Check out the full NC Local newsletter from Dec. 29 for more on this story and the latest updates about journalists and news organizations throughout the state, job opportunities and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

People ask me all the time why I write this newsletter — why I’m not out playing golf somewhere. My reply often begins with, “Have you seen my swing?” 

But a better answer comes, paradoxically, in moments of despair over the state of our world. 

In a profession where we’ve spent centuries telling ourselves that we are the best custodians of a free and fair society — and in so many ways, we have been — we’ve also frittered a trove of time being formulaic, ruthlessly competitive, smug, exclusive, blind to people’s real needs … and deep in the service of privilege.

Slowly, but surely, that’s changing. So actually, these are times of genuine hope, and sometimes hope needs a witness. Or, at least, a curator.

Thank you for the honor.

What’s below is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few of the places in North Carolina’s news and information community where we found hope in 2021: 

In things new

The Assembly is the proof of concept for founder Kyle Villemain’s notion that there was room in North Carolina for someone “to go deep.” It has peeled a lot of onions and broken a lot of news since it launched in February. It also has put the power of narrative front and center — as did another innovative project, the Sound of Judgment report by Carli Brousseau and Julia Wall for The News & Observer…

There’s also Asheville Watchdog, its unusual model and its solid growth, and Border Belt Independent, covering four southeastern counties — both filling gaps in coverage of important issues. There are the brave upstarts, like Davidson Local and a couple of strong newsletters on Meta’s Bulletin platform — Andrea Bruce’s Down in the County and Melba Newsome’s The Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate. There’s The Valley Echo, a one-man show Fred McCormick started during a pandemic. And The Chatham News + Record’s La Voz de Chatham went to print for the first time, reaching a new audience in the Spanish-speaking community…

New ways of telling stories are emerging: The Charlotte Ledger’s obit newsletter, Ways of Life, honors those people you never knew; Anita Rao took the Embodied podcast at WUNC everywhere you never expected; the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative’s PANDEMIC was a novel way — actually a graphic novel way — of recording this moment in history; Tyler Dukes at The N&O turned redistricting into a enthralling serial podcast

Deborah Dwyer’s work changed the conversation on standards for unpublishing dated and harmful content, mainly turning the attention to smarter decisions at the beginning of the reporting/editing process, not the end… Project Oasis drew on a lot of Tar Heel imagination to launch an initiative that helps startups and other news orgs learn from the experiences of others…

And something really new: Newsrooms actually expanded, in Raleigh and Charlotte. The N&O reimagined its Sundays and Wednesdays, expanding those print editions with a deep focus on a single story, and added a new emphasis on service journalism that responds directly to reader needs. And speaking of that…

In service

A screenshot from Joe Bruno's Twitter account
A screenshot from Joe Bruno’s Twitter account

The resource guides and helpful information published to help folks navigate the pandemic are too many to mention — but Joe Bruno at WSOC is the gold standard.

During the spring his Twitter account, always a great place to keep up with what’s happening in Charlotte, became the well-researched place to go for people looking for vaccine appointments. “If I can help one person get a shot, then I consider it a success,” he told me then. He helped a lot more than one.

In collaborations

Too many to mention. Just a few: WFAE and La Noticia in Charlotte teamed up to cover immigration, and Southerly joined with Enlace Latino NC to cover environmental and economic issues in Latinx, immigrant and refugee communities… The NC Watchdog Reporting Network continued to inform and rattle cages in its second year … The Charlotte reporting community came together to report the clearing of a pandemic tent city… 

Ju-Don Marshall of WFAE basically wrote the book on the value and function of a healthy collaboration at the first NC Local News Summit.

In shifting the narratives

The NC Local News Workshop, home of this newsletter, and several media organizations launched the NC Media Equity Project, a pilot effort to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in news and public affairs information… Alicia Bell has worked with that project and continues to fight for more equitable media and for reparations, with Media 2070 and with the Racial Equity in Journalism FundMelba Newsome helped change the practice of source diversity (see her insights and lots of resources here) and wrote a guide to inclusive reporting

Scalawag continued to advance the practice of people-centered journalism… AAPI journalists in NC enhanced awareness after the shootings in Atlanta in March… Cierra Hinton and Lizzy Hazeltine laid out a groundbreaking framework for the news business to shift anti-racist intentions into real action — the Anti-racist Table Stakes… Qnotes in Charlotte launched a website, QnotesCarolinas.org, to further serve LGBTQ+ and straight ally communities… Carolina Public Press worked with Trusting News to figure out new ways to connect with conservative audiences.

