State coverage gets a boost from local-focused media company

Photo: AP

In an era of ever-shrinking statehouse coverage, one small chain of 130 suburban and small town newspapers is taking a few steps in the opposite direction.

Since last year, Alabama-based Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. has added five positions on a new hybrid state government/watchdog/enterprise beat in states where it owns clusters of newspapers, with plans to add three more positions on this beat next year. Two other reporters already working for the chain have shifted to full-time state government/watchdog coverage, and the company just opened a one-person bureau in Washington, DC.

It’s important to note that the new initiative comes after many CNHI papers have confronted the all-too-familiar struggles facing local papers over the past decade. Still, the expansion has already generated some good watchdog journalism, like Atlanta-based Jill Nolin’s recent story looking at the six-figure salaries of some Georgia public high school football coaches. The story is notable not just because it’s a well-written, solid investigation coming out of a group of small-town newspapers. Nolin’s story is also the kind that uniquely serves CNHI’s Georgia readers–and on the sort of issue that often flies under the radar of big city newspapers. Football is king in rural Georgia, and the 17 coaches earning more than $100,000 a year are all from small towns—including six from towns where CNHI has newspapers and none from the city of Atlanta.

William Bronson, the publisher of The Daily Citizen of Dalton, Georgia, told me having Nolin in Atlanta, about 90 miles northwest, has allowed his paper to give readers news no one else is offering—like a November look at shrinking state money for school bus funding and the resulting “pinch” for rural districts.

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“There are stories coming out of our state legislature that are relevant to our communities, but not to metro Atlanta,” he said. “There’s the state of Atlanta and there’s the state of Georgia.”

Bronson came up with the idea of looking into Georgia coaches’ salaries after noticing a story done this spring by AL.com about the amount of money public high school football coaches were making in Alabama. The first quote, from the state’s highest paid coach, said salaries were high in Alabama, but they were even higher in Texas and Georgia. “The numbers those guys are making—and not teaching—are unbelievable,” the Alabama coach said.

Bronson said he was glad to finally have someone like Nolin to act on that spark of inspiration.

“It really has been an added value for our readers,” he said. “We’re able to bring them some unique enterprise journalism. They trust their local paper better than they do the regional and national outlets.”

And as the number of jobs for journalists covering state government has shrunk, CNHI has been able to pick up seasoned reporters who might not have been interested in jobs working for small town papers a few years ago.

Nolin moved to Atlanta for personal reasons last year after covering Norfolk city hall for The Virginian Pilot and the city of Montgomery, Alabama for the Montgomery Advertiser. Given the state of the industry, she feared her days in journalism were over.

“This was like a dream job when I first heard about,” she said. “I felt very fortunate to have this opportunity to get back into journalism.”

David Joyner, the editor who oversees the initiative from his base in Massachusetts, said the fact that the company has been able to attract talent is one of the things that has made the project work.

“We’ve been lucky to get people who are really enthusiastic and most of them have worked at larger newspapers,” he said. “They’ve worked at metros, they’ve covered statehouses. They didn’t have to learn how a bill becomes a law.”

Bill Ketter, Massachusetts-based senior vice president for news at CNHI, said the initiative was motivated, in part, because the gridlock in Washington had only increased the importance of state government coverage.

“When you think about it, state government has grown and Washington’s inaction has sort of devolved the power back to the states,” he said.

In addition to the new position in Georgia, CNHI has added state government reporters in Massachusetts, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Texas. A reporter for one of the Kentucky papers shifted to full-time state government coverage serving the chain’s papers in that state, as did a reporter in Oklahoma. The chain plans to add reporters in New York, West Virginia, and Iowa next year.

Ketter said the goal is to have the state government reporters covering issues that are not making the Associated Press’ report, along with a heavy dose of enterprise reporting. The state reporters are also able to help out individual newspapers when something big breaks at home, as CNHI’s Texas reporter, John Austin, did when six people in two families were killed at a campsite near Palestine, where the company has a paper.

When CNHI first started hiring for these state positions, they faced some understandable skepticism.

“When we interviewed people, their first question was, ‘How long are you committed to this?’” he said. “They were naturally skeptical. They’d ask, ‘Are you serious?’”

Ketter insists CNHI is serious.

“This is a commitment,” he said. “We’re all in.”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.