Goodbye, and thank you

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When I started at the News + Record some 599 days ago, I was fresh out of college and — like everyone else — also newly navigating what it meant to live in a pandemic.

For the most part, I met commissioners, county staff and school administrators and teachers by phone. When I did meet folks in person, it was masked and accompanied by the awkward but obligatory elbow bump.

Much of my reporting included COVID-19, even as I tried to write about other things. School COVID protocol and county vaccination rates needed to be written about, but I believed other things deserved attention, too — stories highlighting Hubert West, UNC’s first Black head coach, for example, or how Chatham County Schools was working toward serving its Hispanic students, who make up nearly 32% of the district’s population.

Still, the pandemic remained present. Writing about the district’s increased mental health efforts, for example, couldn’t be written about accurately without talking about how remote learning — and the stress of living through a pandemic — negatively impacted many students. Nor could writing about staffing shortages, proposed budgets or the community efforts led by Chatham’s Black and Latino churches.

Now, a little more than one year and six months after I started at the News + Record, I’m leaving. Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t.

Despite meaningful gains like vaccines and treatments, COVID is still with us. Though cases have dropped significantly since the peak of Omicron in January, they’re still about as high as during Delta. Even so, most N.C. governments and school districts have dropped indoor mask mandates — many ahead of updates to health masking mandates, and sometimes, still in conflict with them.

As many COVID disagreements as I’ve seen and reported on, one thing is certain: we’re all tired of COVID.

This week, I start at EducationNC, a nonprofit news outlet which aims to improve N.C. public education. I’ll be covering community colleges, postsecondary access and faith at EdNC. (Hopefully, I won’t cover much about masks.)

As excited as I am to get started, I’m also sad to leave. Because as much as the pandemic shaped my time here — as much as it impacted yours — the last two years were defined by much more than just COVID.

As a reporter, I spoke with countless students who inspired me. Students like Jordan-Matthews 2021 graduate Jacquelinne Marroquin Tobar, who learned English after moving from Guatemala in 9th grade, started the school’s first Water Bottle Recycling Project and was named as one of Chapel Hill nonprofit LatinxEd’s “20 under 20” 2020 recipients. Students like Tiana Brooks, whose mixed-media piece memorializing Black women killed by police was one of 35 pieces featured in last year’s virtual Emerging Artists Invitational, or Northwood alum Caroline Puckett, who co-organized a Pittsboro Pride Day in June 2020.

These students — and many more — demonstrated great tenacity, compassion and generosity even as they struggled.

I also spoke with myriad teachers and school administrators who worked overtime (more than normal, that is) and learned new teaching methods to serve their students. I talked to parents who — on either side of COVID discussions or masking debates — displayed a deep commitment to and love for their children.

I’d be remiss to not point out that I also spoke with some people who disagreed with my coverage. Most of the time, these disagreements reflected a difference in the designation of facts, but a few times, the disagreements reflected errors on my end. I am grateful the people who corrected me did so gently and with the benefit of the doubt.

All that to say that, though I encountered a few angry and unkind readers, the people of Chatham were for the most part, very good to me.

That’s a story worth telling, isn’t it?

In spite of all the hardships and injustices from the last years, the people of Chatham are good. Of course, that’s not a fact I could technically verify as a journalist. Instead, I tried to highlight the stories in Chatham that make it the place it is — interesting, special, good.

At the end of the day, I think such stories are one of the best gifts of journalism. Of course, a newspaper should provide coverage of board meetings, new developments, cyber incidents and COVID clusters — and while I’d never claim the News + Record is perfect (no organization is), I’ll always claim it does a dang good job providing such information week in and out.

When journalism is done right, it highlights the good in the bad, or the complicated. A story about staffing shortages then, should explain the systemic challenges in recruiting and retaining school employees while also highlighting the valiant efforts made by staff and community members. A story about barriers to Hispanic business ownership should also celebrate business owners who are successful in spite of the odds.

Every story is more than just one thing.

I believe the News + Record approaches reporting with such a reality in mind. As local newspapers across the country vanish, there aren’t any fewer important stories — just less people telling them.

It’s been a privilege to work at the Chatham News + Record, learning from my editor, Bill Horner III, my talented colleagues, and of course, all of you.

This paper is one of the finest examples of community journalism in North Carolina, and not just because it’s won more news awards than any other paper its size the last two years. The News + Record features a variety of in-depth, local stories every week in spite of a small staff and endless stories to cover. Not everyone will like what the paper writes all the time. I hope that you’ll support the News + Record’s commitment to local news anyways. After all, a paper is nothing without the community it covers, partners with and must answer to if it does mess up.

I’m excited to keep writing and reporting in a new capacity at EdNC, and I hope some of you will keep up with my work there. But I’m also excited to keep up with all of you, the people of Chatham, through the paper of Chatham.

I’m no longer a storyteller at the News + Record, but I’m excited to read the paper’s future stories. Not only because I trust the guidance and vision of my former boss, Bill, but because I trust all of you: the people who make Chatham the place it is, and who so graciously share your perspectives, ideas and stories.

Thank you.

Former reporter Hannah McClellan is on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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