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Pulitzer Center Update September 25, 2020

Behind the Story: Mandy Locke on the North Carolina News Collaborative

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Bell's School teacher Jodie Williams helps Oliver Fink, 5, spray rabbit repellent on vegetables growing in a raised bed garden as other children play on a blanket in the shade at the preschool in Fletcher on June 22, 2020. Image by Angeli Wright/Asheville Citizen Times/North Carolina News Collaborative. United States, 2020.

From the mountains to the sea, an analysis of how North Carolinians struggle and survive as a virus...

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Main Street in Columbia, N.C., is quiet after a late-afternoon thunderstorm on July 23, 2020. Columbia is the county seat of Tyrrell County, with fewer than 4,000 residents. Image by Robert Willett / The News & Observer / North Carolina News Collaborative. United States, 2020.
Main Street in Columbia, N.C., is quiet after a late-afternoon thunderstorm on July 23, 2020. Columbia is the county seat of Tyrrell County, with fewer than 4,000 residents. Image by Robert Willett / The News & Observer / North Carolina News Collaborative. United States, 2020.

While chatting at the North Carolina Press Association's annual awards banquet in early 2019, a group of editors hatched a radical idea. Instead of only competing against one another, why not share stories and resources? After all, North Carolina newspapers were at a crossroads.

Since 2004, the state has lost four daily and 40 weekly papers, according to research by the University of North Carolina's Hussman School of Journalism and Media. As papers closed, news deserts grew. UNC's database shows six counties without a newspaper and 58 counties with a single newspaper.

Following the banquet and months of meetings, the North Carolina News Collaborative (NCNC) was born. The coalition brought together 22 newspapers, large and small, from across the state, representing publishing titans including BH Media Group, Gannett, GateHouse, and McClatchy. By republishing each other's stories, pooling resources, and collaborating on ambitious statewide projects, NCNC hoped to rally against news deserts and declining coverage.

"Combined, the 22 newspapers serve populations of about 6 million people, which is two-thirds of the state, so our footprint is pretty vast," says investigative journalist Mandy Locke, who leads an NCNC team examining stories of economic recovery across North Carolina during the pandemic. 

Locke's Pulitzer Center-supported project embodies the type of reporting that would have been impossible without NCNC. 

"A decade ago, this kind of collaborative effort was almost unheard of in the newspaper business," Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley said. "Now it has become a practical necessity for economic reasons, but it also serves readers by delivering better coverage across a variety of platforms. A classic case in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." 

The project's reporters tracked data and worked with economists, sociologists, and health experts to assess how the pandemic has impacted some of North Carolina's most vulnerable communities. Pulitzer Center General Intern Ethan Ehrenhaft spoke with Locke to discuss NCNC and the issues covered by the "Bouncing Back: North Carolina's Economic Journey to Recovery" project. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

EE: Between 2004 and 2019, North Carolina weekly and daily newspaper circulation dropped by 38 percent. How has NCNC sought to address these challenges, especially during the pandemic?

ML: I worked at one newspaper in our state from 2004 to 2017—I was a reporter with The News & Observer in Raleigh. I saw the blistering effects of the 2008 recession and the cuts on top of cuts at staffing. It's happened at every newspaper across our state and across the country.

What was so interesting is during that time, when we were beleaguered and really bleeding our staff, we were still trying to compete against each other in the newsrooms. The Winston-Salem Journal would fight for a story against the Greensboro News & Record, and the Asheville Citizen-Times against the Charlotte Observer on a story. As our staff dwindled, there was still this historical inertia to compete with one another. The collaborative really called that notion out and said we could be doing more.

The pandemic has strained the newsrooms to the brink. Just one example for you, one of the chains—Gannett-GateHouse—that's a part of this project, soon into the pandemic announced one-week-per-month furloughs for staff. That equates to a forced week off but also a loss of income of 25 percent. The resources have been depleted even further and the demand for more and more news, especially around the clock, has intensified. If newsrooms were strained before the pandemic, [the pandemic] has been an intensifier beyond measure.

EE: North Carolina has experienced some drastic demographic, economic, and political shifts over the past several decades. What have been some of the most important statewide changes that you've seen in the buildup to the pandemic?

ML: Let's start with economics. Two major industry drivers in North Carolina have been hit dramatically. Manufacturing was always strong and deeply rooted in North Carolina and in the last 20 years manufacturing has migrated abroad. It's moved to Latin America, it's moved to China and our manufacturing industry has been absolutely decimated, and with it, jobs. Those were primarily in small rural communities that have been decimated and no industry, no job sector has come in to replace that. 

The other major industry that was hit hard is tobacco. So much of our farming was reliant on tobacco. The great tobacco buyout helped some farmers make a transition and then it just absolutely depleted a lot of other farms and that has never rebounded. The industry across the state, especially in rural North Carolina, has left a lot of people wanting. Those populations are shrinking, communities are having a very difficult time drawing industry and people to come and build those communities back up.

Politically we'll move there next. North Carolina, like a lot of Southern states, used to be filled with what you would call "Yellow Dog Democrats," more conservative Democrats. It's been in the last 10 years that you've seen a huge transition from that population of voters to conservative Republicans. 

