Journalism thrives in darkness: A chat with reporter Jaymie Baxley of The Pilot on the Moore County blackout

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Many North Carolina newsrooms have done a splendid job covering the Moore County blackout since an attack on substations on the night of December 3 took tens of thousands of people off the grid for days. But none has done so more admirably than the staff of The Pilot, the 102-year-old, family-owned newsroom in Southern Pines. They’re not only covering the story; they’re living it.

The Pilot staff has kept their community connected to information and help throughout, while themselves doing without heat, light, easy internet, hot showers, warm food. They’ve kept us informed with running updates, including news on the investigation; they’ve updated us on the progress of the repairs; they’ve reported how residents are coping, how businesses are surviving and how the community is coming together; they’ve told people where and how they can get help; and they’ve reported on the drag show that’s at the center of attention as folks try to figure out why this happened.

I talked with reporter Jaymie Baxley late Monday about the experience. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

EF: Where are you now?

JB: I’m at the Southern Pines Police Department. They have their own generator. So I’m charging my devices and trying to get out our nightly newsletter. We’ve had people here before, but there’s a curfew and they kick us out.

EF: So I would assume that means there’s still no power.

JB: Right. The rest of downtown Southern Pines is like, if you had a drone in the air right now, this would be the one little blip of light.

EF: So it would look like the satellite pictures of North Korea.

JB: Yeah.

EF: Tell me about when the story broke Saturday night.

JB: We had three reporters (Baxley, Jonathan Bym and Ana Risano) assigned to the drag event that was going on downtown. You know, that generated quite a bit of controversy and prompted a protest — and actually a much larger counter-protest. But there was a lot of concern surrounding the event, especially following the mass shooting at Club Q. One reporter was covering the police response, one working the protest, and then me, going inside and getting color from the show. 

And our editor, John Nagy, was posted up in the office, and we were feeding him stuff from the field. He was treating it like a developing story, right? Because there was a lot of tension. And about an hour into the show, I go back to the office, and John asks me, “First things first, got any photos? Let’s get some art up.” So I’m doing the photos, uploading them, toning them — and then all of a sudden, the power just completely goes out. And anybody else who was in the office heard me, uh … say some things. Because we lost a lot of work, you know?

John, he’d seen a social media post about an outage in the Carthage area. Duke Energy, on their website, has a lot of charts and graphics to play around with, but one, it’s like a bar chart showing outages. So we see this big spike, and that’s followed by an even larger spike about 15 minutes later. I go to John’s office, and I’m like, “Yeah, this sucks.” And we look at each other … and then I go, “Wait. The drag show!”

So I run back over there. And it was actually kind of an inspiring thing. It’s completely dark, and people are lighting the theater with their phones. And the drag artists are out there in the audience, leading them in a singalong. And they’re doing it with no power. They could not be deterred. 

So I stick around there, and I get some quotes and stuff, and I go back to the office and the power’s still out. I call my wife, and she says, “Yeah, we don’t have power here either.” And I’m like, “Well, I could probably get a hotspot or something.” Because it’s totally dark in the newsroom. And then I see the police scanner on my colleague’s desk, and I grab it and turn it on for the ride home — it’s a portable thing, battery-operated — and I’m hearing all these weird dispatches. You know, at that point we did not know the scale of it, but whenever there’s a power outage you’re gonna get a lot of calls of alarms going off, and it was a flurry of that. 

And then, as I’m driving, I’m noticing — everything is dark. This was really, really weird because, even covering hurricanes, you know, there are outages, but they’re in spots. You’ll see neighborhoods or whatever, little clusters of places without power. But I had never seen the entire town without power. 

So I called John and I’m like, “Hey, we need somebody to call our local rep with Duke Energy, now, because this is crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this.” And he tells me, yeah, he’s doing that already. So I get home, and now we’re seeing stuff on social media on our phones — crazy stuff, like … people targeting substations.

Several of my colleagues are on a group chat, and we’re asking around … this is between 10 and 11 on Saturday night … trying to see what we can confirm, and eventually we get confirmation of, yeah, substations were shot. And then we hear other crazy stuff like, something’s happening at Walmart, and I drive out there and our managing editor, Abbi Overfelt, is there because there were rumors of looting. That ended up not being true, but there was a lot of panic that set in really quickly across the community, and we were trying to confirm what we could.

So John calls an “all hands on deck” meeting that next morning. The newsroom is still without power, and we meet in the dark and go over how we’re gonna handle this thing — who’s gonna cover what. We usually do a weekend rotation, one reporter on call, but this was everyone’s weekend. So we all hit the ground running.

EF: How did you divide it up?

JB: My assignment was to chase Duke Energy — to get somebody to tell us what the hell was going on and answer the most burning question: When are we gonna get power back? …. I do it on a speakerphone in the newsroom, in a huddle with Jonathan and John Nagy, and we’re firing off questions … and finally we’ve gotten some clarity on what’s happening. (But) we’re all having terrible cell reception because the network’s getting choked.