In tugs on the curtain

Again, there’s far too much great investigative reporting to mention here. I’d be remiss not to highlight the reporting on UNC governance, kickstarted by some serious diligence on the story of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees by Joe Killian at NC Policy Watch and John Drescher for The Assembly and advanced by many others, notably Kate Murphy at The N&O

Check the body of work by Nick Ochsner and David Hodges at WBTV; Dan Kane and his colleagues at The N&O; Lisa Sorg at NC Policy Watch; the team at North Carolina Health News; Kate Martin and Jordan Wilkie at Carolina Public Press (happy 10th anniversary, btw); and so many others… Don’t forget the climate reporters: David Boraks at WFAE, Adam Wagner for McClatchy and Gareth McGrath for USA TODAY’s state network… Listen to Dana Miller Ervin’s 11-part report for WFAE on why Americans spend more, and get less, in our health care system… And follow the Twitter account of Elon computer science professor Megan Squire, who applies her skills as a data scientist to the exposure of hate…

To get a real sense of what North Carolina investigative reporters are doing, take a look at this collection of six stories, all drawn from public records and data research, and all published in a single week in late July and early August.

In making it accessible

The work of Carolina Demography was essential to help NC media report the census and its ramifications…. The NC Open Government Coalition helped several reporters and experts produce a network analysis of 2020 campaign funding in North Carolina, available for use by all media… Mountain Xpress won an API grant to create a people’s guide to the process that governs land development in Asheville and Buncombe County, and opportunities for public input.

In W’s for freedom of information

The Daily Tar Heel won a years-long battle to make UNC release records on violations of its sexual assault policy… The News Reporter of Whiteville, the Tabor-Loris Tribune, WECT and WWAY won a fight against the Columbus County Sheriff over access to criminal records… A news coalition was awarded access to law enforcement video in the death of inmate John Neville in the Forsyth County jail.. Tom Boney Jr., publisher of the Alamance News, won the National Newspaper Association’s First Amendment Award after he and other media fought to keep court sessions open during trials related to arrests at a 2020 protest (and he was briefly handcuffed for his trouble)… A coalition of Asheville media took their City Council to open-meetings school.

In the new generation

For the sixth time in seven years and the 10th time since 2002, the UNC Hussman School won the Hearst Journalism Awards national championship 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…

I reported Sept. 15 on how college newsrooms in North Carolina were filling information needs in their off-campus communities.

In creative sustenance

Enlace Latino NC is setting a standard for diversifying revenue and for sustainability strategy: It launched two new digital projects, had a big newsletter success story (see below), was selected for the GNI Startups Lab’s first cohort, and got grants from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, the GNI Innovation Challenge and the NC Local News Lab Fund. Enlace will add a Report for America reporter in June…

The state’s NewsMatch participants reported a fundraising high early this year for the 2020 year-end campaign — and probably will surpass it this year… WFAE got a $590,000 grant from the American Journalism Project to enhance its revenue generation outside the traditional fundraising methods for public media… The Chatham News + Record, QCity Metro and The War Horse joined the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator business training program for news publishers… Journalism Funding Partners, founded by former N&O publisher Orage Quarles and with locals Jim Goodmon, Anders Gyllenhaal and Sharif Durhams on its board, launched with an innovative funding-assistance model… 

And for brand awareness, it’s hard to top the Chatham Brew breakfast blend coffee, a partnership between The Chatham N+R and Aromatic Roasters. My chat with Publisher Bill Horner III about that — “I’ve always lived by, ‘You have not, because you asked not’ …” — was one of my favorite conversations this year. Although I also had a blast chatting with Nick Ochsner and Michael Graff about their book, and had a real adventure every time I said, “How you doing?” to Rose Hoban.

On a personal note…

I’m grateful for the grace so many people shared with me in some very tough times — the new friends in Transylvania County who talked with me in August about how communities in news deserts share information in a crisis, after Tropical Storm Fred flooded the mountains; and the folks who shared some frank insights about reporting deaths on a college campus, in October. I appreciate you.

NC Local News Workshop