You've got a huge urban-rural divide in our state. Our urban areas are still considered more Democratic and progressive and our rural areas more conservative and Republican. All of that amounts to the fact that we're a battleground state. 

The candidates are going to be spending a lot of time in North Carolina, as they did last presidential election cycle, and as they did in the cycle before that. That constant attention from the national political arena on North Carolina causes, I think, a tremendous amount of friction among people who are neighbors and would otherwise be friends. That friction is felt in big and small ways in our state.

EE: As one article in the series notes, almost 20 percent of North Carolina homes have no internet subscription. Along with the digital divide, what were some other disparities across the state that worsened the pandemic's impact, especially amongst marginalized communities?

ML: Early on, we identified one of the theses of our project: cracks in our preexisting economy have become fissures as a result of COVID-19. I'll just tick through a few of them and we'll get to the digital divide one.

We launched our first story in the project in and around the child care industry. COVID-19 had shuttered about 40 percent of day care facilities across the state. What it exposed in the process is just how fragile that industry was. Providers paid very poorly, day care providers operating on extremely thin margins. This system operated to keep parents being able to work, with reliable places to send their children. 

Then we turned our attention to the manufacturing industry and how it was stepping in to fill some of the cracks with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) manufacturing. We looked at small, rural communities that have water supply systems in danger because they haven't been able to collect payments from customers for the last six months as a result of COVID-19.

Then we really wanted to spend a considerable amount of attention on the digital divide issues in our state. We started with what I think surprises a lot of people, which is the urban side of the equation. Across the state, 20 percent of our residents don't have internet subscriptions. I think we can comfortably or intellectually surmise that that is likely the result of an inability to pay because they tend to correspond with poorer communities. 

When you actually look down at a neighborhood level, what you'll see is that there are some neighborhoods in places like Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, where half of the residents in a given neighborhood or community don't have subscriptions to the internet. So when we think about how our schools are organized and how our children are assigned to their educations, those concentrations happen within certain schools. So how does education progress when students don't have reliable technology or the internet to learn during this time?

Then recently we looked at the broadband infrastructure question across rural North Carolina. Again, this is an issue that's plagued the state for a long time. It's not a problem that appeared overnight, and it's not a problem that's going to go away overnight, but what COVID-19 did was shine a light at just how dire the situation is, how we have entire communities that have been left behind economically, educationally, because of a lack of ability to get broadband internet, even if they could afford it.

EE: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of data journalism in telling these stories, especially during a pandemic? 

ML: We want, at every turn, to be able to route our stories in hard facts and numbers. For these stories, what we've sought to do is provide maps that allow people to navigate, on their own, particular neighborhoods and cities and counties that register with them. Data reporting allows us to speak with an authority that we otherwise wouldn't [have].

It also can lead us places that we didn't anticipate. If not, for instance, the broadband map that we had on lack of infrastructure, I don't know where we would have pointed our direction on that story. When we got the map and were able to look closely, we were able to see that a county that is often neglected in the coverage areas of our 22 newspapers had really glaring, striking gaps in the infrastructure. So the data, in that regard, led us there. 

We have an upcoming eviction story where you're able to look at eviction rates per county, and that is leading us to anchor our story in a kind of a surprising county to the north of Raleigh that has the highest eviction rates of any county in the state. So data can make you very smart. It can make you more credible with your readers. We have tried at every turn to use it in our stories.

EE: What are some next steps in the project and issues you have yet to cover?

ML: We have three stories in the pipeline that will be published in the coming weeks. One is looking at evictions.* There's been various moratoriums protecting people from being evicted during the pandemic, but we had a deluge of evictions in July and August when the state moratorium had lapsed and before the federal moratorium kicked in. So we'll be examining people who fell through those cracks and then using that onslaught of evictions that occurred during that two-month window as a predictor since we're on track to get another one of those onslaughts.

The next story we've got is looking at bankruptcies. We've been tracking bankruptcies across the state filings since the pandemic [began]. We actually had some of our interns from UNC Chapel Hill helping us assemble an inventory of bankruptcies. One of the things we did is we cross-checked bankruptcies with voter information. So we've got a demographic breakdown. [We know] where the bankruptcies were occurring in the state, but also with what racial groups and genders. Despite everything that the federal government was doing to keep people from slipping into further economic stress during this time, for a lot of families it wasn't enough. Bankruptcy allows us to see that.

Then the last story that we're going to do is [about] a report put out by the U.S. Census. It's something called a "vulnerability map" that looks at resiliency in particular census tracts. It had about 12 risk factors that they were using as predictors for how particular neighborhoods would be able to rebound from COVID-19. What we're going to do is look at those maps, pull out their risk factors individually, and anchor a story in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods and see on the ground how those communities are in fact recovering or struggling through COVID-19.

EE: Is NCNC a model that newspapers in other states could follow during the pandemic or beyond? 

ML: Absolutely. We have got to do more to share resources across newsrooms and we see that happening in a lot of really bold and interesting ways. But for historic newspapers to agree to lay down arms and say, "you know, we're better together," is a really extraordinary moment in the industry. I think that it can serve as an encourager for other states who want to bring together historic competitors to perform more ambitious work.

*Editor's Note: The "Bouncing Back" article on evictions during the pandemic published on Friday, September 25, 2020. Click here to read the story.


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