A project of Democracy Fund

December 12, 2018

Local Fix: Disasters, Surveillance, and Election Fraud

Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. But first, we always begin with one good idea…​

One Good Idea: One question that those advocating for engaged journalism practices get a lot is: “But what about the money??!” Thankfully, there’s a lot of folks working on that question. Take, for example, this session from the People-Powered Publishing Conference on connecting engaged journalism to revenue. It’s a long slide deck but full of ideas, frameworks, and tips from local news organizations around the world. Bookmark it here: bit.ly/PPPC-funandprofit 

A Year of Disasters and How Local News Covered Them

As we look back on the last year, it’s hard not to think about the terrible local disasters that punctuated the year in news. These events often spotlight the daily heroism and the critical role of local journalists, but after national attention wanes, many local reporters are left trying to recover from the same disasters they have spent days or weeks covering. That work continues long after the headlines fade. We thought it was important to lift up a few examples of the perseverance of local journalists, and the profound commitment to the people and places they serve. This has been a tough year on many fronts, and it is easy to forget that journalists aren’t just the ones telling us about it, they are also experiencing it, too. We are grateful for the reporters who keep reporting, the newsroom staff who make newsrooms run, the press operators, the coders, broadcast engineers, the delivery truck drivers, the social media teams who get the news into the hands of people when they need it most, against all odds.  

On-the Ground Reporting in NC

Local news outlets in North Carolina have been hard at work after a big story about potential election fraud in the state’s 9th Congressional District. In NC Local, a weekly newsletter about NC’s news and information ecosystem, Melanie Sill shared some highlights and behind-the-scenes looks at the fast moving story (Editor’s Note: Sill works with Democracy Fund as a Senior Consultant). It’s a reminder of the importance of shoe leather reporting, the benefit of having multiple outlets and reporters working together to cover a story, and the need for national outlets to work with local reporters and news organizations. Here’s an excerpt, but go check out Sill’s newsletter for more, including why elections records transparency and local political experts are helping keep North Carolinians informed: 

  • There’s nothing like on-the-ground reporting, part I: WSOC-TV reporter Joe Bruno, who broke news on the voter affidavits last week and has hustled on the story since, tweeted Monday that he was back in Bladen County, then broke more news about unusual numbers of absentee ballots being signed by the same witnesses. Bruno went door to door trying to track down those witnesses, WSOC reported, until he found a woman who said on camera that she’d delivered ballots to Leslie McRae Dowless Jr., a Bladen County soil and water conservation district supervisor who is listed in affidavits as consultant for the Harris campaign. (North Carolina election lawsays ballots must be be returned by voters, “near relatives or designated guardians.”) The N&O’s Josh Shaffer and Richard Stradling, along with McClatchy’s Murphy, reported in Robeson County for a story published Tuesday evening on the investigation’s expansion to that county, helping them gather first-hand accounts of how votes were handled.
  • On-the-ground reporting, part II: I caught up with veteran reporter Kirk Ross of Chapel Hill, who also spent a lot of time in Bladen County late last week as a freelancer with a Washington Post team covering the story. They tracked down a man named Jeff Smith, who told them about an operation he said Dowless used during the May Republican primary to pick up absentee ballots in certain Bladen precincts. Then, Ross said, the phone rang. As the Post reported Monday: “Smith was in the middle of an interview with The Post on Saturday when an investigator with the State Board of Elections called him. In front of a reporter, he told the investigator the story again, from the beginning.” After the story published, Ross tweeted: “That was quite a moment.” Ross shared a byline with Post national political reporter Amy Gardner, former News & Observer state capitol reporter, and photojournalist Justin Kase Conder.
  • The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg also noticed some of the same outstanding work by North Carolina journalists: His story, headlined “The shoe-leather reporting boosting North Carolina’s explosive election fraud investigation,” was posted Wednesday.

Read more and subscribe to NC Local

Security, Surveillance and Staying Safe

The tools that make it such an amazing time to be a journalists right now — incredibly powerful phones, super portable laptops, live streaming cameras, etc — also open up journalists to new forms of surveillance and can put our sources and our reporting at risk. This week we take a look at a number of new reports focused on digital attacks on journalists and the power of law enforcement to search your equipment. It’s important to know your rights, but it’s also important to recognize that a lot of these issues are in flux as new technology runs headlong into old laws and norms. We are curious — what is one small security step you have taken in the last year? We’ll share the good ideas people send in on the @thelocalnewslab Twitter account

Have a good weekend,
Josh, Teresa, and Gabe
@jcstearns@gteresa, @gabemschneider

The Local Fix is a project of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, which invests in innovations and institutions that are reinventing local media and expanding the public square. Disclosure: Some projects mentioned in this newsletter may be funded by Democracy Fund, you can find a full list of the organizations we support on our website.