Jonathan covers crime in addition to sports, so his thing was, go to the police and get their end of it. Mary Kate Murphy, our education reporter, she’s kind of assigned to the school story — the question was, are we going to have school? Every reporter had a unique job.

EF: One of the things that was really useful — you did a “here’s where you can get ice, food…”

JB: That was Abbi, our managing editor. She had the foresight to begin treating this as an opportunity to do some actionable journalism. It’s really important to us on a local level — I think people are kind of looking to us for answers about, you know, who did this and why. But also … they’re in the dark right now

So she and some of the other folks in the newsroom were monitoring social media for announcements of people doing anything to help out the community. 

I would say that morning, it was a lot of us trying to chase down people to get answers. And then the news conference happened, and we had a lot more information than we had before. So that opened up even more angles to pursue. We had been getting a lot of stuff on background, so we had kind of an idea what to anticipate. 

EF: How are you staying online to work?

JB: At first, it was a challenge for sure. Sunday was definitely a challenge. We were relying a lot on hotspots, which were not super reliable. There was a lot of frustration. There were times when we would try to post something and it wouldn’t go through, and so we would use another reporter’s hotspot on their phone — we’d be like, ah, let’s try that one. But then some stuff started coming online. The Southern Pines Police Department and the Moore County Sheriff’s Office have additional generators and they still have internet access, so we were able to camp out there and do things. (On Monday) the Southern Pines library came on, and they have a similar setup. Right now, Abbi is here in the police department. 

So’s my wife. She’s charging her phone.

EF: What’s been the hardest thing?

JB: Honestly, it’s kinda been the comedown at the end of the day. Because you’re extremely limited. You know, all those resources I just mentioned, where we have access? Those places close. So when you get home and you’re still following the story, still trying to file things late at night, you’re in a totally different situation. You’re gonna be in resource management. You know, how much juice is on your phone to provide the hotspot for your laptop that you’re using. That’s been tricky for sure. 

Also, it’s just kind of frustrating. You know, I’ve covered hurricanes, where we’ve had power outages that last days. The difference is, of course, that you have time to prepare. You can get set up for that and brace for it — make sure you have all the stuff you need, have a plan in place, whatever. This was like a hurricane as a breaking news event. And that’s a whole lot harder to manage. We didn’t know to prepare for this. 

Monday, I went to work and my gas tank was on E, basically.

EF: What did you do?

JB: I ended up riding with Jonathan (to an assignment), and my wife was able to go to Fayetteville and fill up some gas canisters. I didn’t have enough gas to get to the nearest operational gas station. 

EF: What’s been the best thing about this?

JB: It’s been really cool seeing folks in the community try to help other people to the best of their ability. That’s been really humbling to see. But also people are really supporting us in our coverage of this. 

We’ve got a lot of really big, really great news organizations that have descended on this county to cover this, and they have more journalistic firepower than we do. They also have places they can go to get internet, and light, and heat, and things like that. And big stories deserve the largest possible audience, so I wouldn’t begrudge that. But we are extremely limited in our ability to cover this thing because we’re dealing with it on a personal level, just like everybody else in the community. We have to go home where there aren’t any lights or heat and take cold showers and get dressed in the dark. 

I guess what I’m driving at is, it’s been really cool to see that the people in this community are still so supportive of us, and recognizing that we’re covering this to the best of our ability under very difficult circumstances. And this is a community where it’s usually like that. 

EF: I don’t know whether you’ve had time to notice, but you’re getting a lot of love on social media, too.

JB: It is a team effort. We’re all doing this.

EF: Have you had time to talk about how you’re gonna cover this story down the road?

JB: Yeah, we have. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be explored. When we catch our breath we can hopefully dive into this a little bit deeper. How certain demographics were affected by the blackout, you know. This took a disproportionate toll on some of our marginalized communities. And how has this affected people psychologically? I mean, it seems a little dramatic to say, but … you know, our demographics skew a lot older here. It’s scary for people in our nursing homes, our assisted living facilities. And well, I guess an explanation for why we’re in a situation like this — it’s kind of frightening. Just what we know so far. This is a thing that could have just been done at any point. 

EF: Being the victim of something that’s being called “domestic terrorism” really is kinda scary.

JB: Certainly, certainly. And knowing that our infrastructure is so vulnerable. It’s not like it was a sophisticated operation. To take out power for an entire town, all you need is a gun. And you can totally upend life for like, 45,000 people. 

That is horrifying.

(I asked Jaymie whether there was anything the North Carolina news family could do to help — but that was the question that finally drained his mental batteries. “I have no idea,” he said. So I’m leaving that to all of you.)

NC Local News Workshop