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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor
I got to chat the other day with Angie Newsome, founding executive director of Carolina Public Press, after CPP announced that she would be stepping down as ED by late summer or early fall. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Now that it’s official that you’re leaving, how does it feel?
You know, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point, where I feel like I can, want to, need to, should — let the organization live beyond me, which has been a goal of mine for a long time. So it’s pretty incredible to reach that milestone, but it is bittersweet to be leaving something that I’ve poured my heart and soul into for more than a decade. It’s a roller coaster… But at the end of the day, I have such an incredible team of people that I get to work with now, and the board is really great, so I’m just trying to ride the wave…
What made you want to do CPP in the first place?
We saw a huge need. When we started we were focused in the 18 westernmost counties, for investigative and public service news. And at that point, there was this whole movement of people across the country who were journalists who had come out of a traditional background, who wanted to try going into the nonprofit world and trying a different model of providing news. That was really inspiring to me, and I wanted to see if it could work in the western part of the state. We just wanted to be one solution.
Talk about some of the best work your people have done to fill that need.
The past couple of years have been really incredible. I think COVID provided us a huge challenge as an organization, to meet our mission, to provide work that wasn’t being done elsewhere for audiences that are traditionally left out of news. And our team just really went for it — to be that investigative arm for the state around understanding what was happening with COVID in the prisons, and nursing homes. Most recently, Kate Martin has been doing some phenomenal reporting on sexual assault nurse examiners in the state that continues to have almost daily impacts. We have the state legislature putting money into SANE training now. That reporting prompted (Congress member) Deborah Ross to take some action at the federal level with the Violence Against Women Act, and that was passed and signed by (President) Biden, so now there’s federal money across the country that’s going to help locate and get access to SANE nurses. And that’s come from us — that’s come from Kate. And I say that humbly because I feel like truly my job is to cheer on the reporters that are working in our newsroom. So I say that just to cheer on Kate and the news team, her editors Frank (Taylor) and Laura (Lee), and the work that they’ve done to accomplish that.
I never thought in a million years that our organization would have federal impact at that level. I hoped for it. The best that I thought was that we would have local and regional and statewide impact, and we certainly do. But to see what’s happening in North Carolina change federal law was pretty incredible.
All starting at a small nonprofit. And with nonprofits, we talk a lot about sustainability. What are the biggest challenges in sustainability for you?
Revenue generation remains our biggest challenge. But we’ve made lots of headway. We have established an endowment at the North Carolina Community Foundation that will support Carolina Public Press, and our goal is to raise a million dollars in that endowment. We’re on our way to doing that. We have a long way to go. But we at least have one, and it’s up and running.
Encouraging people to give their philanthropic dollars to a news organization — a nonprofit news organization, and an investigative one — takes time. It takes building relationships. And the bills need to get paid tomorrow, right? Sometimes we don’t have the time… It’s less of a challenge now to explain the business model, which is really great. At the beginning, people were really scratching their heads at me — like, what exactly are you doing? Why are you doing this? But it does take a special kind of person … to give their dollars to their community, no matter what their topic is, and then it takes an additionally special person to give to nonprofit news. So finding those folks is always a challenge. I think getting national foundation support into North Carolina, to the nonprofit news organizations, is a big challenge, and one that I’ll work with the new executive director to do — that’s kind of our next big thing that we’re working on.
I also feel like if we weren’t ready for it, if we weren’t sustainable, changing the executive director would be really problematic. And I feel like we are at the point where that change is not going to be the death knell for the organization.
So you’ve got foundation money, you’ve got some sponsorships, you’ve got donors. What part of your revenue model works really well, and what part works less well?
There’s not a standard answer. I think it really depends on the mission of the organization. You know what I would do, what our challenges are, would be different from an organization focused on health care, education or whatever. So for an investigative nonprofit organization, I think sponsors and underwriting remains the biggest challenge because it can be seen as adversarial or political. And that can be a challenge for some to put their brand on.
Speaking of other organizations… talk about your approach to collaboration and how it’s working.
