EDITORIAL

For three years and four months, I have singlehandedly provided high-quality, professional news coverage to, for, and about this community. This began out of necessity because I knew no one else would do it if I didn’t. When I was laid off from the Clayton News during COVID-19, I immediately went into my home office, found a very temporary web template, and started The Clayton Crescent. I used my unemployment check to fund the website and cranked out the site on a cheap Chrome notebook I’d bought with my own money in anticipation of continued layoffs.

Standing up for open meetings at Forest Park, Sept. 21, 2020. With the help of the UGA Law First Amendment Clinic, I got the city to install a professional livestream system so that citizens can watch meetings, even if they are elderly, disabled, or at risk of COVID-19 or other communicable diseases. Soon after, Morrow began livestreaming its City Council meetings. Lovejoy, Riverdale, and Lake City, as well as various county boards, still do not provide this basic service for their citizens. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
You have to have a sense of humor about this job.

And I kept doing my job, even though I was not getting paid. Because the situation—your situation—was that desperate.

Some people didn’t understand why I was continuing to show up at county commission meetings. Some were under the impression that I was “blogging.” Others tried to use the fact that I was acting as an independent journalist as an excuse to withhold routine information (which is not an excuse to do so, in any case). Slowly, people caught on.

Then came the 2020 Presidential election.

The scene on Election Night, 2020, in the Clayton County tabulation center, nicknamed “The Bunker.” Journalists must show up for the boring and the routine because you never know when things will get crazy and newsworthy. I was the only one who showed up that day, except for a foreign crew. I tweeted the unusual activity, thinking I was only talking to a couple of local reporters. People around the world began following my updates. When some sent money that I didn’t ask for, I used that money to formalize The Clayton Crescent as a 501(c)(3) and member of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Around 3 a.m., the TV crews showed up. The county newspaper of record, The Clayton News, never did. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

I thought I should cover the actual process of counting the election returns, so I went to The Bunker. The rest is history, and that history is coming full circle in Fulton County as former president Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, the fake electors, and others face their respective days in court(s) for their part in attempting to invalidate the results of that election. I did not expect the financial outpouring from all over the United States, nor did I expect to become the focus of national and international news coverage for doing my job that night. But that’s what happened.

Black Lives Matter demonstration at Clayton County Administration Building, June 17, 2020. One of the leaders of the march, Eric Bell, was elected as a state representative in 2022. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

And I leveraged it for the people of Clayton County. I wasn’t going to pocket that money for myself.

I rounded up a board, with great help from former CNN coworker Richard Griffiths. It worked, for a while.

Two women exchange information in the rain outside the Georgia Department of Labor’s Clayton County office. Thousands of Georgians who were counting on unemployment checks did not receive them during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Clayton County Legislative Delegation began collecting the people’s names and demanding that DOL do its job, Director Mark Butler resigned. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Here’s what did not work.

Clayton County is a relatively small county. That means it has very little funding for nonprofits. It also means that everybody knows everybody. Many potential board members are active in the community, and that means they are civic-minded people who take an interest in politics. They are often directly involved in political campaigns or are themselves candidates for office.

Mothers of adult children with special needs demand respite care and programming from the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, April 4, 2023. A meeting was held but the requested services have yet to be provided for these families. (Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

The bar I had set was that board members, at least during their time on the board, would recuse themselves from political campaigning during that time. That’s because, as a non-profit, we need to remain nonpartisan. In addition, as a nonprofit news organization serving a small population, I wanted us to remain as neutral as possible.

Jonesboro City Councilmembers Bobby Lester (left) and Tracey Messick (right) chat with GOP House District 13 challenger Caesar Gonzales, who was running against longtime Democratic Congressman David Scott, at a Sept. 20, 2022 GOP rally for Herschel Walker. Walker ran (and lost) against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

In short, we could not maintain a board willing to put aside politics long enough to serve effectively.

As the sole editorial employee, I had zero time to fundraise. By “fundraise,” I don’t mean “sell t-shirts.” I mean “work big-money donors and write grants.” These are not small tasks, even for those who are experienced in the nonprofit world.

Keeping an eye on the Gold Dome during the April 2023 legislative session. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Ultimately, despite the best intentions, too few people in this community were willing or able to support nonprofit news in Clayton County.

We are grateful to big donors, like Richard Belcher and Sally Sears, and Richard and Debbie Griffiths, and others like Mickey Garber who made significant donations. We are also grateful to the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Miami Foundation, the Google News Initiative, the Loud Hound Foundation, and all of you who chipped in at whatever level you felt you could afford.

