Local News Relief Grant used to boost coverage


Back in May, the News + Record was named one of just 144 local U.S. news organizations — and one of just nine in all of North Carolina — as a recipient of a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Grant.

Now, the work the grant will support is beginning.

Victoria Johnson, a 2020 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a native of Greensboro, has joined the staff of the newspaper as part of the grant, News + Record Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III said. The $30,300 in grant funds awarded to the News + Record will support a four-month reporting project to specifically explore the economic and cultural impact of COVID-19 on Chatham County’s Latinx community. The funds will cover Johnson’s compensation, aid with existing staff costs and help support photography, translation services and special printing projects.

“Victoria will focus full-time for the next four months on telling the story of how COVID has affected families in our Latinx community,” Horner said. “She has spent her first two weeks making connections in the community and in meetings and on Zoom calls with people such as Ilana Dubester of the Hispanic Liaison, and we’ve worked up a plan for longform stories that spotlight issues that aren’t being told.”

More than 2,000 news organizations applied for one of the grants.

According to Facebook project officials, the fund is supporting many publishers who are hardest hit by this crisis: nearly 80 percent of recipients are family- or independently owned, and more than half are published by or for communities of color.

Johnson, who is bilingual, spent her junior year of college in two different cities in Spain — Pamplona and Oviedo — to work on her language fluency.

“I studied journalism, history, literature and more in both cities with regular Spanish students and other Spanish-speaking international students, many of whom came from Mexico and other Latin American countries,” she said.

This experience, she said, has prepared her to engage in the Latinx community in Chatham County and share how individuals, families, business owners and others have been affected by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“When I first arrived, I didn’t speak great Spanish and I knew little of the region’s culture and customs,” Johnson said of her time in Spain. “It was frustrating, scary and isolating at first. The language barrier and complicated Spanish bureaucracy nearly thwarted my attempts to ask for help or get the services I needed, including a sub-leasing agreement that I needed to legally stay in the country for more than 90 days. While there, I never managed to figure out the health care system or health insurance — something that has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the university I attended in Pamplona had resources to support international students, the university I attended in Oviedo did not, which made it harder to adapt. That’s why I believe in this project.”

The project will be called “La Voz de Chatham” — The Voice of Chatham — and the stories that Johnson reports as part of the project will be made available in English and Spanish. The stories will also be in front of the newspaper’s website paywall. The project will be promoted through a soon-to-debut Facebook page.

Associated projects may include a Spanish-language print product, a podcast and more, Horner said.

“Victoria really established herself with her reporting skills on a variety of projects while at UNC,” he said. “We’ve put together a compelling list of stories for her to pursue here. In many ways the Latinx community in Chatham County is isolated and not connected, so the struggles they’ve had to endure during the pandemic aren’t well known. Victoria will be working within that community to report about those struggles — and to share stories of triumph as well.”

Just two traditional print newspapers in North Carolina were awarded the grants. Among the other recipients were news websites Carolina Public Press, EducationNC, Enlace Latino NC and QCity Metro of Charlotte.

In recognition of its innovative news product, the News + Record this week also received a $7,000 grant from Google as part of its effort to help newspapers through the Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. The paper was also awarded a paid summer intern from the Missouri School of Journalism to help integrate innovative storytelling strategies at Chatham News + Record. Other recipients included The Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Carolina Panorama.

Six Missouri School of Journalism students and recent graduates were selected to partner with news outlets this summer through the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation Fellowship. The students are spending their summers finding news ways to help outlets reach audiences, distribute their content and grow revenue. Caroline Watkins, the News + Record’s digital media fellow, has spent the summer so far working on the paper’s social media accounts and experimenting with storytelling tools such as AMP stories.

Watkins and Johnson are collaborating on the launch of the Facebook page for the COVID-19/Latinx program.

“We’re proud to support this diverse group of publishers — many of which are family- or independently owned,” said Campbell Brown, the vice president of global news partnerships at Facebook. “Not only are these journalists working tirelessly to serve people right now — they’re focused on transformation, building innovative local news businesses that can continue to serve communities beyond the current pandemic.”