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By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor
Carolina Public Press, which began as Executive Director Angie Newsome’s dream for an independent, investigative, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization, is now celebrating 10 years in operation.
Newsome, a longtime journalist, launched CPP in 2011, covering Western North Carolina as a fiscally sponsored project of The Institute for Southern Studies. It officially became a donor-supported 501(c)(3) in April 2014, and has grown to a statewide news organization with a staff of nine, supplemented by regular contributors.
In the past two years, CPP has won 25 N.C. Press Association awards, including two first-place honors for general excellence among online-only publications; top awards in public service, investigative and enterprise reporting; and the Henry L. Weathers Freedom of Information Award.
CPP just launched a speakers’ bureau, making staffers available for virtual and in-person speaking engagements on topics of expertise. And at noon next Wednesday, May 5, it will hold the first of a virtual conversation series called Ten for NC, with Penny Abernathy as guest, discussing news deserts, what she sees happening in the state, and the role of nonprofit news in filling gaps. It’s free, but you need to register to attend.
I got to chat with Newsome this week about the journey. Here are the highlights of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Tell me the origin story, and how far you’ve come.
Well, we’ve come from one person sitting at a kitchen table to a cohort of freelancers and journalists working all across the state.
The idea for Carolina Public Press came to me about 2009 or 2010 when I started seeing organizations like ProPublica and Texas Tribune pop up, and I was really inspired by the nonprofit model … being a public service and putting audience needs first and the news first. I was curious about whether we could make something like that happen in Western North Carolina.
So I started putting together a business plan and reaching out to friends throughout the region, and country, really, who were in journalism and in nonprofit journalism and investigative journalism, and asking: Could we make this happen? I spent a year putting together a business plan, talking with a couple of foundations about the idea, and we got a small pot of money to help it get going — and by small, I mean less than $40,000. And we hit “go” on March 4, 2011.
It took about a year and a half to get up and going. And, you know, at that time we were focused on the 17 westernmost counties, and doing then what we do now, which is in-depth investigative reporting and public service journalism. And trying to not repeat what other people were doing, but finding those stories that are overlooked or underreported, finding the communities and people whose stories need to be told. Almost three years ago we expanded to cover the whole state, but our core mission has remained the same. Yeah, so it’s been a ride.
What are you most proud of?
I am really proud of the impact that our journalism has had and continues to have.
You know, as journalists we always want to think that our reporting matters. But there’s no guarantee at the end of the day that anything we write, anything we do, any story we tell, is going to change anything. So you have to go on the hope and faith, the belief that information presented in a way that’s trustworthy, has rich context, that’s based on facts — matters. I find it’s a little bit like catching lightning in a bottle — when it happens, it’s just incredible. It makes all the doubt, insecurity, fear, mistakes, worth it.
I think a lot of people in the state know this, but we’re not partisan. So when I say having impact, it doesn’t mean that we’re advocating for a particular change — but that fundamentally, we believe that people, given the opportunity and the information, will take action. And that action is of their choice. So, that’s just been amazing. That’s really what I’m proud of.
And to be quite honest, I’m proud that we’re still here. We started out as an experiment. And I really didn’t know what we were going to be able to accomplish. And here we are, 10 years later. And I’m really proud that it’s beyond me and my vision. More people have buy-in, and have vision about the organization, and want to see it last for a long time, and I’m truly proud of that because I feel like if I left tomorrow, CPP would survive.
I think a major lesson that I’ve learned is, understand your community. And if you don’t understand it right now, make that Priority 1. This type of journalism should really be about community first, and your audience first, versus what you suppose, assume, whatever. Spend a lot of time doing that research, asking a lot of questions, and making sure that you’re really answering a need that the community has.
Number 2 is really to think about sustainability. If you’re building a nonprofit without a plan for sustainability, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It’s a huge amount of work to be a news entrepreneur, and sustaining that over time is incredibly difficult. There’s tons of ups and downs. And just be prepared to work really hard. You have to empty the trash as well as writing the million-dollar grants, Ultimately, persevering and, you know, working your ass off is what it’s going to take.
Anything about the path to sustainability that surprised you?
It’s a long-term vision because you’re not going to be sustainable at Day 1. And we’ve found that our business plan changes over time because the news ecosystem changes over time. What makes you special and different in your community will change, and being able to respond to that, and think creatively about it, is important.
For us, one measure of sustainability was establishing an endowment. We were able to launch that in 2019, and we’re trying to raise a million dollars in that endowment for CPP’s long-term future. And that’s been funded through individual donors.
Our vision is to become North Carolina’s largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news team, working in the public interest. Our goal is to do that by 2024, and to build a team of about a dozen journalists in North Carolina who are investigative, and also a team in Raleigh covering state policy and the legislature from an audience-first perspective. And a bunch of support people making sure that the news gets into the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of as many people as possible.
Our core mission is not going to change. You just have to get bigger and better.
Anything else you’d like folks to know?
My North Star is for Carolina Public Press to continue to be an investigative news arm for North Carolina. I love the idea of an arm because it can be flexed for many different people and in many different circumstances. We love and appreciate being a part of statewide and local collaborations with news organizations who want to bring or support or enrich the work that they’re doing, but also telling stories for people that matter.