Bang for the buck

We ran annual budgets under six figures (with my salary in the low five figures) and led the entire Atlanta media space while doing it. To give you an idea of how much bang Clayton County got for its buck, many of our INN sister publications are running budgets of over $1 million per year and are fully staffed.

Disgraced political consultant and former Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers (second from right) leaves the Richard B. Russell Federal Building during her trial in the Atlanta City Hall contract scandal. Bickers is serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. The political scuttlebutt around Clayton County is that Bickers and Hill continue to run their associates’ political campaigns by proxy throughout the county. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

But I was overworked to the point of endangering my health. It wasn’t unusual that, less than 24 hours out of cancer surgery, I was writing about the Mitzi Bickers verdict from my sickbed. That’s what the job required because we were not properly staffed.

Other nonprofit newsrooms put their board and funding in place prior to publication, and that’s the way it should be done. But given the desperate editorial situation during COVID-19, I knew I had to keep reporting for the good of the community as a whole.

Clayton County District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson at the premature groundbreaking for the bogus Roman United development. At the time, Anderson said she had backed the project. When developer Jacques Roman failed to deliver after the county advanced nearly $600,000 for project plans, she distanced herself from the debacle. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

To be sure, our colleagues occasionally beat us on a Clayton County story. But 90% of the time, we beat everybody and we saw them pick up our stories that night or the next day.

We did not have enough market penetration—that is, not enough people knew about us, and not enough people who knew about us took the step of making a small financial commitment to expand our staff. We did have a summer intern last year but an intern is not a salaried, experienced reporter. And this beat requires serious, seasoned, professional reporters. Ideally, seven of them.

Inauguration of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Atlanta, GA, Jan. 12. 2023. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

What The Clayton Crescent needed to survive was:

  • Three or four more seasoned reporters to divide the workload. There’s a lot more to covering this county than transcribing meeting minutes. It requires experienced investigative reporters.
  • A politically neutral board that was committed to actively fundraising and educating the public about the importance of the mission. I’ve written and spoken repeatedly about the issue of news deserts and the role that nonprofit newsrooms in particular play in preserving democracy at the local level. In a county where roughly 90 percent of registered voters don’t turn out for local elections, the disconnect is dangerous.
  • At least one non-editorial staffer capable of grantwriting, working with the board to set up fundraising campaigns and events, and managing donor relationships. That is a full-time job in itself and it requires a special skill set. It’s not a job an editor can do on the side, or in the midst of everything else, or with the proper ethical brick wall between the editorial and the business sides of the operation.

We—and I—tried. It did not happen.

A girl rides a horse at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade in Jonesboro, GA, January 16, 2023. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Now what?

I have turned down other opportunities during my time as editor of The Clayton Crescent. Now I have been offered—and have accepted—a position with The Current in Savannah, where I will continue to do hard news reporting. My first day of work is Tuesday, September 5, 2023. I was under contractual obligation not to disclose my hire until today.

The Current (thecurrentga.org) is what The Clayton Crescent would look like had it been adequately funded and staffed. Community members in Savannah and coastal Georgia have offered significant financial support, and the site has a staff member dedicated to grantwriting.

Like The Clayton Crescent, The Current is a nonprofit news site.

I’m a huge fan (and supporter) of The Current, which does incredible, top-notch journalism. If you want to see what I was trying to do with The Clayton Crescent, take a look at The Current. The difference is, people in Savannah and Coastal Georgia understand the vital need for this kind of reporting, and they put up real money to do it. In advance.

Vice-President Kamala Harris addresses local Democratic leaders on voting rights as President Joe Biden looks on, Morehouse College, Atlanta, January 12, 2022. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

That is a model which Clayton County residents should consider—with the understanding that providing financial support for news coverage is a no-strings-attached donation. You cannot donate to a news organization, then try to use that donation to influence coverage or to demand that the publication censor topics you personally don’t like. (Looking directly at a couple of you.) The only proper response to such bullying is, “Here’s your check back.”

But what about…?

Yes, elections are coming. Yes, trials are coming. Yes, stories remain undone. No, I won’t be doing them.

A voter enters the polling place at Morrow City Hall, December 6, 2022. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

The Clayton Crescent is no longer in business. Donations have been cut off. I chose to euthanize it while it could still pay its bills, rather than drive it off a cliff before the next NewsMatch cycle payout. The remaining member of our board, Jo Nesmith, and I voted to dissolve the corporation and to dispense with its assets. I received one month’s severance pay, which for the nosy among you was $2,386.87 net. (Read that again.)