We’re in the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative right now, and the (NC) Watchdog (Reporting Network). We’re going to be participating, depending on how it develops, with the Institute for Nonprofit News rural reporting collaboration… So our organization has been collaborating with others almost from the get-go. In 2011, 2012, we joined with four other news organizations to sue the city of Asheville over some evidence-room audits … We take those opportunities to do it when it makes sense.
We think about collaborations a couple of ways. You know, ultimately, it has to be beneficial for everyone involved, whether we’re leading it or participating in it, so we really try to identify what the benefits are. And there’s lots of talk about best practices for collaborations … but you know, some of our top reasons are distribution, audience reach, skill swaps — you know, we have skills that others don’t, and vice versa. As well as being a part of, you know, like-minded journalists and organizations. So we do everything from collaborating with a single organization to collaborating with multiple ones, and that can be at the local level, statewide level, national level. We’ve kind of done all iterations of that.
In your mission statement you talk about serving the underserved. What are some of your successes there?
Well, right now, we’re really excited that we’re working on this Google News Initiative project to do some data-driven analysis of news needs in rural communities that have a lack of broadband access. We saw that throughout COVID — some of those folks are most at risk of being left out of the news environment and news ecosystem. So we’re doing a yearlong project to really identify and ask those folks, what are your news needs? What are your barriers to getting news? How are you getting it now, and what’s your preference in getting it? We ask these questions a lot when we’re in communities. I personally have been involved in about 50 engagement activities and events in North Carolina since I started CPP, so I’ve been in lots of different communities, and those conversations come up a lot.
But now we’re putting the data behind it so we can check our assumptions, and we’ll use that to do some news product development to deliver the news to those folks in the way that they want it. We’ve really tried to think with innovation in mind, answering the need as expressed by those folks, not just what we think should be happening.
Talk about diversity, equity and inclusion — what your efforts have been, and where you still have work to do.
We have a diversity plan that we’re working on with our board of directors, which I’m pretty excited about. We’re really working to ensure that the organization’s leadership reflects the people that we serve, which are all North Carolinians. … It’s a two-year plan that the board and I are working on together. And that includes training for board members and staff members on DEI principles. It also includes prioritizing and reaching out to diverse folks across different communities in the state to join our board and to be leaders of the organization. We have some set goals to accomplish within that plan. I’m really happy about that.
I think the challenge remains diversification among our staff, especially racial. We have other types of diversity, but I think racial diversity is really critical in our work. And while we have it within some of our freelancing cohort, we really need people on staff that have some racial diversity. That’s a challenge for us, like it is for a lot of other organizations. We want to be part of the solution to that — helping the pipeline, internships, I don’t know what all the answers are. There are lots of ways to approach that. But certainly from a hiring perspective, I think the organization is very interested in getting to be more racially diverse.
Will you share this plan with your readers?
If people are interested, they can certainly reach out to me and I can talk to them about what our plan is. Also, I would love to know if there are newsrooms out there that have DEI training that has been really beneficial to their staff. I would love some recommendations.
Let’s talk about your decision. What made you decide this was the time?
That’s hard to answer because there’s always a line in the sand, you kind of put it off in the future — like, when this thing happens, I’ll do something else. And that line always moves. But I think after the past couple of years it became clear to me a couple of things were happening. One is that the organization was really getting to the point where it’s more stable. Revenue was more stable, impact was increasing, membership was growing, our staff was growing. All of those things led me to feel more comfortable that it wasn’t all resting on my shoulders. And I always wanted the organization to live beyond me. I mean, I never created CPP for it to live or die with whether I’m sitting at the helm…
You know, founder’s syndrome is a real thing. Organizations experience that, and founders stay well beyond when they should be there. I didn’t want that to happen. I also feel like now’s a good time for me, personally. My children are in late elementary and early middle school, so I have a window of time before they go to high school and college. I just want to soak them up and, you know, hang out with them and be with them. That window of time was getting shorter and shorter. So yeah, all those things kind of meshed together … and I just decided to go for it.
You mentioned that revenue was more stable, and your staff has grown quite a bit, and obviously your coverage area has grown quite a bit, just in the last couple of years. A lot of this is being done with what you might call “non-recurring funds.” Grants. How confident are you that CPP can maintain or even grow the staff it has now?
