That was Kemp’s first clue that her county, a suburban community south of Atlanta, had become the center of the political world. It was late on Thursday, nearly two full days after polls had closed, and Joe Biden was suddenly on the precipice of overtaking President Trump in Georgia and turning the state blue for the first time in nearly three decades.
It took her even longer to realize that the world wasn’t just watching her state. It was watching her.
Kemp, an indefatigable 56-year-old reporter who started her news site after the local paper laid her off in April, was the only journalist to watch all 21 hours of Clayton County’s marathon tabulation of absentee votes, from about 9 a.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday. During that span, a record number of absentee ballots helped Biden close the statewide gap with Trump. And it was votes from Clayton County — the heart of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’s old district — that pushed Biden into the lead.
Kemp’s all-night coverage was public service journalism in its purest form. Physically and mentally exhausted, fueled by nothing but leftover Thai drunken noodles and the belief that if she didn’t watch it nobody would, Kemp spent nearly a day inside the stout government building where officials were counting votes. At that moment, it wasn’t just her county that needed a local reporter — her country did, too.
“That’s what’s always on my mind when I go and show up somewhere: It’s because someone needs to be there,” Kemp said.
When she set out that morning, Kemp had just a couple hundred Twitter followers and less than $2,000 in a GoFundMe she started in April. By the next day, she was at well over 10,000 followers and dollars. And her fledgling news site, the Clayton Crescent, saw a flood of readers.
Kemp’s work is emblematic of the sort of journalism that is vanishing by the day in the United States. Since 2004, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, according to research by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that dire trend. In April and May alone, at least 30 papers closed or merged, dozens went online-only and thousands of journalists were furloughed or laid off.
This die-off has created more communities than ever before with no daily newspaper — known as news deserts — and still more counties haunted by “ghost newspapers,” publications struggling to survive with diminished staff and readership. For example, Kemp’s old newspaper, the Clayton News, founded in 1964, has been hit hard by the pandemic and now publishes mostly articles from state and national wire services.
“It is hard to describe what it is like, when you want to be an informed citizen, the lengths you have to go to now when you live in a news desert,” Abernathy said. Clayton, a majority-Black county that is home to about 260,000 people, has a lower median household income and a higher rate of poverty than the state at large — making local news even more important, Abernathy said. Kemp, she said, “is filling a huge void right now, especially with this election.”
Kemp’s road to nonprofit news was a winding one, speckled with diversions and graduate schooling. Born in New Orleans, she moved to Clayton County in 1989 to work as a news writer at CNN, where her father, Jim Kemp, was a senior editor — “a journalist’s journalist,” Kemp said. But she had dreams of studying poetry, and in the late ’90s, she decamped for an MFA program, followed by work as an adjunct professor and several years in pursuit of a never-finished PhD. So it was from the sidelines that she watched the young century’s biggest news stories unfold.
“I missed the news business so bad,” she said.
She started writing freelance, driving Lyft to earn extra money. In 2018, she was hired full time by the Clayton News to cover crime and safety. Laid off two years later, she set to work that very day mocking up a Web page for the nonprofit news site she had long toyed with starting — and just kept on reporting.
“I just grabbed whatever I could grab and immediately just kept shoveling out news because there’s nobody else doing it,” Kemp said. “It has to be done. It needs to be done.”
Kemp sometimes works 20 hours a day, as both writer and photographer, using a camera she bought used on eBay. She works alone, with no editor and no staff. The site already has 38 pages of articles, including coverage of the coronavirus’s toll, crime and zoning issues. In an April 28 editorial, she promised Crescent readers three things: hyperlocal journalism, no survey walls to hurdle before reading her stories and no clickbait.
By October, she was in a First Amendment dispute with the city of Forest Park, which she said had barred her from attending public meetings. She and the Crescent’s pro bono attorneys are challenging the move; the city did not respond to a request for comment. Kemp said pushing for transparency in local government is the sort of work she wants the Crescent to do.
Kemp said she’s been so busy reporting that she hasn’t yet filed papers to incorporate her nonprofit. That became a problem when donations started pouring in during her election coverage; as of Tuesday, she had raised nearly $18,000. She said she wants to hold off on accepting the money until her paperwork is filed so the donations can be tax-deductible.
She’s in the process of setting up a board of directors, with help from Richard T. Griffiths, a former vice president at CNN and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
“It’s a little bit like driving down the road and building the car while you’re doing it,” Griffiths said of the Crescent’s hectic start. “She’s got wheels and is looking around for an engine.”
The GoFundMe windfall is proof that there’s an appetite for local news, Griffiths said, but Kemp’s real challenge will be finding local donors who can sustain the operation after the viral fame subsides. “The question is: Can this be turned into a viable entity? And if there’s anyone who can do it, she can,” he said. “It is in every community’s interest to have a strong, healthy accountability journalism operation going.”
Kemp’s commitment was clear on Thursday as she chronicled a bizarre night of ballot-counting at a county building known as “the Bunker.” In tweets and on Facebook Live, she gave followers a firsthand look at the vote-tallying and at the coterie of Republican observers who showed up to watch. Many of them seemed young and inexperienced, she said, and only one wore an official credential. The rest seemed reluctant to identify themselves as they peppered county officials with gripes. In her story the next day, Kemp noted that the observers were mostly White men alleging that the workers, mostly Black women, were breaking the law. The workers pressed on, Kemp wrote.
For hours, Clayton’s votes trickled in, bit by bit erasing Trump’s lead. As Kemp reported on each new development, her following grew. She posted the last of her dozen or so videos at 5:20 a.m. Friday.
“I’m going to go and take a well-earned break,” she told the camera. “I really appreciate my new 5 million friends around the world.”
Kemp lives with her partner in a single-story house in a working-class Forest Park neighborhood, near the Atlanta airport. Her computer crashed recently so she’s stationed in her partner’s home office, surrounded by workout equipment, files and boxes. A calendar on the wall still reads January 2020. She has no savings, she said, and her only income is $300 a week in unemployment.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, and I assume I’ll be working for the rest of my life for four and five figures a year,” Kemp said. “But if I can use what I know to be of help in this community right now and give them the news coverage that they deserve, then at least it’s a good way to pass your time.”
“She is the real thing,” said Kemp’s partner, Raysa Aragón, who fled Cuba in 1992 and appreciates Kemp’s devotion to the sort of public watchdog work that is restricted in her home country. “She is what this country needs. Real journalism is what we need. Real facts.”
Kemp understands that the end of her time in the national spotlight is drawing near, even as Georgia gears up for two runoff elections that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
That’s a national story, she said; she’s more focused on her own backyard. On Sunday, she was preparing for Lake City’s upcoming council meeting while trying to make sense of a local rezoning request for a daily story. She sat back down and kept writing.