united states project

The Post and Courier, in transition

Charleston's paper is getting a makeover. Will State House coverage be central to its future?
June 28, 2013

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

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).

But it’s fair to note that two of the reporters who were most aggressively reporting on the state’s House Speaker are gone–and that while the investigation into that lawmaker continues, the P&C has hardly reported on the case since a story filed by Largen more than two months ago, according to a search of the paper’s archives. It’s also worth pointing out that coverage next session from whoever winds up in Columbia with the State House beat is likely to draw much interest from politics junkies in the wake of Dudley and Largen’s departure.

Pugh–who joined the P&C after Dudley and Byrd left–did not respond to follow-up email questions this week about the paper’s record of developing young reporters. But during our interview, when asked directly if the paper is pulling punches with the Speaker of the House, he pushed back strongly.

“I don’t believe anybody that we cover thinks they’re getting any kind of break,” he said. “We’ve got some of the most aggressive watchdog journalists in the state, frankly, some of the only aggressive watchdog journalists in the state. I don’t think anyone feels they’re getting any kind of break from us.”

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.