By Andrew Dunn

Just as traditional media began their decline, NC Policy Watch was founded in the mid-2000s as the publishing arm of the N.C. Justice Center, a left-wing activist and advocacy group dedicated to economic and social justice.

Over the following decade, it’s become an integral part of the North Carolina political ecosystem.

With four full-time reporters, NC Policy Watch is also one of the best-staffed media outlets covering the state capitol. They produce phenomenal work with reverberations across the media ecosphere — arguably the most in-depth coverage of the goings-on in Raleigh.

Their work is not subtle in its slant. After all, their blog is called the “Progressive Pulse.” It’s funded by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation1, which funds various Raleigh progressive organizations.

There is no direct analog on the other side of the political sphere. The closest comp, Carolina Journal, is read by far fewer people and cited much less.

Public relations professionals, take notes. While you’ve undoubtedly seen these concepts, I’ve never seen them executed at such a high level. NC Policy Watch is a master class in influencing both media and policy.

1) Providing ready-made stories and photo ops.

What makes a good news story? Conflict. And NC Policy Watch delivers it up every week to the state’s news organizations.

Their “Week Ahead” email is super valuable to reporters trying to manage their time and fill in their bosses on what they’re doing for the week. They highlight important committee meetings in the state legislature and press conferences that advance their agenda each day of the work week — providing time, date, place and a link to the agenda.

But most importantly, they give a heads up on when all the demonstrations are being held and where they’re being staged.

Photo packages are an editor’s best friend. I’ve worked at several newspapers where reporters were required to pitch each week at least 1-3 stories with photo potential. There’s no quicker ticket to the front page than a story with a decent photo. Even mediocre stories will get premium play this way, and if the front-page photo is of protestors, it paints the story a certain way.

This tactic has been brutally effective. Notice below how the headlines are framed around the conflict, not the substance of what’s being considered.


2) Hiring top reporters.

A few years back, they hired Sarah Ovaska away from The News & Observer. Lately they’ve hired Joe Killian, the top reporter at The Greensboro News & Record, Melissa Boughton, part of a a Pulitzer Prize finalist team from The Post & Courier, and Billy Ball and Lisa Sorg from the Independent Weekly.

These reporters bring instant credibility and a built-in audience as their production shifts to the Policy Watch style.

3) Producing boatloads of original reporting.

With all this journalistic firepower, NC Policy Watch is able to churn out great content. They’re live-tweeting government meetings, breaking news and publishing impressive deep dives that shape the conversation in media circles around important issues.

It’s part content marketing and part mass media. They have more than 17,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 22,000 likes on Facebook — making it a potent publisher.

The content is nearly indistinguishable from what would appear on a traditional news site, just with a little spin.

4) Issuing research reports with gravitas.

In conjunction with the Justice Center, NC Policy Watch publishes substantive reports that are invaluable for background research for reporters and bloggers around the state.

Take the most recent, Class Size Chaos. It’s one of the best explainer pieces out there on one of the big issues in front of the General Assembly today2. Anybody writing on this topic is going to read this report and use it to inform their writing.

Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr (Creative Commons)

5) Putting experts out for interviews.

Want to write about topics NC Policy Watch cares about? They’ll make it easy to get a quote. Policy Watch and the Justice Center distributed author Kris Nordstrom’s contact info to reporters across the state.

Rob Scofield, Director of Research at N.C. Policy Watch, appears on broadcasts and radio programs across the state and provides quotes for both media and activist groups.

This stuff is so valuable because news stories often have holes that need filling with a quote from an expert who’ll say what a reporter wants to get across in an article. NC Policy Watch and the Justice Center will fill that gap.

Just this month, Policy Watch work has been cited by The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and WRAL.

This type of reporting will soon become more prevalent.

Because it works. Chris Fitzsimon, a longtime leader at NC Policy Watch, is now running an organization that seeks to replicate the model in other states. Smart. I think it will work.

Looking for in-depth news without the spin? Join hundreds of smart North Carolinians reading the weekly Longleaf Politics newsletter

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Homepage photo by NC Policy Watch via Facebook.


  1. You write this as if NC Policy Watch is some sinister organization. I disagree with their policy positions about 50% of the time. I always find their viewpoint informative, and fully support their free speech rights. It’s not like they are deceptively claiming to be something they are not. It should be pointed out that in our ultra conservative NCGA, they are often denied proper media credentials as retaliation for negative coverage by our thin-skinned legislators.

    The Carolina Journal may be read by less people, but it is also part of a much larger network of conservative organizations like the John Locke Foundation, Civitas, and North State Journal. Let’s not forget the multiple local conservative radio & TV shows that proliferate over the airwaves. There is no real Progressive alternative.

    The game plan that is outlined here is not new. All of these Conservative publications and organizations do/or did the same strategies at one time or another. I would submit that all of these are a thousand times more influential than NC Policy Watch. They are genuinely influential because their guys are in power. Their policy research has teeth because they have conservative politicians who are in the powerful positions to institute the measures advocated. NC Policy Watch is influential to the minority. A minority that is powerless due to the extreme measures of hyper conservative politicians that have take illicit control of the state through the power of gerrymandering.

    And none of these organizations has 1/100th of the influence of FOX News. So, I say, carry on NC Policy Watch. Healthy debate breeds better policies. One day, if we are able to break the gerrymander, politicians may have to actually pursue policies of better government instead of letting ideologues run amuck.

    • Hey Jeff, thanks so much for the insightful response. I’m definitely not trying to make them sound sinister. They are great at what they do and I support their free speech rights as well!

      • I am sure you did not try to make them sound sinister but it is just easy to see when you lay out their methods, or if you just spend a small amount of time on their web sites. And sure they are good at what they do, the propaganda machines of the past have provided the way to do this type of thing and they are just doing the paint by numbers thing. I am just sad Blinky left to hit the national stage, this will be unfortunate as even more “news” outlets pick up their paint by numbers press releases and present them as their own.

  2. “There is no real Progressive alternative.” ….. ??? Huh?
    That will come as a shock to McClatchey’s two, albeit struggling, newspapers in Charlotte and Raleigh as well as The Greensboro News & Record and WRAL-TV5.


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