An education reporter’s unexpected ‘second act’

A veteran reporter tells the story of how she managed the transition from print to radio journalism.

By Ann Doss Helms

A decade or so ago, my friend and colleague Tommy Tomlinson and I used to joke about being the newsroom cockroaches.

He was The Charlotte Observer’s beloved local columnist. I was building expertise covering education for a community that cares passionately about education.

We figured the two of us could scuttle away unscathed from any apocalypse that might hit the newsroom.

But what newspapers across America were about to endure was more like a long, brutal siege than a nuclear blast.

After waves of buyouts and layoffs, Tommy opted to leave in 2012. As it turned out, seven years later, I’d be doing the same thing. And as much as the idea of leaving felt like a shock to the system at first, a couple of wonderful things happened as a result:

Charlotte’s major newspaper hired a strong new reporter of color.

And I learned that cockroaches like me can do better than merely survive a massive shift in the environment; we can evolve with it.

Interested in writing about your experiences in education journalism? Check out this two-pager: What makes a great piece for The Grade?

A 2018 awards event group shot including Doss Helms (center, in dark green dress), along with Charlotte Observer colleagues.

In 2018, six years after he left the Observer, Tommy took a job doing opinion pieces and a podcast for WFAE, the local NPR affiliate for Charlotte.

It was a huge get for a station whose staff had always been dwarfed by the Observer’s. And it was the kind of thing that gave WFAE the feel of being on the upswing, even as the newspaper was battered by grim financial reports and staff cuts. The station clearly had big aspirations, a loyal audience, and a growing stable of strong journalists.

I never kidded myself that I had writing talent like Tommy’s or original insights into education policy. I haven’t written books or won major awards. What I brought was persistence. I kept coming back, year after year, asking questions and watching closely, connecting dots and building sources.

My coverage has always been intensely local — a role that has made me a valued part of the Charlotte community that cares deeply about public education, from its landmark desegregation efforts in the 1970s to its rapid resegregation in the early 2000s.

I never lost confidence in the local journalists at the paper. But the business model had become grinding, even for a survivor like me. It had become clear that McClatchy’s digital-first news organization would require a much smaller staff.

It was hard to watch talented friends and colleagues leave The Observer. But hanging on with the equally talented group that remained seemed like the way to ride out my career. By that point, I’d been in newspapers for almost 38 years, including 16 as the Observer’s education reporter. I was nearing 60.

Meanwhile, I had developed my own connection with WFAE, appearing as a regular panelist on the station’s weekly reporter roundtable. I figured I had a sustainable balance.

Then came the start of 2019: Another bleak quarterly report. Rumblings of more staff cuts. And amid it all, the news that McClatchy had awarded its CEO a $1-million bonus and a new expense stipend of $35,000 a month.

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A happy hour picture of Doss Helms and other former Observer reporters who’ve found a new home at WFAE.

The email that upended my career came while I was driving to cover a school board retreat. When I fired up my laptop, I learned that I was among 450 McClatchy staffers, all at least 55 years old with 10 years or more of experience, being offered early retirement.

Thanks to a blunder on blind copying, we could see the email addresses of everyone on that list. Scrolling through longtime colleagues, knowing that all of us were being asked to consider stepping aside for the survival of the company … that was a gut punch, no matter how much I’d braced.

Before I could catch my breath, my phone pinged with a text from Tommy: “I should let you know that (WFAE news editor) Greg Collard is dying to have you work here …”

The station’s producers liked my ability to riff comfortably and authoritatively on news that shaped listeners’ lives. Once I got used to live radio, I had a blast and enjoyed the enthusiastic reaction from listeners. I told my husband to poke me if he caught me swearing in public, because strangers would occasionally recognize my voice and ask if I was on NPR.

I was flattered. There was no guarantee that WFAE would hire me – or that I could flourish in a new medium. But by the time I left that school board meeting at the end of the day, I was thinking seriously about taking the buyout and exploring something new at WFAE.

Leaving scared me, but it felt right. I knew the Observer would never eliminate its education coverage entirely, but for me it was time to step away and see if I could muster a second act.

For most of my adult life, I’d taken pride in the hegemony of journalistic talent and institutional knowledge a large daily newspaper could claim. However, by 2019 it was clear that there was an ever-shifting mix of journalists, news outlets, blogs, and civic institutions informing people.

North Carolina has an array of teacher bloggers and advocacy groups that do serious coverage of education issues – but, of course, from a set viewpoint.

McClatchy’s regional strategy meant the (Raleigh) News & Observer’s veteran education reporter, T. Keung Hui, played a growing role in keeping Charlotte readers informed.

