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.
In an interview after she left, Bird told me she didn’t feel that she was growing professionally at The Post and Courier. In 2012, Bird broke a major story about an adoption case involving the federal Indian Child Welfare Act that became national news. (The US Supreme Court just issued a ruling in the case.) But “I never really felt like anyone was following it with me,” she said. “We had the best access, we had the best coverage. I guess I felt like it was just me working on it and I kind of felt like I’d have a team behind me.”
One of Bird’s colleagues at the P&C was Renee Dudley, 26, who worked the healthcare beat but also took the lead on investigative pieces involving powerful politicians. In 2011, Dudley reported a string of groundbreaking stories on Gov. Nikki Haley and was named the state press association’s Journalist of the Year in the daily newspaper category; the next year, she penned a series of exposes on the state’s House Speaker, Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who is perhaps the state’s most powerful politician. (In the wake of her reporting, Harrell is now under a state police investigation into whether he used his public office for personal gain; he denies any wrongdoing.) Soon after the last of her stories on Harrell were published last fall, Dudley left the paper for Bloomberg News. She declined to comment for this story.
After Dudley’s departure, state government reporter, Stephen Largen, 27, delivered more aggressive reporting on the House Speaker and local power broker—covering Harrell’s campaign spending, personal travel, and private business, and penning a solid contextual piece about what a state police investigation into the powerful pol revealed about South Carolina’s “complex Statehouse politics.”
But Largen was fired in May. Neither he nor his former employers would talk about the circumstances on the record for this story. While workplace issues likely played a role, it seems clear that Largen’s strained relationship with the House Speaker and his staff—who didn’t appreciate some of his reporting—had something to do with it. The paper won’t replace Largen until the next legislative session begins in January, Pugh says.
From the outside, it’s hard to say whether this is a sequence of unfortunate events, or the sign of a newsroom that has a hard time supporting at least some of its aggressive, accountability-minded young reporters. After Largen’s firing, Will Folks—author of the political gossip blog FITSnews.com, and the state’s designated media attack dog—took the uncharitable view. Chris Haire, managing editor of the Charleston City Paper, took up the case for the defense:
Here’s the thing: The P&C hasn’t squashed much of anything when it comes to Harrell. In fact, this is where Will’s attack goes off the rails. The P&C has not only published a series of hard-hitting articles on Harrell and his apparent misdeeds, they were the first to report these stories. The State didn’t break them. The City Paper didn’t break them. And FITS News sure as hell didn’t break them.
In the end, of course, the coverage is what matters most; Haire is right that for the last couple years, the P&C has delivered important stories on state politics, including a key lawmaker in its own backyard (plus a lot of other good work).