July 6, 2021

Joe Killian broke the story that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would not offer award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured position.

He reported that story out week after week for NC Policy Watch, a nonprofit online news site, following conservative backlash to the appointment. And when Hannah-Jones made news on Tuesday that she’d declined a tenure offer and would be joining Howard University instead, Killian had the print exclusive.

After publishing that article, he shared what he observed about two key people in that story, Hannah-Jones and the donor and publisher who questioned her appointment, Walter Hussman Jr., in a tweet thread.

We’ve republished that thread below, with Killian’s permission.

Poynter asked Killian about the thread and how he thinks about sharing what goes into the final product.

“What I always say to people is you don’t really want me to be objective, you want me to be fair,” Killian said. “That’s what you want in reporters. The idea that you can’t talk about the process of writing a story I think is silly, it’s also a-historical. It’s not in my personality to get on Twitter and talk politics, that would not be welcome by my publication and also that’s just not in my character. But talking journalism, I love that.”

Here’s what Killian wrote on Twitter:

Meeting with #NikoleHannahJones for an interview this week made me reflect on my June interview with Walter Hussman, the conservative Arkansas media magnate and #UNC megadonor who lobbied against hiring her.

It’s worth talking a bit about these two people and interviews.

When I interviewed Hussman last month, he projected an intense folksiness — sort of Mr. Rogers meets Bill Clinton.

Given Hussman’s history with the Clintons in Arkansas, he might not love that comparison. But it’s apt.

A part of this was Hussman saying to me, repeatedly, “Well, Joe, you and I are both reporters…” or “Well, since we’re both journalists I think you understand…”

This is a common rhetorical device. Find an area of common ground, assert affinity, create a bond.

As we do it all the time, reporters notice when it’s done to us– particularly by politicians and PR people. A lot of people worked in a newsroom for a year or two in their 20s before figuring out they could buy things with money. So there’s a lot of “You know, I was a reporter.”

Walter Hussman can legitimately say that to people — with a few important asterisks.

After journalism and business school, Hussman was briefly a reporter before, at age 27, he was made publisher of a paper in the family media dynasty he would go on to inherit.

When I was 27 years old I was a beat reporter on a daily newspaper going to fires, murder scenes, protests and government meetings. I practically slept in the newsroom, which was much nicer than my apartment, and took side gigs to afford to sleep indoors and eat while reporting.

That sort of experience — slowly clawing your way up from smaller to larger newsrooms, being mentored by veteran reporters, slowly earning bigger beats and more responsibility over many years — is what I’m supposed to assume I share with someone who says “I was a reporter.”

Those are, as it happens, experiences I do share with Nikole Hannah-Jones.

As a Black woman, she had to work longer and harder than I did to get ahead in newsrooms. With more grit and talent, she’s earned much more success. But we both worked our way up from working class roots.

Neither of us were, in our mid twenties, handed news outlets by our families. Neither of us were allowed to lose enormous amounts of money in years-long, heavily political newspaper wars until we crushed our rivals, assumed dominance and expanded our intergenerational empires.

I suspected this may be one of the things that most offended Hannah-Jones about Hussman questioning her media values and credentials, whether she was fit to teach young journalists. And my interview with her confirmed it.

Hussman did not work his way from the Chapel Hill News to the New York Times. His reporting and writing haven’t earned him Peabody, Polk, Pulitzer and National Magazine Awards. His name isn’t on UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school because of his staggering reporting achievements.

Understanding, as he must, the difference between his CV and that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, he still felt the need to tell Susan King, dean of the J-School and UNC-Chapel Hill, he was against her hire.

King said thanks for the input, but the J-School would make the decision.

Did Hussman respect the decision of the dean, herself a pioneering woman in journalism? Leave the issue to the stellar J-School faculty?

No. He contacted the chancellor. He contacted the vice chancellor in charge of financial giving. He contacted at least one member of the BOT.

As students, faculty and even members of the BOT have noted, this was enormously inappropriate.

Strictly speaking, Hussman shouldn’t even have known the school was pursuing Hannah-Jones. His $25 million donation to the school gave him information and access few alums enjoy.

Using that privileged position, Hussman weighed in on a potential hire at UNC repeatedly and at levels to which even other prominent alumni do not have access. It shocked not just students and faculty at the school but even other well-connected,  well-heeled donors.

When Hussman didn’t get what he wanted — assent from the dean of the J-School and the administration to his objections– the school offered to set up a meeting between Hussman and Hannah-Jones.

Hannah-Jones told me she declined.

Having accomplished so much in journalism, Hannah-Jones did not feel inclined to kiss the ring of a wealthy white scion who thought his money bought him special access and input into the faculty recruiting process.

I don’t know many real reporters who’d blame her.

With Hannah-Jones now on her way to Howard University to create the new Center for Journalism and Democracy, I find myself looking at all that happened here — and how it happened — and thinking not just about journalism but about boxing.

(Stay with me here…)

Learning to box as a teenager, I was taught some lessons that have stood me in good stead outside of the ring for the rest of my life — particularly in journalism.

Call them “core values” if you must.

One of them is this: “The more you sweat, the less you bleed.”

In boxing, putting in the work before a fight — hours on the heavy and speed bags, sparring, road work — prepares you for what’s coming. In journalism, reporting and writing stories big and small — sometimes two or more a day, for years — prepares you to cover anything.

Whatever you may think of her, it’s impossible to credibly argue Hannah-Jones hasn’t put in the work.

As a veteran of newspaper newsrooms, I assure you Black women still have to work twice as hard for half as much success. To have the success she’s had? Just imagine the work.

So this fight? Having to prove to conservative white men that she, a Black woman who has won the Peabody, Polk and Pulitzer prizes, is fit to teach journalism to teenagers? She was ready for it.

In the end, she got what most faculty, staff and alumni agreed she deserved: a public, up or down vote on whether she should, like all her white Knight Chair predecessors, be offered tenure.

That she won’t be accepting the offer says more about UNC than it does her.

In our interview, Hannah-Jones made it clear: The silence and lack of transparency from school leadership – particularly (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin) Guskiewicz – made taking another offer inevitable.

They could have prevented this, had they put in the work.

The more you sweat, the less you bleed.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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