Some local TV stations cover education; they’re strong on breaking news and do some good enterprise, but they’re weak on depth and nuance.

That was about it, aside from WFAE. The station was my best option in the education-reporting landscape of Charlotte.

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Doss Helms addressing friends and colleagues from The Observer

When I announced my departure from The Observer in February, it was with little bitterness. I helped my editor write the job description and left a detailed guide to sources and issues. And I watched the Observer’s search for a new education reporter with interest.

It was exciting to think of what this new reporter might accomplish. “You’d be working for editors who genuinely value education and are doing their best to protect high-quality journalism in a tough environment,” I wrote to my colleagues on the EWA email listserv.

I was also hoping that the paper would replace me with a reporter of color. Ever since I started to understand how deeply race influences our lives, I had fantasized about handing my job off to a young Nikole Hannah-Jones — someone who matched my passion, expanded on my expertise, and spoke with the voice of the communities that represent Charlotte’s future.

So it was inspiring to hear they had hired Annie Ma, a young journalist who had done internships and fellowships at such publications as Mother Jones magazine and Chalkbeat New York.

While the Observer’s stable of veteran reporters might be shrinking, the newspaper is recruiting an impressive array of young talent, a crucial role for any city’s journalism ecosystem.

My prospects improved greatly in the spring, when WFAE education reporter Gwendolyn Glenn seemed likely to move into a new job.

However, I had to think seriously about whether I could transition to radio. WFAE’s seven-reporter staff was still smaller than the Observer’s. I wondered whether the data-driven work I’d built a reputation on would mesh with audio pieces.

The Observer’s former city hall reporter, Steve Harrison, who had taken a job as WFAE’s political reporter, warned me that it took a lot more work to produce a radio piece, and reporters were even less likely to get rich at public radio than at for-profit journalism.

But I had also seen Steve do great work with a mix of radio pieces, online articles and a weekly newsletter. He was happy he’d made the change.

Over the summer, I freelanced a WFAE series on how North Carolina uses test scores to grade schools, a system that many say unfairly stigmatizes high-poverty schools regardless of staff quality and programs.

We did a couple of long radio pieces to get people’s attention and relied on the website to provide longer articles illustrated with charts and maps, including some that let people look up how their schools would fare under various alternative systems.

And I saw WFAE engage the community in intriguing ways: A podcast competition that drew more than 370 entries, community conversations on hot topics such as Charlotte’s rising homicide toll, and a yearlong deep dive into affordable housing.

Doss Helms in her second act as an education reporter for WFAE, covering the hiring of a new superintendent.

WFAE made me a formal offer on July 9, not long after Annie started at the Observer. I accepted, and figured I had a month to relax before my Aug. 5 start date.

Ha. My sources were buzzing about something fishy afoot with the superintendent. Less than a week later, I found out that the superintendent was going to be abruptly removed from office.

WFAE brought me in as a stringer, and Gwendolyn and I worked the story together. Around 9:45 that morning, I experienced the radio equivalent of “Stop the press!”  I had confirmed enough that I was rushed into a studio to break into the local talk show that runs from 9 to 10.

There was no script, but all those hours on the reporter roundtable paid off.

That night, I lugged my new bag of audio equipment to a community meeting that the new superintendent had been scheduled to attend.

The News Observer’s Keung Hui, The Observer’s Annie Ma, and WFAE’s Ann Doss Helms.

A couple of months in, I’m still working on the basics. But I feel like a kid with a new toy when I come back with a great bit of audio.

At my stage of life, the joy that comes from a fresh start is worth the anxiety that accompanies it. With luck, I’ll eventually find ways to tell stories better, with more emotion on air and great data points online and a diversity of voices that unites our community.

It turns out a primitive nervous system and a hard shell may be great survival gear for an insect. But in this crazy world of education, journalism and civic life, it helps to be able to crack that shell and morph.

You can reach Ann Doss Helms at  ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859 or follow her on Twitter @anndosshelms or Facebook @anndosshelmsreporter.

 Previous first-person columns:

‘I used to be an education reporter.’

On motherhood and education journalism
What it’s like being a rookie education reporter

What’s missing from back-to-school news? A reporter reflects.

 

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries. You can follow her at @anndosshelms.

One Comment

  • Ed Williams

    A great story by a great reporter. As newspapers shrink amid the struggle to find a workable business model, public radio is expanding to meet the public’s demand for news. In North Carolina, the Durham’s WUNC and Charlotte’s WFAE are leading the way. The hiring of Ann Doss Helms was a coup for WFAE, but she won’t be the last of the skilled Observer journalists to come on board. WFAE’s last three board chairs have been former editors at the Observer.

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