A lesson in community journalism in the social media age from Southern Pines

Grimesey. Source: aasa.org
Grimesey. Source: aasa.org

The Southern Pines Pilot reported yesterday that the Moore County Board of Education voted 5-3 to terminate the contract of Superintendent Robert Grimesey, who’d been in the top job at Moore County Schools for just a year. The board did not offer a reason for the termination.

There are several fascinating aspects to this highly controversial story, but all of them are brought into focus by The Pilot‘s reporting — which began Wednesday with a report about a called special meeting where the board was expected to oust Grimesey. That report relied on anonymous sources, a rarity in local papers but probably a necessity in this case:

Several people close to school board members and with direct knowledge of the situation say Grimesey was asked to resign during a closed session Monday evening after the board’s workshop session.

According to those people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, a split has occurred on the board between those who think Grimesey should go and those who wish to keep him on board. That split reportedly lines up with Board vice chairwoman Kathy Farren and members Laura Lang, Becky Carlson, Ben Cameron and Sue Black against Grimesey and Board chairman Bruce Cunningham and members Charles Lambert and Ed Dennison supporting Grimesey.

pilotThe same day, The Pilot followed up with a report about the community’s reaction to the news, quoting parents and teachers, as well as capturing reactions on social media. Additionally, the story quoted the Moore County Board of Commissioners’ chairman as saying that in the event that Grimesey’s contract was bought out, he would reduce the county’s allotment to the schools by the cost of that buyout.

Nick Picerno, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday that he has received “overwhelming support” for Grimesey in phone calls and e-mails. He vowed that he would not support the use of taxpayers’ money to buy out Grimesey’s contract.

“As chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, I have one vote,” he said. “I would vote to reduce our appropriation to the school board next year by any amount of money used to buyout the superintendent’s contract. Maybe they have another way to pay for it that I don’t know about. The taxpayers’ money of Moore County will not be used for this payout.”

Not long after that, The Pilot‘s Facebook page shared a statement from state Rep. Jamie Boles, who astonishingly went on the record as saying the then-upcoming firing was the result of a “personality issue.”

This just in from state Rep. Jamie Boles, Moore County’s chief representative in Raleigh:

“As your Representative I am deeply concerned with the process in which the Moore County Schools Superintendent position is being tainted. In conversations with past and present board members I have found Superintendent Dr. Robert Grimesey to be respected, honorable and trustworthy. Though I may not have all the facts, I have been assured that this is a ‘personality issue.’

“I would like to encourage EVERYONE to attend the 8 am meeting Thursday morning -June 4th at the Central office in Carthage. Show your support for our Superintendent Robert ‘Bob’ Grimesey.”

By Thursday morning, The Pilot appeared fully prepared to provide full coverage of the meeting, which was set for 8 a.m. There were photos of the capacity crowd, updates as the meeting was moved to a larger venue to accommodate that crowd, a report on elections officials looking into whether it would be possible under North Carolina law to recall the school board members (!) leading the coup, a report on the vote itself and even video of Grimesey speaking to supporters after his ouster.

Between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., The Pilot had reported the full story on Facebook, garnering 997 likes and 977 shares in the process.

This is important because as a twice-weekly paper, social media and the web became the primary outlets for this news — which it was clear the community had an enormous appetite for. Had The Pilot waited to provide details in its print product, the public would have already gotten the story somewhere else by then. Instead, The Pilot‘s staff recognized that this story would lead the day and subsequently dedicated most of its staff to reporting the hell out of it. Moore County’s citizens are better informed and better off as a result.

Social media doesn’t generate revenue, but trust does. Presumably, The Pilot‘s readership has more trust in it today than it did a week ago, thanks to the excellent work its staff put in Wednesday and Thursday. And presumably, people will continue reading because it looks like there’s much more to come.

In the hours since Grimesey’s ouster, The Pilot‘s editorial board has called for the resignation of the five school board members who voted against Grimesey (and shared that editorial on Facebook), reported further (via social media) on the Moore County Board of Commissioners efforts to look at recall options, updated readers on their own next steps in covering the debacle and even smartly begun sharing photos of students, families and school staff wearing black in support of Grimesey.

The controversy came at a manic pace; the aftermath will unfold more slowly. But by forcefully and immediately establishing itself as the most credible source on any news related to the sudden firing of a school superintendent who was popular by all accounts among every political, racial, and financial sector of Moore County, The Pilot has hopefully earned itself the loyalty of a lot of readers who will be a lot more likely to subscribe or drop a buck on a single copy down the road.

The coverage hasn’t been perfect (Editor John Nagy could have maybe found some parents of actual Moore County students to talk to for his own editorial, which shouldn’t have been hard in a school system of 12,000), but whose ever is? The point is that in a media landscape that’s more challenging today than any other time in the business, The Pilot owned a local story and did it using the tools that have become not the future, but the present, of community journalism.

Good on them.