Carolina Public Press fills gaps left by traditional newsrooms

When reporter Angie Newsome ’03 (M.A.) left the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2011, there wasn’t a single investigative or political reporter working the western side of the state.

“There was a fair amount of frustration that traditional newsrooms would say, ‘No one cares what’s happening in the General Assembly,’” she says. “So, I wanted to be a service. That’s the accountability of watchdog journalism, non-partisan journalism.”

Newsome’s observation reflects what we see in our own research here at the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. UNC’s Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy reported in her groundbreaking research on America’s news deserts that nearly a quarter of local U.S. newspapers — 2,100 properties — have closed since 2004. At the end of 2019, the U.S. had 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004.

Newsome, who built her career on public service journalism, started Carolina Public Press, which she saw as a solution to a gap in news coverage. Based in Asheville, but with reporters covering the entire state, CPP is a non-profit digital news service focused on investigative journalism. CCP provides a broad content menu including breaking stories and deep enterprise and investigative work on government and politics, environment, health, hunger, justice and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And it’s free to readers – it pays the bills by securing donations from foundations and readers.

Newsome’s journey with CPP is a unique success story from our Table Stakes Initiative, which is part of the UNC-Knight Foundation Newsroom Initiative designed to help media prosper as digitally capable newsrooms. She worked under coach Tim Griggs, publisher and chief operating officer of the Texas Tribune, often held up as the gold standard of non-profit journalism in America. The program helped Newsome form tangible goals, like expanding CPP’s footprint from western North Carolina to a statewide mission.

The wider reach gave CPP new stories to tell, greatly enhanced the impact of its journalism and made fundraising more successful. Readers frequently tell her team how much they appreciate CPP’s credible, statewide work, and ongoing donations from readers help pay the bills. Larger gifts in the $10,000 range from foundations and wealthy individuals supportive of CPP’s mission keeps the news service afloat, Newsome says.

Today, Newsome says CPP is on a sustainable path. She is supported at CCP by a full-time managing editor and two full-time reporters. She hopes to soon bring another reporter onboard. Her team works with 10 freelance writers and a large group of freelance photographers capable of handling video.

“Table Stakes helped us organize ourselves, and helped me articulate to funders what we needed, where we were going,” Newsome says.

Newsome’s story is one we’ll be pointing to through our Project Oasis, which we launched in March, and from which we’ll have our first round of reportable results in the coming months. As our News Deserts research continues to uncover the challenges faced by local media — and Abernathy engages with media organizations across the country around sustainable business models — Project Oasis is digging deeply into the solutions that strong digital media organizations have found to fill the gaps in coverage. We’re identifying and highlighting the crucial choices made by media organizations like Newsome’s that have allowed them to successfully pivot – and thrive – in the digital world while producing journalism that matters to the public.

Newsome hears often from readers disenchanted with traditional newspapers, citizens looking for coverage on critical issues affecting North Carolina. Many are sympathetic about the workloads on journalists remaining at traditional papers.

However, she adds, “They say, ‘We understand the pressure, but we still need the information.’”