few months back, reflecting growing strength both in content and in financing.

Yet nonprofit status is a tax classification, not a business model, to borrow a phrase I've heard from others. Nonprofit isn't an easier way to go, but it is a different path that puts a focus on mission. The most successful of these newsrooms have managed to diversify revenue sources, build loyal audiences and establish long-term support from individuals and institutions.

Sue Cross, executive director of INN and a former AP executive, wrote about the promise and successes of nonprofit news amid the latest round of media industry layoffs last week: "Journalism job cuts: From grief, resolve." 

INN will host an online town hall "Challenges and Possibilities in Nonprofit News"  next Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 1 p.m. Eastern. Register here.
Also from the past week:
  • On Friday, McClatchy notified 450 employees at newspapers including The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer that it was offering voluntary early retirement packages. The response from N&O Managing Editor Jane Elizabeth via a Twitter thread described how McClatchy newsrooms had responded: by doing journalism. Quoting one tweet: "The faces and platforms and technology will change, but journalism survives as long as democracy does. In the meantime, journalists will carry on. It’s what we do. You can be part of it. #readlocal #subscribelocal.
  • Eric Johnson of Chapel Hill, a community columnist for The N&O, wrote an op-ed for the paper noting that local news helps people know how to make a difference in their world: "As newspapers shrink, the civic cost grows."

Storylines: Going deep

NC Policy Watch's Chemours scoop; WRAL on NC's lack of teacher diversity; Duke Chronicle explores investments

Some good NC journalism you might have missed:
  • Lisa Sorg at N.C. Policy Watch broke news on Jan. 25 showing that Chemours, the DuPont spinoff at the center of southeastern North Carolina's concern over unregulated chemicals including GenX in the Cape Fear water supply, was sending GenX waste from Europe to Fayetteville. A few days later, national environment reporter Sharon Lerner expanded on the reporting for The Intercept, crediting Policy Watch's work.
  • WRAL education reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe and anchor Lena Tillett, along with a team of colleagues, led a deep and revealing two-part series, "NC's teacher diversity gap." The series used television and the web to explore the dimensions of the gap (based on data from all of the state's public school districts) as well as its underpinnings in teacher education and recruitment. The project was supported in part by the Education Writers of America, which picked Hinchcliffe for a reporting fellowship last year. Learn more about the series here.
  • The Duke Chronicle's Julia Donheiser and Julianna Rennie tapped into the international Paradise Papers documents trove to report on the university's investments in Ferrous Resources, which the Chronicle described as "a company whose plans to build a controversial pipeline sparked years of protests in Brazil" and that was caught up in allegations of government corruption.

Bulletin board

UNC vs. Duke, using a legendary rivalry  (and Antawn Jamison) to boost college media; NC hall of fame honorees, and more

  • The Daily Tar Heel and Duke Chronicle are in the midst of a fundraising contest, aiming to turn coverage of the Duke-Carolina game Feb. 20 into money to support their college journalism. The papers will team up on a special rivalry edition to be distributed that day — donors who give at least $25 get a copy. The competition is fun to watch (Duke has an early lead): former UNC star Antawn Jamison stopped by the DTH and appears in a video hailing the importance of journalism. The N&O's Jane Stancill reported a year ago on college media's funding challenges 
  • UNC's NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame announced five new honorees: author and historian Taylor Branch, advertising executive Margaret Johnson, Lee Enterprises chair Mary E. Junck, author and longtime Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, and Southern Pines' Pilot president and publisher David Woronoff. The new members will be inducted into the hall April 12 and honored at a reception and dinner at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. Learn more here.
  • Two North Carolina-connected initiatives get shoutouts in a new report from Impact Architects on engaged journalism. McClatchy and the community-focused media initiative Free Press / News Voices: North Carolina, were cited among examples of ways that news organizations might connect with people directly to build trust, credibility and revenue.
  • ICYMI: The relatively new Abrams-Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism offers journalists the chance to spend two semesters at Harvard University and additional support for nine months of field work. Both staff journalists and freelancers may apply; deadline is Feb. 18, details here,
  • The Institute for Emerging issues' ReCONNECT NC series comes to Raleigh on Monday with the second forum in its six-event series, this one focused on tNorth Carolina's rural-urban divide. The day-long event at the Raleigh Marriott City Center includes a panel on media led by Tom Campbell of NC SPIN (with me and several others). Learn more and register here.
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The Local View: Wilmington

StarNews moves back downtown

The StarNews has returned to downtown Wilmington, where its first edition rolled out in 1867, after signing a lease for space in the Harrelson Building at Third and Chestnut. The paper reported on the move, which has the newsroom in temporary space while its longer-term quarters are being fitted out. Damage from Hurricane Florence and the move of printing to Fayetteville helped prompt the company's decision to leave its famously windowless StarNews building on 17th Street, where the paper had operated since 1970. Executive Editor Pam Sander noted that moving back downtown was a longtime dream of the staff: "And now we can see it all from our windows." (Photo by Dan Spears, StarNews)
Copyright © 2019 Melanie Sill, All rights reserved.

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