Jordan Wilkie is the lead contributing reporter covering elections and voting security for Carolina Public Press. CPP is a nonprofit news organization based in Asheville, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Wilkie discusses his work there and the need for new business models for news.
Q. What is Carolina Public Press, and where does it fit into the state’s news ecosystem?
A. I think CPP is the future of the state’s news ecosystem, though I’m an odd combination of dreamer and cynic.
The elevator pitch is that CPP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative newsroom that covers the entire state. CPP is one of the pioneering newsrooms showing there is a new model for news in North Carolina — free content, provided by a nonprofit newsroom that runs on grants, donations from individuals and business sponsorships.
Since CPP is a nonprofit, it has republishing agreements with other outlets across the state. The Raleigh News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer have republished my work a handful of times. CPP’s nonprofit status also makes the newsroom predisposed to collaboration. CPP won several state press awards for its Seeking Conviction series, a “collaborative investigative project spanning 6½ months and including 11 news organizations.”
CPP is working with five other news organizations to cover COVID-19’s effects on the state. So far, I have been a part of one story on county boards of elections needing additional funding to carry off this year’s general election during a pandemic. I’m co-reporting a second story this week on the state’s response to outbreaks of COVID-19 in its prisons.
The future of news is nonprofit or highly localized for-profit outlets. In CPP’s case, this is still a bit of a pipe dream. CPP has a newsroom of three (when I start my salaried position in June, I’ll officially be part of the newsroom, but since I’m contracted to them full time now, I’m fudging just a little). Though CPP has a team of contributors, the organization itself remains quite small.
On the other hand, the business model for regional, for-profit newsrooms is broken.
When we think of North Carolina news outlets, the state’s long-standing regional newspapers often come first to mind. These papers have long histories of public service in watchdog journalism, and they still employ some of the best reporters in the state.
The for-profit journalism model, however, has struggled for a generation. The Charlotte Observer, the N&O and the Durham Herald-Sun are owned by the now-bankrupt McClatchy, having already suffered a decade of layoffs and forced retirements. The Fayetteville Observer, owned by Gannett Media, and the Greensboro News and Record, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, have not fared much better. Nationally, newspapers have lost half of their newsroom employees since 2008.
CPP does not have the same pressures as these much larger, for-profit newsrooms. Its ability to do investigative work actually supports the larger newsrooms, which have lost a lot of reporters and therefore opportunity to really dive into some stories. For now, CPP operates as a glue, filling gaps and providing support to other newsrooms, as well as working independently to do its own reporting.
I fear I may be overstating CPP’s influence here, at the risk of drawing the ire of my collaborators at the regional papers and TV stations. But I really do think that journalism needs a new business model, and I’m certainly not thinking like a pioneer nor a radical here.
Certainly, I do not want to overstate my importance or contributions. I’m still very much a green reporter. I’m taking every opportunity I can to learn from great reporters around the state; the chance to collaborate with reporters I have been reading for years was a major reason I pursued a job with CPP. I’m just starting my career, and I’m doing it with CPP — another reason I’m hopeful we will be the future of reporting in the state.
Q. Describe your role there. What is your typical day like?
A. I’ll spare you the drudgery of my actual day-to-day work habits and just focus on my role.
I wrote my first story for CPP about conditions in the Cherokee County Jail, where the State Bureau of Investigation was looking into violence against detainees and where a detainee had recently died. That was one of my first stories out of graduate school, where I focused on covering conditions of confinement in jails, prisons and juvenile detentions.
That was just supposed to be a two-day story looking at the recent death, but I got ahead of myself and submitted enough records requests to drag the reporting out over a couple of months. By the time we actually got it published — and set the stage for a half-dozen follow-up stories by CPP’s new investigations reporter, Kate Martin — I had taken a job covering Georgia’s 2018 midterm elections.
Fast forward to now, and I’m CPP’s prisons and elections expert.
Technically, I’m joining CPP’s newsroom through the Report for America program just to cover election fraud and security. The COVID-19 pandemic, though, called for a broader focus in my reporting. So now, I’m bouncing between looking into county election budgets in the morning and arguing with the Department of Public Safety over releasing records in the afternoon.
One of the great pleasures of working with CPP is that they give me the latitude to get really into the weeds. Since CPP doesn’t have the same pressures to create content as larger, for-profit newsrooms, I’m able to spend more time reading a lot of technical documents like National Institute of Standards and Technology research on voting systems, or the Health Care Policy Manual from the Division of Prisons. I find this really helpful when talking to state agencies because I know what records they have and I know the things that they should know. It helps me know what information to ask for — even if they rarely give it to me — and to know when they’re trying to lead me around by the nose.
