As The News & Observer forges on with new beats and a new newsroom organization, it will be without one of its top investigative reporters.
Mandy Locke, who a State Bureau of Investigations agent successfully sued, informed friends on Facebook and colleagues at The N&O on Tuesday that “with a heavy heart” she was leaving The N&O, writing that “it has been an honor” to work there. Her last day was Aug. 11 and her last story was published nearly two months ago.
“In 13 years at The N&O, I’ve lost a lot of sleep and celebrated a few tiny victories. I made friends and more than a few enemies,” Locke wrote on Facebook. “Make no mistake: The News & Observer has been my home; its staff is my family. Those sentiments do not change with my decision to part. I will always be an ally of this institution and a friend to the staff who serve it.”
When contacted, Locke said that she preferred not to say anything on the record at this time in addition to what she wrote on Facebook.
“… I’ve chronicled the abuse of vulnerable children, the wrongful convictions of innocent men, systematic failures by law enforcement and a lopsided economy that rewards cheating businesses and hammers the working people,” she wrote. “I’ve driven through ice and floods to every corner of this state. The halls of the General Assembly are as familiar to me as the roads leading to all the state’s prisons.”
After a three-week trial in October 2016, a Wake County jury’s verdict amounted to $1.5 million for compensatory damages and $4.5 for punitive damages against The N&O. There was also a $75,000 award against Locke. An appeal is expected soon of the ruling, which said that the newspaper libeled SBI agent Beth Desmond in six statements published in a 2010 investigative article.
What’s next for her? She wrote that she’s told her husband that she intends to do a little of everything.
“Over the last year, I have become gravely concerned about journalists and women. I will spend some of my knowledge and energy to try to improve life for both embattled groups,” she wrote. “As for the journalism piece of the equation, I have some immediate and some longer-term plans. But they are all rooted in these truths. North Carolina is my home. Its people are my people. I believe this state needs and deserves vibrant, relentless journalism, and I will be exploring ways to guarantee we have this for decades to come.”
The decision to leave couldn’t have been an easy one for Locke who, during four hours of testimony on the final day of the trial, told the jury that “this job is my life.” She hadn’t been around the newsroom much in weeks, and her last story — about tiny houses — appeared in The N&O in June (on website June 17 and in the print edition June 18).
That story was assigned to her while taking her turn on a weekend rotation. Her last investigative work was reporting about the Cherry Hospital salary issues in May.
“I began working as a newspaper reporter two days after graduating from The University of Virginia in 2001. I have never regretted this career, even on the hardest days,” wrote Locke, who worked The Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard before joining The N&O.
She received a North Carolina Press Association Public Service Award in March (along with photojournalist Travis Long) for “Deadly Force,” a series of stories about law enforcement in Harnett County.
The top photo was taken while reporting for the 2014 series “Contract to Cheat.”
“We’re sorry Mandy has decided to leave,” John Drescher, executive editor of The N&O, said via email. “She did a lot of great work for us and our readers. We will miss her.”
Her departure leaves The N&O with only two investigative reporters — Joseph Neff and Dan Kane. It’s commendable, however, that it still has two investigative reporters in a time when few newspapers include those types of positions in budgets that continue to get smaller.
This month’s investigative series “Jailed to Death,” reported by Dan Kane (with help from David Raynor) is excellent reporting and the findings are troubling. The last story in the series, which dug into the more than 150 deaths in county jails in the past five years, ran in Thursday’s print edition.
N&O restructures its newsroom
Drescher wrote about how the newsroom is changing as part of The McClatchy Company’s reinvention initiative in an Aug. 8 column that appeared in the Aug. 9 print edition. He promised less “spinach” (stories about government process, for example) and more reader-focused coverage.
He mentioned that newsroom restructuring would result in a group of reporters specifically covering government and politics. But there are other interesting changes.
Jordan Schrader, who came to The N&O from The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., in May 2016, is the editor for the state government team (previous title was capitol editor). It includes politics columnist Rob Christensen, who has been at the newspaper for 44 years.
