Several participants of the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative — past and present — were recognized at the recent North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) awards, in categories ranging from website excellence to best headline writing.
Many of the media organizations attributed their success in part to their time in the yearlong UNC Table Stakes program, an initiative of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. The initiative, now in its third cohort, helps media organizations identify challenges and opportunities, as well as create sustainable solutions to survive and thrive in the digital age.
“We continue to see great success from our Table Stakes partners,” said Susan Leath, director of UNC Hussman’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. “Together we are strengthening local news, serving our communities and strengthening our democracy.”
Here’s a breakdown of the Table Stakes participants’ 2020 NCPA award wins:
Carolina Public Press (CPP), an online news site specializing in investigative journalism, took home 14 awards, including first place in public service in the online division for “Seeking Conviction,” a collaborative series about North Carolina’s low sexual assault conviction rate. CPP produced the series with 10 other North Carolina media organizations. CPP also took first place in general excellence for an online-only publication.
CPP took part in Cohort 2 of the program in 2018-19.
“Table Stakes helped us solidify our intent, interest and culture around collaboration,” said Angie Newsome, CPP’s executive director. Through the Table Stakes program, CPP developed a set of criteria surrounding collaboration, allowing the staff to think more critically about the skills, capacity and audience reach potential collaboration partners could provide.
The Daily Record, part of the program’s current Cohort 3, took home five awards, including a nod in the best community coverage category. The Harnett County, North Carolina, newspaper is part of Restoration NewsMedia, an umbrella company composed of two family-owned North Carolina newspapers — the other being The Wilson Times. Created in 2019, the company allows the two newspapers and their subsidiaries to share resources and expertise while remaining independently owned and operated.
“We believe our model can help save community newspapers and restore sustainable local coverage to cities and towns that may otherwise be in danger of becoming news deserts,” said Keven Zepezauer, president of Restoration NewsMedia, of how the newspapers’ collaboration beefs up editorial coverage.
EducationNC, an online news site covering education issues in North Carolina, took home six awards, including two for its newsletters Awake58 and Early Bird, covering the state’s community college and early education systems respectively. Utilizing newsletters has been a key component of the five-year-old organization’s growth strategy. EducationNC, part of Cohort 2 in 2018-19, also took home a first-place win for education reporting.
“The questions raised during Table Stakes led to us launching deep experimentation around newsletters. We launched Awake58 during our roll out of our community college coverage as part of our Table Stakes work,” said Nation Hahn, EducationNC’s director of growth. “We followed the successful launch of Awake58 with an iterative approach to launching Early Bird, our early childhood newsletter, almost one year later.”
Greensboro’s News & Record won 18 awards. This included six first-place honors and second place for general excellence. First-place awards went to education reporting, spot news photography editorial page design and the staff in general for the newspaper’s overall appearance and design.
The News & Record participated in Cohort 2 of Table Stakes in 2018-19, an experience still paying dividends, said Cindy Loman, the News & Record’s editor, especially in terms of audience reach.
“Table Stakes has really helped us look at what our audience is looking for and what resonates with them online,” Loman said.
Founded in 1896, The News Reporter publishes twice a week in southeastern North Carolina’s Columbus County. The News Reporter took part in Cohort 1 of the program in 2017-18, with a goal of moving toward a digital-first mindset. Fitting that several of the newspaper’s 17 wins in this year’s NCPA awards were for digital work. The News Reporter won in the multimedia project, social media and video categories, including a first-place win for a multimedia project on a church pianist displaced by Hurricane Florence.
“Since The News Reporter has become a digital-first newsroom, video and use of social media has become a focus,” said Les High, the newspaper’s publisher. “Video and social media helps us meet our audience where they are.”
North Carolina Health News (NCHN) won 15 awards last week, including a first-place win in the category “Beat News Reporting” for a series of stories on aging sewer treatment plants across North Carolina.
NCHN founder Rose Hoban started advocating that the NCPA create online categories in the early part of the last decade. Nonprofit and Online-only, NCHN covers health issues around the state.
“The reason I helped in pushing the NCPA to create an online category back in 2013 was that I knew that having awards from the association would enhance our legitimacy and help us make the pitch to editors and publishers around the state to use our work,” Hoban said.
The Pilot is an independently owned, 100-year-old newspaper currently published twice a week in Southern Pines, North Carolina. The Pilot took part in Cohort 1 in 2017-18.
David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot, saw the Table Stakes program as an opportunity to learn new ways to keep his company nimble and diverse as the media landscape continued to shift toward digital products and revenue diversification. “If you remain only a community newspaper in one town, you are imprisoned in your market,” said Woronoff, who estimated that The Pilot newspaper now represents only 30% of his company’s overall business. “We have to be more than just a newspaper. In the end, you’ve got to be a successful business.”
Fitting that one of the awards the newspaper won was first place for its PineStraw magazine in the niche publication category. Also, The Pilot took first place in the email newsletter category for the twice-weekly Pilot’s Briefing.
Restoration NewsMedia’s other local news component, The Wilson Times, also won big.
Also a part of the current Cohort 3, The Wilson Times won 23 awards including being recognized as North Carolina’s best small daily newspaper for the second year in a row.
“Drew C. Wilson of The Wilson Times earned first-place honors for multimedia project and second place for best video,” said Corey Friedman, editor of the Wilson Times. “Part of our Table Stakes challenge involves increasing reader engagement and time spent on site and we’re using news and sports videos as a tactic to help achieve that goal. The validation from receiving awards for our video work will provide encouragement and motivate our staff to continue looking for video opportunities.”
The Winston-Salem Journal, which took part in Cohort 2 in 2018-19 collected 59 awards, including first place in general excellence for the third time in four years. The Journal’s awards included a record 23 first-place awards, 15 second-place awards and 19 third-place awards.
Managing Editor Andy Morrissey pointed to the newspaper’s wins in sports categories — including sports feature photography and sports enterprise reporting — as examples of Table Stakes’ positive influence on the newspaper. Refocusing sports coverage through targeted newsletters and human interest-centered content was a priority for the newspaper when it entered the program.
“Table Stakes made us think about more targeted ways we could reach our audience,” Morrissey said.