To summarize, my work looks like going to board meetings, reading technical documents and reports, and making records requests. My goal, especially with elections coverage, is to make the national stories make sense here, from a local angle. I see it as a kind of translation.
The challenge now is to figure out the balance between long-term stories, deep dives, investigations and the needs of the day-to-day.
Q. How do editing and headline writing work at Carolina Public Press?
A. CPP has a pretty linear process for in-house stories. Collaborations are an entirely different beast.
For in-house stories, the editing and headline process is pretty streamlined. I write my story and propose a headline (I’m awful at this) and then send it off to my managing editor, Frank Taylor. He takes a look, checks in with me if there’s anything more than a cosmetic change, then sends it off to the copy editor before putting it up on our website.
I witnessed my first collaborative editing and headline effort earlier this week: five newsrooms, something like eight reporters and editors. Luckily, I contributed to the reporting, but was not responsible for writing the story. Emily Featherston of WECT bore that burden and did so with aplomb.
All of the contributing reporters put our data in spreadsheets and add vignettes to a shared document. The lead reporter takes that information, along with her own reporting, and crafts a story draft. Once she’s ready, she throws the chum to the hungry sharks.
We’re working with some of the best reporters in the state for this collaborative project covering COVID-19’s impacts. The document was filled with suggestions, clarifications, and praise. It was left to Emily (mostly) and me to respond to each and every comment.
This process took several hours. Emily’s writing was strong to begin with, and the story was bulletproofed by the end.
As the editing for the body of the story slowed, attention turned to the headline. The conversation moved off the Google doc and into a thread on Slack. I tried to stay away from that back and forth. There were maybe a dozen suggestions and micro-edits to phrasing and punctuation.
Once the story is set and the headline decided, all the newsrooms decide when to publish, and, as if it were magic, the story pops up all over North Carolina.
Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in working for news organizations like Carolina Public Press?
A. In my experience, get a sugar daddy.
To put it in a less salacious manner, maximize your privilege and support networks. Once you start working, you’ll be more independent. The hard part is actually getting there (I don’t start a salaried position with CPP until June 1 through support from Report for America). It’s been a hard road in the two years since I graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2018.
There’s a reason why newsrooms are predominantly white and why papers of record are disproportionately populated with private school graduates.
The only reason I’m still in journalism today is because for the first year out of grad school I was living with my boyfriend who made a lot more money and who covered my rent and food. Without that, I would not have had the freedom to hustle to build my resume as a freelancer or to wait for grants and funding to come through. I would have had to get a job outside of journalism, as a majority in my cohort of master’s students did. The only difference I see between them and me is that I had the social privilege and financial support of my boyfriend and of my family.
I know this first few paragraphs read as, “be white, middle class or richer, and it doesn’t hurt to be a straight man.” That’s not really advice, but it’s the reality you’ll face.
My first real piece of advice is to know without a doubt that our economic system writ large is broken and unfair, and the inequities stack up based on race, ethnicity, wealth, sex, gender and sexuality. This is no different for a job in journalism, an industry that has been called out over and over since Ida B. Wells was slandered by The New York Times in the 1800s. Only now are we beginning to be even hopeful of working in a more equitable and just industry, and even so it will take another generation of dedicated effort.
I have a lot of privilege and, even so, finding my way to stable employment was a drag-out fight. I moved out of my boyfriend’s place a year ago. I’m still sleeping on the floor on top of two yoga mats, a foam camping pad and a mattress topper. I’ve been too close to the financial edge to buy a mattress for the first time in my life and, besides, my room is too small to fit a proper bed and a desk. I roll up my sleeping mats every morning and get to work.
Much of my struggle likely came from changing careers at 26 years old. I graduated with my master’s at 28 and have been in a rush to make up for lost time. I made the right personal choice to stay in North Carolina after I graduated, but it was the wrong professional choice.
As soon as you graduate, your degree starts losing value, no matter what level you are at.
If I was making a purely professional decision, I should have moved anywhere in the country (or even the world) that offered me a good job as soon as I got my master’s. Instead, I tried to build a career from scratch here in North Carolina.
That didn’t work. By mid-September, almost four months after graduating, I was feeling pretty desperate. I took a low-paying job with a newsroom I had never heard of to cover Georgia’s 2018 midterms. The only way I could afford to take that job was to move in with some family friends in Atlanta that I hadn’t seen in 12 years. As an adult, I became their third son in the house.
That was the start I needed. There was more financial interest in elections coverage than in covering prisons and jails, which was my focus coming out of graduate school.
I worked my ass off to become an elections specialist. I read the Senate Intelligence Committee reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election, I read the Mueller report, I read hundreds of pages of court documents where states were sued over poor election practices and use of insecure technology, I paid my own way to conferences.
To this point, my advice boils down to go where the good jobs are (being able to move freely takes its own amount of privilege), get that job as quickly as you can, and when you get an opportunity — even if it is underwhelming on paper — develop some kind of specialization (mine, specifically, was in election technology and administration).
In early 2019, The Guardian was at the beginning stages of its Fight to Vote series. The U.S. editor came to Atlanta to meet with Emory University voting rights historian Carol Anderson. Due to my reporting on the intersection of election security and voter suppression, I was invited to the meeting by an acquaintance of Professor Anderson. That introduction with The Guardian gave me the opportunity to freelance a handful of stories with them. The breakthrough would never have happened if I hadn’t been in the room.
My next piece of advice: When you cover a beat like elections, look up all the experts in your area and talk to them, even if it’s not for a story. Make sure they know who you are, what you’re doing, what you want to do, and why it’s in their best interest to keep you in the loop. This will help your reporting, and it will help you connect with the people who can advance your career.
Freelancing for The Guardian, though, did not make my career. First of all, I had to fight with them to get paid, and it almost made me miss a month of rent.
Next piece of advice — be proactive about getting paid. Read your freelancer contracts. If the news organization has a liability waiver (also called an indemnity clause), does not pay you adequately or does not guarantee you will get paid on a reasonable schedule, ask them to renegotiate the contract. If they don’t, walk away. The Guardian’s contract was solid on all of these fronts, yet it was clear their priority wasn’t not to get a new freelancer his payment quickly.
After all this, it was clear that I did not have the disposition to make a career out of being a freelancer.
It was also clear to me that there was a gap in reporting on elections between national and local outlets. Elections are, ultimately, local affairs. Every county and, often, every municipality runs its own elections. Those elections add up to state and federal results.
But covering election integrity on a national scale, as I was doing for The Guardian, seems like a Quixotic endeavor. There are, after all, 3,000 counties in the U.S. One 1,000-word story can’t possibly begin to cover the problems in any substantive way.
I saw an opportunity. Here’s my next piece of advice. Always exploit an opportunity. At least know that if you don’t, someone else will.
There was going to be money to be had to cover the 2020 elections, and I wanted a chunk for myself.
North Carolina’s election coverage was mostly focused on politics — horserace stuff, who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s making what ridiculous claims about their opponents. The ballot fraud in the state’s 9th Congressional District turned attention to election fraud and the actual administration of elections, but once that was resolved, reporters were reassigned to their regular beats.
No reporter in North Carolina was dedicated to covering voting systems and election fraud.
I decided to make that job for myself.
Next advice. Learn about funding. Learn this while you’re still in school. How do newsrooms get their funding? What are the funding cycles? Who are the local innovators in news models? (In N.C., it’s Fiona Morgan and Melanie Sill.)
In June 2019, I wrote a proposal for a newsroom to hire a reporter to cover North Carolina’s 2020 elections by examining election security and administration. I designed the proposal to be attractive to funders so that if a newsroom was interested, they could take my work and turn it into a grant.
I gave the proposal to CPP. They were a bit shocked. I had only written one story for them nine months before. I was still a bit of an unknown factor. They liked the proposal and, after talking with me, they trusted me. CPP took the application and turned it into a funding application. Report for America gave CPP the funding it was looking for.
I created the proposal on June 3, 2019, and I’ll start working for CPP as a Report for America corps member on June 1, 2020.
Through the summer and fall, freelanced stories for CPP on the state’s acquisition of new election equipment and other election stories. I took a job with another statewide nonprofit newsroom in the fall to cover the bills.
In the spring, CPP brought me on as a full-time contractor, with the expectation that I would get the Report for America position with their newsroom (I had to apply to Report for America independently from CPP). With the onset of COVID-19, I added coverage of prison and jail conditions to my portfolio, returning to what brought me into journalism in the first place.
I never would have made it through these two years without the friendship and guidance of my UNC professors (special shoutout to Ryan Thornburg and Andy Bechtel) and without the support of Durham of freelancers, reporters and mentors. Barry Yeoman has been the most helpful, both for hope and for practical advice.
Recently, Barry told me that he found it amazing how much more work young freelancers had to do these days just to get a job. I had to create a job in order to get it.
It’s not getting any easier. Opportunities are shifting, but I’m not convinced they are becoming more prevalent.
My last piece of advice is to build a community of support and to ask for help. You really have to ask. Get your mentors to buy you lunch and give you free advice. Get other freelancers to connect you to the editors they know. Have more experienced freelancers teach you how to read a contract and to negotiate a better contract. When a news organization steals your story or screws you over, get drinks with your journalist friends and commiserate.
If you are a young journalist trying to get in the game, find me on Twitter. My DMs are open. I’ll support you in any way that I can. Especially reach out if you are a journalist of color, went to a community college or are a fellow queer journalist.