COLUMBIA, SC — The Charleston Post and Courier, South Carolina’s oldest and largest daily, is a newspaper in transition. A new editor. A new(ish) paywall. A new “aggressive online approach.” A new print design, with a new emphasis on local, state, and regional coverage. And a new vacancy on the State House beat—after the third departure from the paper of a talented young reporter in about a year.
Both the digital emphasis and the reworked print edition are being implemented by the new editor, Mitch Pugh, who came over from Iowa’s Sioux City Journal in March. The alt-weekly Charleston City Paper wrote up Pugh’s digital vision—quick-response updates, more social, more mobile—earlier this year. The P&C itself announced the reorientation of the dead-tree edition earlier this month: while the A section had featured local news on the front page and national and international stories inside, the entire section is now local and state news and opinion. National and world news is now relegated to the back of the B section; the B front is now “The South”—a mix of staff and freelance stories, wire copy, and columns from across the region.
The bottom line: The Post and Courier is going to focus more on Charleston and the surrounding region.
“If you were to look at the paper a year ago, there’d been little sense of the way in which Charleston and the South are intertwined and the way they influence each other,” Pugh said in a recent phone interview. “The goal is to give Charleston readers insights into what’s happening in the South, how that might influence or be influenced by here, and how it all comes together.” (Disclosure: About a year and a half ago I had discussions with P&C editors, at their invitation, about a position at the paper. It wasn’t a good fit.)
Metro papers have been told for years now to devote more resources to covering their local community, but one risk of such an approach is boosterish or parochial coverage. Pugh acknowledges the pitfall but insists that won’t be the case for the P&C. He pointed to a recent story by reporter Lauren Sausser about how the federal Affordable Care Act healthcare law will impact local restaurants, their employees, and food prices.
“That’s taking a story with a national perspective and bringing it home to how it’s going to impact here,” Pugh says. “I think we’re going to continue to look for those kinds of stories moving forward so we don’t become too provincial. That’s something that we want to guard against.” To that end, the paper is hiring a broad base of freelancers throughout the South, including in Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, and other states.
Even before announcing the change, the paper had some hits with its enterprising local and regional coverage over the past year. Reporter Tony Bartelme’s year-long series on the insurance industry, “Storm of Money,” made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting. Reporter and editor Doug Pardue’s series “Forgotten South Carolina” earned praise from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism for its “in-depth exploration of the state’s profound inequities.” Crime and mayhem reporter Glenn Smith is this year’s South Carolina Press Association Journalist of the Year in the daily newspaper category; all told, the paper pulled in 80 awards at the press association banquet in March—the seventh time in eight years it was the most honored paper in the state.
In Pardue’s case, Pugh says, “We turned him loose for eight months and let him write about one thing. There’s not many news organizations that are doing that these days.”
“If anything,” he adds, “we’re trying to double down on that and really become more focused on that kind of reporting.”
The State House beat test
An important test of the P&C’s new direction will be how aggressively the paper covers State House politics—and how successful the paper is at retaining and developing young talent.
The departures of three young journalists from the paper since last summer have attracted attention. The first was Allyson Bird, 28, who covered business, criminal justice, and breaking news; when Bird left journalism last summer for a more lucrative job writing for the fundraising arm of a public hospital, the blog post she penned earlier this year to explain her move—and lament the state of newspaper journalism—landed her on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz.