Q&A with Charles Duncan Pardo, editor of the Raleigh Public Record

Charles Duncan Pardo is editor of the Raleigh Public Record, a nonprofit news organization that covers the capital of North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Pardo talks about his job, the Raleigh Public Record’s role in the Triangle and the outlook for nonprofit news.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m not sure if I have a typical day. I have two main jobs. In my “day job” for the Courthouse News Service I go to the Wake County Courthouse every day and Durham once a week to cover civil courts and track new filings.

I’m also responsible for supervising about 20 reporters spread out across the Southeast. I’m very lucky to have the Southeast Bureau Chief position with CNS because it gives me the flexibility to run Raleigh Public Record.

For the Record, my days typically involve assigning stories, talking with freelance reporters about ongoing stories and editing copy as it comes in. But I also spend a lot of time writing grants, maintaining the website, keeping up with everything that’s going on in Raleigh and generally taking care of all the tasks involved in running a small news operation. I even get to report a story every once in a while.

I typically spend half a day in the office and the other half downtown. I can’t work in one place for more than a couple of hours before my productivity drops.

But I also feel that as the editor I shouldn’t be stuck in the office all day. I should go work out of coffee shops and go to city hall and be able to talk to people, bug sources and check in on what’s going on around the city.

Q. The News & Observer and WRAL are the big players in the Triangle media. How does the Raleigh Public Record fit into that mix?

A. Our goal has never been to compete with the daily news organizations. Our goal is to complement. We don’t cover car crashes and drug busts. We seek out the stories that don’t get covered by the big organizations.

We have two focus areas. Raleigh city government has not had consistent coverage beyond city council meetings for quite some time. We almost always have the only reporter in the room for meetings like planning commission or the budget and economic development committee. These are important meetings where elected and government officials debate and make major decisions about Raleigh. We cover that lower-level news that has real everyday impact on the lives of people living here.

We also like to step back and be able to see the broader picture. Take the Wake County school board for example. The traditional news organizations do a good job of covering the day to day. But reporters covering that major story on a daily deadline can have trouble sometimes seeing the forest for the trees. Our job there is to get at the big picture. This is where we analyze the data, dig deep to give the analysis or investigate to get at the heart (and the facts) of a politicized debate.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the website?

A. I or our assistant editor are very involved in stories from assignment through posting. For meeting coverage and short-term news stories, we talk to reporters when we make the assignments and then stories are submitted to me.

Depending on the reporter, the timeline and the deadline, sometimes we edit in person, and sometimes I will edit on my own. Then stories go to our assistant editor for copy editing, design and posting.

For longer stories I am very involved at each step in working with our reporters and making sure they are on the right track and asking all the right questions. Deadlines vary. For meetings and the like, we expect stories to be turned around same day, and they are typically posted that night or early the next morning.

For more involved reporting, we have deadlines that range from 24 hours to three weeks. I would much rather get something right and be thorough and thoughtful than get something online before it’s ready.

We have the luxury of not having to fill pages or time slots every day. We are also very cautious to make sure two pairs of eyes go through every story before we publish.

For headlines, we ask reporters to suggest headlines when submitting articles. I normally make changes to the headline or write a new one. If I’m stuck, I will send a short list of suggestions to our assistant editor, and she will help craft the right headline.

We have some constraints on headline writing just because of the layout of our site. In the top left column, for example, we can’t run a photo and a long word in the headline or the design comes out looking odd. So we try to keep them short and punchy, and we’re not afraid to have a little humor.

I will say that I despise puns in headlines. Sometimes I will let one get up, but I tend to groan when I see a pun in a headline.

Q. You’re part of a non-profit news organization. What do you see as the role of non-profits like yours as part of the future of journalism?

A. I think non-profit journalism is here to stay. What’s the role? We’re still working on figuring that out, at least here in Raleigh. But what we’re banking on is that the role of non-profit journalism organizations is to do the hard, sometimes tedious work that traditional news organizations either don’t have the staff for or can’t make any money from.

Covering the planning commission and doing local investigative journalism are two concrete examples. Our role is to be the local government watchdog, and we take that very seriously.

The next step will be to turn our track record of solid public service journalism for Raleigh into getting public support so we can continue paying for it well into the future.