How the Post and Courier supports accountability reporting across South Carolina

In 2020, ten South Carolina newspapers closed. “Unfortunately, The Union Times could not survive the COVID-19 Virus and the havoc it has wreaked upon the world,” one editor from Union County wrote in his farewell note.​​ The same was true for many publications across the country, where the pandemic exacerbated the attrition already plaguing many community newsrooms. Now, the Post and Courier—South Carolina’s largest newspaper and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2021—has launched a project intended to fill in some of the gaps. The project is called “Uncovered,” and it devotes Post and Courier resources toward reporting in communities that no longer have access to robust accountability reporting of their own.

When so many local newspapers started to go belly-up amid the pandemic, it only made sense to spread the resources across the state. This year, the Post and Courier team started reaching out to local community newspapers and offering support on corruption stories: reporting resources, FOIA funding, offering fully-reported stories for free. Having experienced parachute reporting from national outlets in the past, the team was wary of stepping on local reporters’ work, Tony Bartelme, one of the paper’s lead investigative journalists, says. “We kind of tentatively said, Look, we’re gonna do these stories, and we’re gonna give them to you for nothing. And you can participate if you want. If you don’t, no worries.” Their model is flexible, Glenn Smith, the project editor, adds. “We can either come in and work alongside you to report the story. If we write a story and you’re more interested in doing something a little more narrow in your area, you can absolutely cite our findings and do your own story.”

In 2018, a team of Post and Courier reporters broke the news that a South Carolina prosecutor named Dan Johnson had spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on parties and personal luxuries: home plate seats at a Minnesota Twins game, a stay at a deluxe hotel in the Galapagos Islands, high-end Uber rides. The story led to an investigation by South Carolina’s Attorney General; a federal judge sentenced Johnson to a year in prison, and eventually, Johnson was disbarred. Soon after, the Post and Courier’s team dug in deep on the task of investigating state-wide corruption; for an investigation into local police department spending, they blanketed the state with FOIA requests and found uncovered corruption in multiple counties. In reporting one of the sheriff stories, the Post and Courier team worked closely with a reporter in Chester County. The team got a sense of how difficult it was to do the intensive work of accountability reporting at smaller papers and how much heavy lifting local reporters were doing already. They saw an opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship, Smith says. Community newspapers had the sourcing and the institutional knowledge; the Post and Courier had resources. “The epiphany that we had was that this collaboration actually enhances everybody’s well being, if done properly,” Bartelme says. “We were so used to competing, and we realized that we were going after different readers, and we’re serving different readers.”

Since the project launched in late 2020, the Uncovered team—which comprises six full-time reporters—has produced investigations, created a statewide corruption tracker map, and maintained running updates on local investigations. Board members of a natural gas authority in one South Carolina county are now required to disclose discounts and rebates received, and lawmakers investigated questionable spending practices at a public residential high school—first reported by the Uncovered project. Bartelme says these check-ins with their community partners can “really move the story along.”

And readers have responded with support. Around the time the Post and Courier launched the Uncovered series, the paper re-focused its efforts on a new investigative reporting fund, one that had already amassed $20,000 in donations. After the “Uncovered” project launched, the Post and Courier aimed to raise $100,000 dollars in 100 days. They have raised more than $500,000 for their investigative work.

Even while it tries to supplement the role of local community newspapers across the state, the Uncovered project has also tried to highlight both the vulnerability of such papers and their importance. “Corruption has flourished in South Carolina as newspapers close and shrink, creating news deserts and ghost papers across the Palmetto State,” the project’s “About” page says. In mid-October, reporters Jennifer Berry Hawes and Stephen Hobbs published a deeply-reported piece highlighting the work of some of South Carolina’s surviving community newspapers. “It’s important not to just say that newspapers across the state are closing, or that there are small newspapers that are running small staffs,” Hobbs told CJR. “It’s to see what that looks like in practice, and show that.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Though Hawes says she weighed the possibility that journalism about the loss of journalism could come across as self-interested, in this case, that was a risk she was willing to take. “I do think that we have to take off that hat once in a while and allow ourselves to be part of the news because there is a real impact on the communities when these newspapers are gone,” Hawes says. “That is news that we should cover.”

Matthew Hensley, managing editor of Greenwood’s Index Journal, has worked on investigations in his community with support from the Post and Courier (which has provided, among other things, funding for FOIA requests). He says that the Uncovered project has also drawn attention to the value of accountability reporting in small communities. “A lot of local people have become more aware of what the laws are, and become more concerned,” Hensley says. “This is why this is important.”

“We realize the public has to understand,” Hawes adds. “You may not think it’s gonna matter to have your newspapers gone, or you don’t subscribe, because you don’t want to fork out your ten bucks a month, but there’s a real impact, and you need to be aware.”

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, and to foster a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us. (Click to subscribe!)

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • NONPROFIT NEWSROOM TO LAUNCH IN CLEVELAND: This week, a group of philanthropies—including the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project—announced plans to launch a nonprofit newsroom in Cleveland, Ohio and eventually establish a network of nonprofit news organizations across the state. The Cleveland newsroom will launch in 2022 and will have a staff of twenty-five. This newsroom will work closely with the Documenters program, an initiative started by Chicago’s City Bureau, which trains locals to crowd-source reporting and cover local happenings like community meetings. “The goal is to create a newsroom that is not just sort of saving local news but really reimagining how local news is created,” Sarah Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project, told the Washington Post. “In addition to collaborating with the Documenters program, their goal is to really, from the beginning, be anchored in working with residents to set the editorial agenda.”
  • IN FAVOR OF EXPANDING PUBLIC ACCESS TV: For Nieman Lab, Antoine Haywood and Victor Pickard write in support of expanding public funding for public access television channels to help rebuild local journalism. Addressing the crisis facing local information systems will require more than stopgap measures, they write, and a profit-driven news system is clearly failing. Why not “re-imagine and use already-existing public infrastructures that produce and disseminate vital information, such as libraries, public broadcasting stations, and post offices?” Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) access cable channels could also be part of this solution, Haywood and Pickard suggest.
  • “BLACK BY GOD” CONTINUES TO REPORT FOR BLACK WEST VIRGINIANS: Yes! Magazine profiled news publisher Crystal Good, whose newspaper, Black By God: The West Virginian, aims to fill an information gap for Black readers in the state (Good talked to CJR earlier this year about her hopes for the publication, which has an email newsletter and digital edition, and has since begun appearing occasionally in print). “Most of West Virginia culture is reflected through a White lens,” Good told Yes! Magazine’s Amanda Page. Black By God continues to work to change that reality.
  • LOCAL ACCOUNTABILITY REPORTING FALLS SHORT: In New Jersey, a long-shot state Senate candidate won his race without any local news coverage of his history of posting bigoted, hateful, and mysoginistic comments on social media. “The voters in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District should have known about Durr’s posts long before Election Day,” Tim Franklin, director of Medill’s Local News Initiative, told the Washington Post. “Local news and information is the oxygen of a functioning, self-governed democracy. And our system is choking from expanding news deserts and ghost newspapers.”
  • COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS IN BRAZIL FAVELAS FILL INFO GAPS: The LatAm Journalism Review wrote about the role of community newspapers in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, where frequent interactions between news-producers and news-consumers keep community information networks strong. Internet connection is also weak or inaccessible for many living in favelas, the Review reports, and many of these papers provide their readers with access to information by remaining in print. When the pandemic hit favelas hard, one publication, Maré de Notícias, used wall murals to communicate information.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites