July 7, 2021

How are you ahead of this story? another reporter recently asked Joe Killian.

It’s a good question for the investigative journalist who broke the story that award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wouldn’t be getting tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Killian also got the print exclusive from Hannah-Jones that she’d be declining the UNC position, with tenure, and is headed to Howard University instead.

“And I said, it’s not a secret, it’s literally just I’ve seen this a million times before,” said Killian, who works at the nonprofit newsroom NC Policy Watch.

It’s not a secret, but several things happened with Killian’s coverage of this story that are worth pointing out.

First, his work is built on classic beat reporting. In this case, though, the beat wasn’t higher education, but another Killian had covered for years — politics.

Killian spent 10 years at the (Greensboro, North Carolina) News & Record before coming to NC Policy Watch almost five years ago.

“What happened really is I’m not primarily a higher education reporter,” Killian said. “Most of my career has been spent covering politics.”

That matters in North Carolina, he said, where the governing boards of universities are nearly all former Republican lawmakers, and active Republican lobbyists and activists. When he says it’s all political, he doesn’t mean there’s messy office drama. It’s actual politics.

So when a whisper campaign started about Hannah-Jones’ possible appointment, which shouldn’t happen because it’s supposed to be a confidential personnel matter, Killian heard about it.

In May, he broke the news that unlike the Knight Chairs before her, Hannah-Jones wouldn’t be offered tenure:

Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, (Dean Susan) King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

The board reviews and approves tenure applications. It chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before,” King said.

It had happened before, though. In North Carolina politics.

Killian knew who to call, what emails to ask for, and what questions to ask because he’d covered the players and the playbook they were following — in this case choosing not to vote at all — as a political reporter.

“There are people, bless them, at the campus level who are like, can they do that? Well yeah, that’s politics,” Killian said. “That’s a very political move.”

Second, there are places where this story might have taken longer to surface, if it ever did, because local and state political reporting has suffered as newspapers shrink and close. The numbers on state government reporting are old, from 2014, and even then Pew Research Center reported that the number of statehouse reporters had shrunk by 35%.

Killian’s work shows, though, how other kinds of newsrooms have stepped into the role of covering local and state politics. Several collaborations have tried to revive political coverage at the state level, including with The Associated Press and Report for America. And the founder of NC Policy Watch, Chris Fitzsimon, also created States Newsroom, which now has newsrooms in more than 20 states.

And finally, it’s not rare for local journalists to break big news. It is rare for sources to stick with those journalists after the story goes national.

Hannah-Jones did.

She said on Twitter: “The story about the discrimination I faced in the UNC tenure debacle was broken by excellent local reporter @JoekillianPW. So I gave him the exclusive print interview. Local news matters. Please support @NCPolicyWatch and other local news.”

(Poynter reached out to Hannah-Jones via email and will update if we get further comment.)

“Her journey was much more difficult than mine for a number of reasons,” Killian said, “but we come from newsrooms.”

And that means both journalists know how it feels to break a story, cover it, advance it, and then watch it all disintegrate when national journalists come to town and sources only speak with them.

“When we met,” Killian said, “she made a point of saying ‘I remember what it’s like to be working so hard on something and then somebody comes in and sweeps it all away.’”

This time, there was no sweeping, just breaking.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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