The accounting firm and the attorneys get paid for winding-down services. All remaining assets go to VOX ATL, another 501(c)(3) and a training ground for young journalists (you may recall that I sponsored a couple of scholarships on the condition those went to students from Clayton County). I recommend this program to Clayton County’s aspiring journalists.

Clayton County Youth Commissioner and aspiring journalist Aidan Brooks said he’s an avid reader of The Clayton Crescent. Aidan, I hope you’ll read The Current, too! (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

The archive, which is of vital historical importance, will eventually be in the possession of the University System of Georgia Libraries, likely through the University of Georgia, which has special archives of Georgia newspapers and is in the process of developing a digital news archive for contemporary online publications like The Clayton Crescent. For now, and for the next few years, it will remain at this website for your reference.

Be sure to use our curated Docs page at https://claytoncrescent.org/docs/ for useful information about Clayton County and the Search feature on our website.

I hope that, whatever your political party, whatever your personal allegiances, you will consider how best to fill the void.

Educate yourself about the various steps in the elections process. Watch who files timely or not at all. And watch for those Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports, especially the illegible ones and the blank ones. You’ve been warned.

Hint: That is not with political candidates’ podcasts. Anyone running for elected or appointed office, anyone who holds an elected or appointed office, and anyone who is part of their campaign, automatically disqualifies themselves from “bringing you the news.” If someone with a microphone and/or a camera is in the habit of lobbying to remove someone from office, or to get someone elected, whether themselves or someone else, they are at best a pundit and, at worst, a propagandist. Politicians love a camera, as long as they are in control of it.

With my editorial assistant, Laika, in the “pocket news van.” No Facebook Lives while driving, please!

One thing The Clayton Crescent never did was spew lies and invective. We never engaged in personal insults or character assassination. We always were scrupulous in reporting what could be proven, not just running with the political gossip of the moment. We are exceedingly proud to know that we had many fans in the legal community and among law enforcement, both in and beyond Clayton County. And we are grateful always to everyone who thanked us for our coverage, who constantly approached me at community events or meetings, to urge me to keep doing the job because “we need you.”

You need you

Clayton County needs to show up for itself. That starts with being honest about what problems plague the county, holding public officials responsible for stewarding taxpayers’ resources, and turning out for local and county elections.

Former State Rep. Mike Glanton (foreground), who resigned his seat for health reasons, at the March 31, 2023 inaugural ceremony for Jonesboro Mayor Donya Sartor, the city’s first Black mayor. Sartor has butted heads with a majority of councilmembers, who have called for Sartor to face ethics charges—but Jonesboro has no ethics board. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

I would add to that to-do list community support for the level of nonprofit news coverage that you deserve. Clayton County deserves a real nonprofit news operation, not a hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show project.

I’ve written before about why nonprofit news is quite literally saving democracy in communities all over this country that are in news deserts—places like Clayton County that have one understaffed newspaper or none at all. News deserts see exponentially more public corruption due to lack of journalistic oversight. Period.

Working a story outside the Clayton County Jail, which Sen. Jon Ossoff listed as one of the three worst facilities nationwide in a current Congressional investigation. (The Fulton County Jail also made the short list.) Sheriff Levon Allen, widely viewed by both supporters and opponents as a proxy for former sheriff Victor Hill (now serving an 18-month federal prison sentence for abusing pretrial detainees’ rights under color of law), has said he is upgrading the doors and locks. Clayton County District Attorney Tasha Mosley investigated conditions at the jail and a grand jury returned a 64-count RICO indictment for alleged gang activity. One of the indicted defendants was a jail employee. Since then, political supporters of Allen have been campaigning against Mosley, and Allen’s wife is running for District 3 while District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin, another close Hill-Bickers ally, runs for county chair. Meanwhile, jail stabbings continue and the Board of Commissioners continues to grant the sheriff’s office a blank check. (Photo:: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

I recommend you follow and speak with these journalists who regularly cover Clayton County:

I also recommend you follow and support WABE News (90.1 FM) and GPB News (88.5 FM) for broader coverage of not only Clayton County, but also issues in the metro and state that affect you directly.

And take a look at The Current, especially as it relates to the environment and to the warehouse industry and its impacts on local communities. Some of this might sound familiar to you.

It has been my honor and my privilege to serve the people of Clayton County.

In the office.

Good night and good luck,

Robin Kemp

Executive Editor/CEO

The Clayton Crescent

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Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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