A state C-SPAN in North Carolina?

UNC report looks at solutions to increase reporting capacity

NORTH CAROLINA — When the North Carolina General Assembly reaches its frenetic final days in session, news organizations traditionally feel the strain of too much to cover in too little time. As this summer’s “short session” concluded, legislators tackled issues that are playing out across the nation and in Campaign 2012: fracking, education funding, and climate change, plus compensation for eugenics victims.

Add to that a number of mid-summer congressional runoffs and a looming national political convention in Charlotte, and the capacity of the state’s political reporting class was stretched to its limit—all the more so because of cuts that have left North Carolina, like many states, with fewer statehouse reporters. The loss of public-affairs jobs at newspapers—like The Charlotte Observer, where cuts have left the paper with no full-time employees in the capital and relying on its sister publication, the Raleigh News & Observer, for statehouse coverage—has created a “giant sucking sound,” says Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina. In this environment, traditional legislative wrap-ups still happen eventually, but the stories and summaries get buried deep, or come after the deals are done.

(The McClatchy papers do still commit to projects probing industry clout in the General Assembly, such as the joint investigation of nonprofit hospitals by Ames Alexander, Joe Neff, and Karen Garloch, published in April. The fourth of five parts specifically examined hospital influence in the legislature.)

Enter a proposal for a statewide C-SPAN-style service—online, on-demand, and searchable. The concept gained traction during a January workshop hosted by UNC’s Center for Media Law and Policy to address issues raised by the FCC report, “Information Needs of Communities,” and emerged as the leading recommendation in a
report issued by UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in June.

The hope is that such a service could make it easier for journalists, citizens, and other watchdogs to keep an eye on what’s happening in the state capital, without filters from intermediaries like lobbying organizations or even, in some cases, traditional media.

“I would very much like to see a website with audio and video of committee meetings,” said Fiona Morgan, a researcher for the New America Foundation, working out of Duke University, who attended the January meeting. “That is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of decisions being made without people knowing what’s going on,” she said in a telephone interview after UNC published its report. “There’s a lot of discussion that doesn’t get recorded…. I feel like that’s the most urgent need.”

And that web presence should be independent of funding and influence from the legislature itself, Morgan added. “The rule is we get to see what you’re doing.”

Media members and policy advocates in the state have reason to be cautious about who would control such a service. A statewide public television network, UNC-TV, is licensed to UNC’s board of governors, which, in turn, is appointed by the General Assembly. That reporting structure caused issues in 2010 when a reporter produced a series examining aluminum giant Alcoa’s battle to retain control of a dam. A legislator subpoenaed unpublished footage, sparking a controversy over journalistic integrity and source confidentiality.

Other media and policy leaders nationally have called for strengthening state public affairs networks, and both the FCC and UNC reports helped bolster their cause. In a June interview, Paul Giguere, president of the National Association of Public Affairs Networks, argued that stable, financially sound, and independent networks are vital to the public interest.

Here in North Carolina, some activity in the General Assembly is already broadcast on Voter Radio, a service of the nonprofit N.C. Center for Voter Education. The service enables voters and remote reporters to listen in.

“I’ve used it before to cover statehouse issues that were of local interest to us,”
said David Boraks, publisher of DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net, local news websites in suburban Charlotte. The town of Davidson owns part of a municipal broadband service and faced dramatic changes in 2011 during legislative discussion banning cities from owning municipal broadband. It was an issue important to Boraks and his readers, he said, but he was too busy to make the two-hour-plus drive to the state capitol.

But archives at Voter Radio are labeled only by time. The vision for the new service calls for it to be searchable, which would make the information far more accessible—and it would have video as well, to allow watchdogs to see what’s going on in the legislature. In Morgan’s dream world, she said, there would be even more: a mix of video programming, public affairs content, interviews, streaming coverage of the General Assembly, and government and civic information.

The challenge now, of course, is turning the enthusiasm into something concrete. Morgan said the workshop and report have spurred discussions among cable providers, news organizations, and others. And UNC has given the project its imprimatur. The webpage for the university’s report features a video of Susan King, dean of the journalism school and a television news veteran, describing the vision for the state public access network. “That was her setting the priority,” Morgan said.

The UNC report made other recommendations, many of which apply nationally: encouraging the FCC to relax media cross-ownership rules, calling on the FCC to help resolve uncertainty in IRS policies that affect media nonprofits, and urging more partnerships between working journalists and journalism schools. But here in the Tar Heel State, the top priority remains the C-SPAN-style project.

“If nothing comes out of this except a state public affairs network,” Morgan said, “that’s a lot.”

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Andria Krewson is an independent journalist in Charlotte and a student in the University of North Carolina's master of arts in technology and digital communication. She worked at The Charlotte Observer for many years. Find her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/underoak or http://twitter.com/akrewson.