The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

N.C. newspaper continues coverage in the dark after substation attack

Reporter Jaymie Baxley works at the office of the Pilot after an attack wiped out power. (Tracy Lazaro Baxley)

Journalists at the Pilot were finalizing coverage Saturday night of a drag show targeted by protesters, when they spotted social media chatter about a power outage. John Nagy, the editor of the 102-year-old Moore County, N.C., newspaper, asked a reporter to make some calls. He thought maybe a car accident had temporarily taken out a transformer.

Then the newsroom went dark.

The editorial staff of about a dozen people leaped into action. Reporters soon confirmed that authorities believed the power at some 45,000 southeastern North Carolina addresses had been knocked out intentionally. Nagy drove to a substation that authorities say was attacked by gunfire and snapped a photograph of a toppled gate that would be republished by news outlets across the country.

They did it all without power. Reporters worked on their cellphones, filing stories from the darkened newsroom or from the local police station, one of the only places with electricity. With service spotty, they fought through dropped phone calls and mobile hot spots that sometimes functioned and sometimes didn’t.

“People count on us,” said Nagy, who has been editor for 11 years. “And we know that when the power goes out, people are going to expect us to explain what’s going on. We’ve been doing that for 102 years.”

Established in 1920, the Pilot has always been locally owned and remains so at a time when many newspapers are part of corporate chains. David Woronoff, who has led the paper for 27 years and is only the sixth publisher in its history, said, “We feel like the community needs a steady hand at the helm, and we’re trying hard to prove that.” The outlet publishes stories online daily and circulates a print edition twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays.

While many local media outlets have shuttered or scaled back amid troubled finances, the Pilot has been “very fortunate,” Nagy said. Moore County, a retirement haven to many, still supports a newspaper, and the Pilot also owns magazines and a bookstore.

“There’s no safe harbor from that storm,” Woronoff said of the challenges facing the news industry. But, he added, “We think that if you produce a superior product, folks will recognize that and you’ll be rewarded for it.”

The Pilot has covered major news events over the years: The area has hosted the U.S. Open golf tournament multiple times and a 2009 mass killing in Carthage, the county seat, ranks as the deadliest to rock North Carolina. But the power outage, which prompted school closures, a countywide curfew and an FBI investigation, stands out as one of the biggest.

“It’s certainly not a local story anymore,” Woronoff said. “This is a national story. There’s substations all over the country, and if it can happen in Southern Pines, it can happen anywhere.”

Texas journalists are providing critical information about a disaster they’re living through

As of Wednesday, the electricity had been almost fully restored. But many questions remained, including what motivated the attack and whether there was any connection to the drag performance. The staff of the Pilot continued to chase after the answers, while chronicling the community response, the impact on local businesses and the ways residents were coping. They also published an editorial that opened with, “Let’s not mince words. What occurred to the power substations Saturday night in Moore County was terrorism.”

Like Texas journalists during the 2021 winter storms and Florida journalists during Hurricane Ian, they have been covering the crisis while living through it.

Jaymie Baxley, a government and public health reporter, posted to Twitter a picture of himself working in the newsroom, wearing a jacket, the only light coming from a camping lantern. For days, he said, he and his wife had been “subsisting mostly on Kind bars.” At night, the couple tried to use treats to bribe their dog into sleeping in their bed, hoping for extra warmth. He’d gotten one hot shower.

“I think people appreciate that we were dealing with this in a personal level just like they were,” Baxley said of the paper’s readers. “There’s a certain kind of integrity that comes along with that. It’s like, yeah, we’re in the same boat; we’re facing the same issue.”

Traffic to thepilot.com makes clear that people have been relying on the outlet’s coverage. A year ago, the site got about 20,000 views per day, Nagy said. On Sunday, he said, that number was 282,000. On Tuesday, it was still at about 151,000.

The editors took down the paywall after the power went out (and as soon as they were able to access the technology to do so) and will probably keep it that way for a few more days. They also printed and distributed free copies of the latest print edition, headlined “FROM OUT OF THE BLUE, DARKNESS.” Staff from the advertising and circulation departments helped hand them out around the county.

Woronoff sent a staff-wide email thanking the newsroom for its round-the-clock work, adding, “The Pilot was made for moments like this.” He said in an interview, “I popped a few buttons off my chest I’m so proud of them.”

On Wednesday, the power came back on at the office. The staff spent the day tracking how many homes and businesses had regained power, reporting on a law enforcement news conference and brainstorming additional angles to pursue.

They’ll be on the story, Nagy said, for as long as it is a story.

“We don’t have anywhere to go home,” he said. “We are home.”

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