A North Carolina nonprofit assembled an emergency team to report on the coronavirus across the state

March 23, 2020

Newsrooms across the country are scrambling to cover the most widespread epidemic in a century. Those in North Carolina will be getting an extra hand.

The nonprofit Carolina Public Press formed what it calls an Emergency News Team, which will investigate and report on a wide variety of known and potential coronavirus impacts on North Carolinians, from health care to the economy, elections to education.

The 9-year-old organization, based in Asheville, was founded to cover the western portion of the state. In 2018, it expanded to statewide coverage. Now it’s mobilizing to help journalists in North Carolina cover the coronavirus.

In addition to offering its traditional copy to media outlets across the state, the team will offer broadcast-style scripts and voice on tape stories to television and radio stations.

CPP has published stories about how populations in some North Carolina counties face great COVID-19 risks and challenges the virus is bringing to the state’s manufacturing industries. They’ve covered hospitals halting elective surgeries, events and venues pausing, the state’s primary election (which were held as planned, but not without problems) and how colleges and universities are dealing with the spread of coronavirus.

The nonprofit is also providing daily coronavirus in North Carolina status updates.

Like other state-wide nonprofit news outlets such as Oklahoma Watch and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, CPP has content-sharing agreements with other organizations. But the demand for help is growing.

“Newsrooms are already strapped, and then you add a pandemic,” said Stephanie Carson, the outlet’s news and community partnerships manager.

It will also collaborate with newsrooms across the state on a first-come, first-served basis, with first priority given to news organizations located in and serving rural North Carolina. All newsrooms in the state have taken hits, but rural areas tend to have fared even worse, especially in terms of workforce.

“They may not have the manpower to cover it on a good day,” Carson said. “Let alone, God forbid, when someone falls sick.”

This isn’t CPP’s first foray into hard-hitting collaborative journalism on a statewide scale.

This time last year, its team worked with nearly a dozen outlets to release a major investigation examining sexual assault convictions in North Carolina.” Seeking Conviction: Justice elusive for NC sexual assault survivors” explored the challenges to successful prosecution, the differences across jurisdictions and the issues state court rulings create when it comes to consent.

The project took more than six months and, by the end, included 11 news organizations in print, digital, TV and radio.

It also laid the groundwork for the collaboration CPP will take on during the COVID-19 epidemic, Carson said. CPP reporters and editors learned how to build the type of foundational relationships required for a partnership, the kind needed to tackle such critical stories working hand-in-hand with reporters who would otherwise be competitors.

“There’s a trust established that no one is going to try to scoop anyone,” she said. “Through that collaboration, we learned a lot. What to do, what not to do, the pitfalls. You apply all of that knowledge to the current circumstances around coronavirus.”

Catherine Sweeney is a freelance reporter covering newsrooms’ response to COVID-19. You can reach her at catherinejsweeney@gmail.com or @cathjsweeney on Twitter.