OCEAN — Coastal Review Online, the N.C. Coastal Federation’s online news service, is now a member of the N.C. Press Association. The board of the state’s only professional journalism trade organization accepted the federation’s membership application two weeks ago.
“To us it seemed like the logical next step,” noted Frank Tursi, a 30-year newspaper veteran who is now an assistant director at the federation and the editor of the news service. “Being a member of the press association gives us credibility as a legitimate news organization.”
The federation started the news service in February 2012 to fill the gap in the reporting of coastal environmental issues left by declines in newspapers and other traditional news media. Most daily newspapers in the state once had fulltime reporters covering the environment, said Tursi, who was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina before joining the federation in 2002. With declining readership and ad revenues, newspapers have cut staff and reduced the size of their circulation areas.
“Only two environmental reporters are left standing, and those reporters are restricted to their newspapers’ smaller circulation areas,” Tursi said. “Much of the coast, indeed much of state, is no longer within the beat of a specialized, environmental reporter.”
Coastal Review Online has attempted to pick up the slack, Tursi said. It publishes every day except weekends and holidays. More than 350 stories have appeared on the federation’s web site since the service was launched, and readership of the site has increased more than 60 percent.
Most of the stories have been written by paid freelance writers, many of whom are former newspaper reporters and editors. News stories cover a whole range of coastal environmental issues, and feature stories highlight coastal people and culture. An ongoing “Our Coast” series provides readers with places they can visit to experience the natural beauty of the N.C. coast.
Many of the stories have scooped the traditional media, Tursi said, and some stories have made waves:
- The inaugural story, a profile of Marc Basnight, broke the news that the former state senator is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
- A three-part series on exporting wood pellets made from coastal trees is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject so far published in North Carolina.
- Legislative reporting is an important feature of Coastal Review Online when the N.C. General Assembly is in session. The service broke the story last year that the legislature was considering a bill to outlaw sea-level rise in state planning. Hundreds of media outlets across the world followed up, and the bill soon became the object of ridicule. Stephen Colbert, the TV satirist, devoted five minutes of his popular “The Colbert Report” to thoroughly skewer the bill and its backers. This year, Coastal Review Online led the reporting on a bill that changed the composition of the state’s regulatory commissions.
Writers are expected to meet the highest journalistic standards, Tursi said. “We expect our stories to be balanced and fair,” he said. “We’re not interested in stories that express one point of view, even if it’s our own. We still hold to the rather old-fashioned notion that people will come to the right conclusions if given all the facts.”
Even so, there’s no getting around this fact: The news service’s publisher is a well-known environmental advocacy group. Advocacy and journalism don’t mix, Tursi said. In his letter accompanying the press association application, Tursi urged the board to ignore who publishes the news service and focus instead on what it has published.
“I asked them to spend some time in our archives,” he said. “Could those stories appear in their newspapers? I was confident of the answer.”
The board had some concerns about the news service’s connection to an advocacy group, said Beth Grace, the press association’s executive director. “But we saw stories that were objective and could appear anywhere. We got over our fears fast,” she said. “We liked that you have a focus of coverage, but you don’t have a mindset.”
Coastal Review Online is one of six online news services that are now press association members, Grace said. She expects more applications as the media world continues to change and evolve.
“We’re feeling our way just like everyone else,” Grace said. “I’m delighted that the board accepted your application because it shows that it’s open to accepting applicants that don’t fit the traditional mold.
Coastal Review Online will attempt to take the next step in the evolutionary process by focusing more on in-depth or investigative stories, Tursi said. But those stories are expensive to produce, he said, and the federation is looking for grant money to defray some of the costs.
“We want Coastal Review Online to become your indispensable source for coastal environmental news,” Tursi said. “Becoming a press association member was a step in that direction.”