EdNC’s award-winning N.C. community college coverage inspired by UNC Table Stakes initiative

For Education NC, taking part in the second cohort of the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative proved a fruitful path, pivoting the four-year-old digital organization’s thinking about audience engagement and leading to an award-winning, week-long road trip to all of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges last summer.

EdNC took part in the initiative through the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM), located within the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

One of the many community colleges that welcomed EdNC. Photo: EdNC

EdNC, an independent news source which covers education throughout North Carolina, knew why they wanted to expand their coverage to North Carolina’s community college system—the majority of the state’s postsecondary students enroll in the system—but Table Stakes coaching showed them the how, and reminded them as they planned their “Community College Blitz” that building an audience is just as much about creating engagement as producing content.

“Everybody who works at EdNC was out on the road that week,” said EdNC CEO Mebane Rash, who noted that organizational flexibility was a key concept promoted by Table Stakes coaches and utilized by EdNC as their staffers fanned out across North Carolina, gathering stories from every corner of the community college system.

The stories, on topics ranging from zoo and aquarium science to winemaking, could have been completed by phone calls from the office, but showing up at the colleges was just as important as writing about them, said Nation Hahn, EdNC’s chief growth officer, especially for a nascent news organization like EdNC focused on building brand identity.

EdNC reporter Alex Granados learns about zoo science at Davidson Community College. Photo: EdNC

By logging over 6,000 miles on the road and visiting the colleges in person, EdNC didn’t just create articles, but a statewide campaign that created increased visibility for the community college system, as well as EdNC.

August 2018, the month the Blitz began, EdNC’s website traffic spiked to more than 50,000 views, Hahn said.

“If you’re just creating content, you’re dead in the water,” said Hahn, who visited several community colleges before the Blitz even began, starting EdNC’s dialogue with the system, the third largest in the nation by number of colleges.

“Coming and seeing what’s happening on a community college campus, and how lives are being impacted, makes a difference,” said Robert Wynegar, president of the College of the Albemarle.

Students at Surry Community College learn about winemaking. Photo: EdNC

Approximately one in nine North Carolina citizens 18 and older are enrolled at community colleges and 40 percent of wage earners attended an N.C. community college in the past 10 years, according to data from the N.C. community college system.

“The amount of the population that is touched by community college is huge,” said EdNC Director of Policy and Engagement Molly Osborne. However, media coverage often favors the state’s four-year institutions, perhaps fueled by outdated assumptions that the system is a “less than” choice rather than a vigorous, viable option, Osborne said.

Analisa Sorrells, EdNC’s associate director of policy and engagement, hopes EdNC’s work—both during and after the Blitz—derail such assumptions. Sorrells visited Blue Ridge Community College, located in the state’s mountainous west, during the Blitz and noted that EdNC’s community college coverage has and will continue, aided by a foundation of contacts and connections made during the Blitz.

“This wasn’t going to be a one and done kind of story,” Sorrells said.

EdNC continues to reap Blitz benefits in terms of engagement numbers, according to Hahn. According to EdNC stats:

• EdNC launched a community college newsletter, Awake58, during the Blitz, sent to over 20,000 community college staff members, now totaling over 30 issues.

• In the past year, “Community Colleges” has been EdNC’s most viewed category online.

• EdNC has produced over 120 articles on community colleges.

The last gathering of the second cohort of UNC’s Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative took place in April at the Hussman School.

The yearlong change management coaching program is part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation and helps media organizations identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Nine other media organizations from throughout the Southeast attended the second cohort of the initiative at CISLM.