Thursday, November 12, 2020

Georgia reporter's unpaid, all-night coverage of vote tallying, backed by donors, shows the importance of local journalism

Robin Kemp at her home office in Forest Park, Ga. (Washington Post photo by Kevin Liles)

The same day Georgia's Clayton News laid off reporter Robin Kemp in April, the suburban Atlanta journalist started her own news website, The Clayton Crescent. That dedication to covering local news catapulted her into the international spotlight during the election and underscored the importance of local journalism, Reis Thebault reports for The Washington Post.

Kemp, 56, "was the only journalist to watch all 21 hours of Clayton County’s marathon tabulation of absentee votes, from about 9 a.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday," Thebault reports. "During that span, a record number of absentee ballots helped Biden close the statewide gap with Trump. And it was votes from Clayton County — the heart of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’s old district — that pushed Biden into the lead" and helped him flip Georgia blue for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Through Twitter and Facebook Live, Kemp kept followers updated on ballot-counting and on Republican observers. People began to pay attention. "When she set out that morning, Kemp had just a couple hundred Twitter followers and less than $2,000 in a GoFundMe she started in April. By the next day, she was at well over 10,000 followers and dollars," Thebault reports.

Kemp’s all-night coverage, which Thebault calls "public service journalism in its purest form" is not an unusual workload for her. She "sometimes works 20 hours a day, as both writer and photographer, using a camera she bought used on eBay. She works alone, with no editor and no staff," Thebault reports. She has no savings and her only income is $300 a week in unemployment.

But Kemp keeps going with the Crescent because nobody else covers local issues. The Clayton News, hit hard by the pandemic, mostly publishes wire content now, Thebault reports, while the Crescent, "already has 38 pages of articles, including coverage of the coronavirus’s toll, crime and zoning issues. In an April 28 editorial, she promised Crescent readers three things: hyperlocal journalism, no survey walls to hurdle before reading her stories, and no clickbait."

The Crescent "is emblematic of the sort of journalism that is vanishing by the day," Thebault reports, citing research by University of North Carolina journalism professor Penny Abernathy. "The pandemic has only accelerated that dire trend," he notes. "In April and May alone, at least 30 papers closed or merged, dozens went online-only and thousands of journalists were furloughed or laid off."

Kemp has received nearly $18,000 in GoFundMe donations, but says she won't accept them until she finishes the paperwork to make the Crescent a non-profit. Donations are proof that people want more local journalism, according to Richard T. Griffiths, a former CNN vice president and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, who is helping Kemp set up a board of directors.

Griffiths said Kemp's real challenge will be finding local donors to sustain the paper after her viral fame ebbs, though he is confident she can do it. "It is in every community’s interest to have a strong, healthy accountability-journalism operation going," he told Thebault.

No comments: