OPINION: Harsh reality catches up with plucky Clayton County news site

Robin Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent news site after being laid off by the local newspaper. She was able to keep the operation open for more than 3 years, leaving it for a steadier work environment.

Credit: Robin Kemp

Credit: Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent news site after being laid off by the local newspaper. She was able to keep the operation open for more than 3 years, leaving it for a steadier work environment.

Three years ago, Robin Kemp was heralded as a champion of local journalism.

In the frenetic days after the 2020 election, Kemp, who ran a small online news outlet, The Clayton Crescent, tweeted late-night results from the Clayton County election center as Joe Biden overtook Donald Trump in Georgia.

It was a huge moment and as the only local reporter there, Kemp found herself in the eyes of the world, being interviewed by everyone from the BBC to the Washington Post.

“It was strange,” she recounted this week about her international moment. “I was famous for 15 minutes for basically doing my job.”

The Post wrote a story about her dogged reporting and the start-up news site she created with unemployment money after getting laid off in April 2020 by the local paper, the Clayton News.

Basically, the sequence of events was: Is let go, shakes off the blow, walks across the hall, keeps doing her job.

“It was a case of ‘Who’s going to cover the news around here?’” she said.

If not her, who?

Robin Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent news site after being laid off by the local newspaper during COVID.

Credit: Robin Kemp

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Credit: Robin Kemp

Kemp became a one-woman band covering all things Clayton, the blue-collar, majority-Black county of 297,000 residents directly south of Atlanta. Clayton was in threat of becoming a news desert, meaning a dearth of locally generated news.

The Clayton Crescent, which was basically just Kemp, kicked some butt, won an award and, most importantly to her, kept readers informed and local officials accountable.

Her goal was simple: Deliver news that’s “accurate, complete and has context.”

A perusal of the Crescent’s archives finds stories about voter purges, zoning issues, redistricting, crime, county commission meetings, a jail death and questionable spending by elected officials. You know, news.

It’s what local newspapers (and news sites) do. Unfortunately, there are increasingly fewer of those and fewer folks with notebooks showing up at city council meetings, school board hearings and criminal trials.

And now add the Crescent to the ledger of defunct news sites. This month, Kemp announced she was shutting down the site and heading to a paying reporting job with more stability and fewer headaches. It’s called the The Current, a nonprofit news site based in Savannah.

Kemp, 59, grew up in the business. Her father, Jim Kemp, was a career newsman who became an editor at CNN. Robin Kemp worked in news, became a poet, a waitress and a college professor before returning to news at the Clayton News, which ultimately shed her as a cost-cutting measure as COVID hit in 2020.

After starting the Clayton Crescent, and cranking out stories, she had to figure out one essential detail. How do I raise money to make a living doing this? Or at least survive?

That question has befuddled the news industry for decades. Many, if not most, people want their Internet news/info to be free.

Robin Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent news site  and did what she could to keep it alive for more than 3 years.

Credit: Robin Kemp

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Credit: Robin Kemp

“But there is no magic source on the Internet producing news,” said said former CNN editor and executive Richard Griffiths. “Someone has to be paid to produce it. Without that, it just is not substantive.”

She found a few monetary benefactors like Griffiths and former TV reporters like Richard Belcher and Sally Sears. Then Kemp got some matching grants through the Knight Foundation, which provides funding for journalism.

Kemp also sought local subscriptions.

“I did everything in my power to get people to know how important it is to support a nonprofit news outlet,” she told me. “Everyone read it. Not many people want to pay for it.”

She did not take money from local politicians or some with close ties to them.

A board member of the nonprofit she set up to oversee The Crescent advised her not to give money back, saying “it’s only a conflict if you let them pressure you.”

“But,” she responded, “it’s the appearance. I didn’t want to owe anybody.”

“She was a purist in her reporting; that did not always win over those in the community,” said Griffiths. In fact, “Most of the donations didn’t come from Clayton County.”

She needed a “dedicated fundraiser to beat the bushes and raise money,” he added.

But, says Kemp, “I’m an editorial person. I’m not a fundraising person.”

Says Griffiths: “There is no way one person can do that all, especially someone like Robin, whose ethics are keeping those (business and editorial sides) apart.”

Richard Griffiths, of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, talks to the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission during a public hearing meeting at the Lanier Technical College Ramsey Conference Center, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Gainesville, Ga.. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“When you’re living on the edge, it’s exhausting,” Griffiths said. “Robin was living that way, hand-to-mouth. I don’t know how she did it.”

There are others traversing Kemp’s path. Dan Whisenhunt has managed to keep alive the hyperlocal website Decaturish for a decade. He says he couldn’t have done so if he wasn’t married to a wife who had a steady job and health insurance.

This week, he sent out another fundraising appeal.

Former AJC alum Maria Saporta puts out the Saporta Report, paying small cadre of journalists to cover Atlanta. Keeping the operation afloat “is a miracle every month,” she told me.

“In the old days. I’d just go and cover something,” Saporta said. “I didn’t have to worry where the money was coming from.”

Kemp is trying to get UGA’s library to archive the Clayton Crescent.

“It’s a public record of what happened in Clayton County during that period,” she said. “It’s an important historical document.”

And now it’s history.