Also on the team are Anne Blythe (public safety/legal issues reporter; previous title was courts reporter), former state government/education/DHHS reporter Lynn Bonner (social services), former PolitiFactNC reporter Will Doran (state workers) and former Raleigh/Wake County reporter Paul Specht (PolitiFact). Wednesday, Specht wrote a fact-check article regarding Gov. Roy Cooper’s statements on a bill protecting drivers inadvertently hurting protesters who are on a street.
There also is a McClatchy reporter in Washington, Brian Murphy, reporting from a North Carolina perspective.
Colin Campbell, who formerly covered politics and state government for The N&O, is now editor of The Insider, a website and newsletter which he explained in this Q&A. One of his writers is former Herald-Sun and Indy Week reporter Lauren Horsch.
The largest team of reporters in the newsroom remains the metro section, led by editor Thad Ogburn and assistant Sarah Nagem. Reporting to them are Pressley Baird (College Town editor), former assistant features editor Brooke Cain (TV/media reporter), Thomasi McDonald (crime), Josh Shaffer (odd news; previously listed as general assignment/columnist), former Cary/Southwest Wake reporter Henry Gargan (K–12 schools), T. Keung Hui (N.C. public school), Jane Stancill (higher education) and an open Wake watchdog reporter position.
The latter spot was to be filled by Kathryn Trogdon but her last day was Thursday. She has taken a public-relations job with the town of Cary.
The smallest team remains the print team. Reporting to Deborah Jackson are Scott Bolejack, Michael White and Sam Newkirk.
As previously reported, there is the real-time news team that includes Abbie Bennett, Ron Gallagher, Camila Molina and Aaron Moody. It reports to editor Eric Frederick.
There are two new teams.
Mary Cornatzer, who had been interim business editor, is editor of the Triangle growth team. Her reporters are Max Diamond (workers and the economy reporter), former politics/state government reporter Craig Jarvis (real estate/retail), John Murawski (wellness/health care) and former deputy metro editor Richard Stradling (transportation). The plan also is for there to be a growing-pains reporter.
Cain was part of a three-member features section. The other two, David Menconi and Jessica Banov are now part of a five-person culture team.
Banov, previously food and dining editor, is the editor for the team and Menconi, who previously was listed as an arts writer and music critic now covers the business of culture. Others on that team are former Clayton reporter Drew Jackson (eating/dining reporter), former Sunday enterprise reporter Martha Quillin (faith and society) and Mike Williams (ArtsNow and Triangle.com editor).
N&O to hire ‘audience’ editor
Late last week, The N&O posted a new job listing, for a senior editor for news/audience. The position reports to Drescher. The editors of the Triangle growth, real-time, sports, state government, metro and culture teams all will report to this person, who will be focused on growing the newspaper’s digital audience.
It may demand a skill set that is difficult to find. The Charlotte Observer posted the same position in April and still hasn’t made a hire.
In the interim, Ogburn and Frederick will fill that role.
N&O reporters get ‘click goals’
Last week, N&O reporters were given click goals: A number of clicks that reporters collectively hope to get for their stories over a specific period of time. Although there has been no discussion or suggestion of any penalties should the goals not be met, some reporters are anxious about them.
Depending on the beat, the annual goals range from 800,000 to 4 million.
These goals were set for Charlotte Observer reporters in March when reinvention training was done, training that happened this week in Raleigh and at The Herald-Sun.
The emphasis is not so much on the number but the process to follow in order to get there.
A dearth of newspaper columnists in North Carolina
With Barry Saunders’ departure from The N&O last month, there are only six full-time columnists at North Carolina newspapers outside of the editorial pages, only three metro columnists and only one black columnist.
Drescher suggested in his “spinach” column that Saunders, who is black, was let go because his columns didn’t get enough clicks.
The three remaining metro columnists are Myron B. Pitts, the lone black columnist, and Bill Kirby Jr. of the Fayetteville Observer, and Scott Sexton of the Winston-Salem Journal. Pitts and Sexton wrote this week about issues related the aftermath of the Charlottesville unrest.
The only sports columnist in the state who isn’t a McClatchy employee is Ed Hardin of the News & Record of Greensboro.
The writing of the state’s other two full-time newspaper columnists appears in The N&O: Luke DeCock, The N&O’s sports columnist, and Scott Fowler, The Charlotte Observer’s sports columnist. Christensen is part time.