When Robin Kemp lost her job at Clayton County’s local newspaper early into the Covid-19 pandemic, she did what a lot of laid-off journalists do: she kept writing.
“As soon as I got off the phone with my boss,” she says about that day back in April 2020, “I went into my home office, I found a website template, and I just kept doing what I had always done.” That one-woman show eventually became the Clayton Crescent. The nonprofit news outlet is one of the area’s only sources for professional local news coverage (and certainly the smallest), and Kemp made international headlines with her coverage of the county’s heated absentee ballot count following the 2020 presidential election.
Unfortunately, the same factors that have gutted local media all over the country—and cost Kemp her newspaper job—have proved even more fatal for a fledgling news site like Kemp’s; after only a year and a half in operation, the Clayton Crescent has reached the edge of the abyss. Without additional funding, it will close by the end of the month.
When Kemp started posting articles on her new website in spring of 2020, she was living off unemployment and paying expenses out of her own pocket. Money wasn’t the concern: “I just wanted to cover what I really believe is essential.” Kemp explains that in a news desert like Clayton County—a term used to describe geographic areas lacking substantial local news coverage—larger regional and national outfits often show up only to cover the most sensationalist stories, which are usually crime-related. “I understand, because everyone has limited resources,” Kemp said. “But there are a lot of things happening in Clayton County that are not reflected by that coverage.”
The timing of the Clayton Crescent’s launch quickly made her news site indispensable: during those frantic early months of the pandemic, Kemp provided the county’s nearly 300,000 residents with crucial information about local infection rates, virus hot spots, and city council decisions made behind closed doors while meetings were closed to the public. But it was her coverage of the days following the 2020 presidential election that made Kemp an overnight celebrity. As the Washington Post reported, she was the only journalist who stayed to watch while Clayton’s election workers counted every absentee ballot: a total of 21 hours, jostling for space with crowds of young Republican poll watchers who arrived in droves.
That service to democracy—whose events Kemp later shared in this magazine—brought the Clayton Crescent several thousand dollars in small donations: when Kemp’s live-tweeting of the ballot count went viral, someone (she says she doesn’t know who) unearthed a dormant GoFundMe page, one Kemp had forgotten she’d made. The account was shared across the web, prompting an ad hoc fundraiser while Kemp was hours into absentee ballot observation. She had no idea anything had happened until the next morning, when the arriving camera crews started ribbing her to check her GoFundMe: “One of the guys pulled it up and showed me—there was more than $8,000 in there!”
That seed funding, and the press coverage following the election, helped Kemp keep her scrappy news site running for the rest of the year. She incorporated as a nonprofit, brought on a board, and kept operations running through private donations and reader subscription fees. A generous stranger from the West Coast donated a new Macbook; Kemp sourced used furniture for her tiny office from Pat & Jerry’s, a mom-and-pop salvage store in Jonesboro. The organization’s Board of Trust Director Richard Griffiths, a veteran journalist and a colleague from Kemp’s days at CNN, helped hustle up everything from new donors to membership in the Institute for Nonprofit News, an organization that supports small independent news outlets. He even built her an office desk in his home woodshop.
With that support, Kemp has spent the last few months doing what she does best: showing up at government meetings, filing open records requests, and generally bedeviling local politicians, business owners, and county bureaucrats in the name of public accountability. “We’re in the business of telling the truth, even if it makes some people unhappy,” Kemp says.
Yet even with minimal overhead—nearly every article on the website is penned by Kemp, with occasional stories licensed from Atlanta’s Capitol Beat News Service—the bills pile up. With bookkeeping, records requests, web development, and other costs, the Clayton Crescent’s operating budget is a minimum of $6,000 monthly. That’s a fraction of other news sites’ budgets, even small ones, but operating in a low-income region has made it difficult to generate enough paying subscribers. With funds running perilously low, the news site’s board voted this week to suspend operations on November 30, unless it can raise enough money to carry through a few more months and generate more paying subscribers.
“We just need 250 people who believe in this project, subscribing for $20 a month,” Kemp explains. (While the Crescent‘s subscription option is currently turned off in case the news outlet does go dark, donations in any amount are being doubled, through the end of November, by the Institute for Nonprofit News). A slight increase in budget would allow Kemp to bring on journalism interns, pay freelancers, and even hire a web developer to boost the news site’s online presence. That funding allows the Clayton Crescent to do the critical work of a free press: “The problem is just finding a little bit of money to keep the powers that be accountable,” Kemp says.
Kemp hopes there’s a future for the Clayton Crescent, but she’s sanguine about the possibility of its closure. She’s worked in news media for years and knows how difficult the landscape is for independent media. Research from the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism found that, since 1995, 300 American newspapers have shuttered and 6,000 journalist jobs were lost; the pandemic led to the closure or merging of another 30 newspapers and the loss of thousands of journalism jobs. These days, newspapers and media outlets on the brink of closure are often bought out by corporations, who reorganize for maximum profitability, often leading to mass layoffs. And while UNC’s report notes that small digital sites like the Clayton Crescent were once heralded as the answer to the collapse of local new media, as many of them have closed as have opened since 2019.
Whether the Clayton Crescent survives into December and beyond, Kemp is proud of what the news site has accomplished. “I think we’ve made a very, very big difference civically here.”
“Everywhere I go,” she adds, “People say, ‘keep doing what you’re doing. We need you.’”
The Clayton Crescent is part of a funds-matching program through the Institute for Nonprofit News: any donations made through November 30th will be doubled by the institute’s donors. Donations can be made here.
Donors interested in making large-scale contributions can email Kemp at firstname.lastname@example.org.