I’m a “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” kind of person, so I’m never going to say I’m 100% confident. You’re exactly right that the grants come and go; we’re always looking for opportunities to keep the staffing as it is, or to grow it — I mean, that’s the reality of being in a nonprofit. Very few people or foundations are willing to give you two or three or four years of a guarantee that they’re gonna fund you. We are really fortunate in that we do have several foundations who’ve given to us year after year after year after year, and while I don’t ever expect them to continue, because that’s a dangerous thing to do, we spend a lot of time building relationships with those folks and foundations, so we know what their intent is, and they know what our intent is. Again, there’s never a guarantee on either side. So we launched a membership program in 2017. And we have — I don’t know what the latest count is — maybe close to 700 members who are giving regularly, and that’s really important for us from a cash-flow perspective — kind of stabilizing the ups and downs that larger gifts from foundations can cause.
You mentioned in your announcement seeing the new ED take “the next step.” What’s the next step?
We have our 2024 plan, we call it — it’s on the website — where it talks through the operational vision for the organization. Our goal is to get to $1.3 million a year in operating revenues. That’s in addition to building our endowment up to a million dollars, and that’s a longer, slower process. So the ED’s challenge and opportunity is to raise that revenue and to build that team, and there’s a plan on there that talks about building investigative reporting teams across the state in five locations. We already have opened the CPP East bureau, so we have a reporter in Fayetteville and Cumberland County. So it’s building that team continuing on the vision of being the investigative news arm for North Carolina, and being the biggest and the most impactful. And we’re already super impactful, so maintaining that.
And I’m sure there’s things that they’re going to come in and want to do, and have additional ideas and creativity and interest and passion. And I’m excited for that. I think there’s things that CPP can do that I can’t even dream up yet. And that’s a great thing. I’m very excited for that.
What have you learned that you wish you had known 11 years ago?
How many sleepless nights I was gonna have.
I think I underestimated the level of stress it was gonna take. It’s been an incredibly challenging 12 years of my life. I’ve never worked as hard, cried as much, laughed as hard, felt as proud. You know, all the extremes of emotions when you’re founding something — that’s something that I didn’t know when I pushed the “go” button on March 3, 2011.
And the ups and downs — I mean, I think anybody who owns a small business or has started anything knows that the path to success looks like a tangled web, right? It’s not straight. You have to kind of roll with it, as well as be focused. So it takes a complex set of skills to last, to survive through all of that. And I also never would have guessed how much people would stand beside us and support us and really want to see us succeed. And that’s been really humbling. That’s been an incredible experience for me.
To reframe part of what you just said: You just got on an elevator with somebody who wants to start a news nonprofit. So you’ve got just a few seconds. What’s the one thing they need to know?
(Laughs.) Oh, that’s a good question.
I think I would tell them to really be clear about what your mission is and who you’re serving. What is the community need that you’re trying to solve? Be very clear about that. Take your ego out of it. Take your preconceived ideas out. Really ask yourself, what is your mission, and what is the community need? And if you’re clear on that, if you can talk about that, then I think you’re gonna be a lot more successful.
Anything else you’d like to say? You have the floor.
I am a true believer in journalism. I feel like this is a calling for me. And I’m going to stay involved in journalism in some form or fashion till the day I die. I know that about myself. I really hope Carolina Public Press is here for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years and beyond, and I’m really dedicated to that future whether I’m the executive director or not.
Leaving is very bittersweet for me. I’m excited, but also very sad. I’m full of gratitude. Also frustrated about some things. You know, I think it encompasses the totality of human emotions. So it’s really a little wild. But I am really excited for the person coming next to take it on and go for it and see what else we can do in North Carolina. You know, this is my home, and I think journalism is so critical for the future of our state, and that’s not going to change with me leaving.
This feels like making my final statement! I wasn’t prepared for that one.
But, you know, I’m just really thankful for everyone who’s supported me personally and will continue to support CPP. I hope people don’t — and I know they won’t — I know people won’t stop supporting it, because there’s some incredible people on this team, and I’m just so thankful for that, and they’ll keep on doing the work that’s happening right now.