LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Clayton County, Ga., began its hand recount for the presidential race last week. That county and one relentless local reporter became the center of national media attention in the days following the presidential election with the closely watched tallying of absentee ballots there. Robin Kemp was the only journalist to watch all 21 hours of Clayton County's counting of absentee voters. She runs an independent news site called the Clayton Crescent, and she joins me now. Welcome.
ROBIN KEMP: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having me on.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When did you first realize that Clayton County and you were at the center of a national election story?
KEMP: Not until I got a phone call from someone at a British radio program.
KEMP: And then I saw all these people on my Twitter feed and saying these extravagant things like, you're a hero. And that was the first clue I had that something else was going on entirely.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's now a recount in Clayton County. How are you covering this?
KEMP: Well, at the moment, I'm sitting in my car parked next to the Clayton County Police Department headquarters. I guess they didn't want another walk-up to the edge of chaos, almost. I'm not saying that it was chaos in there, but there were definitely observers who were sort of pushing the limits and seeing how much they could get away with. So now they have it in the police station. So everybody's behaving.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about your journalism career. You moved to Clayton County more than 30 years ago to work at CNN, and then you took a detour. Tell us what happened.
KEMP: Well, I actually moved to Atlanta proper when I was working at CNN, so I was living in a different part of town prior. But I worked for the Weekly Gambit (ph). And I had credentials for the 1988 Republican National Convention that was in New Orleans. So at the same time that was going on, my father, Jim Kemp, was senior assignment editor on the national desk at CNN. He was in town. So I go with them. And I watch these people set up in under two hours a fully functioning newsroom out of an empty trailer. I couldn't believe what I saw. And I thought, wow, I would love to do that. And it was - you know, I was there during the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the fall of Eastern Europe, the wall coming down.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: After this incredibly impressive career at CNN, you landed at the Clayton News, but were laid off at the start of the pandemic and you decided to start your own nonprofit news site. And on your website you wrote, I'm doing this because it needs to be done.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must be tough financially, emotionally. You're a reporter, editor, photographer, layout designer. You work 20-hour days.
KEMP: Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it really is something that needs to be done. And this is not unique to Clayton County. This is happening all over the United States, as I'm sure you're aware. So when the COVID-19 layoffs started happening at the Clayton News, as somebody who had to cover Clayton and Henry in terms of crime and safety and covering the cops and covering arrests and trials when it's possible, because there's only one of me, if I were no longer doing that for the newspaper, who's going to do it? There's nobody to do it. So I immediately went in the next room grabbed the Web template and started cranking out the Clayton Crescent.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think is lost when people in communities just like yours don't have someone like you?
KEMP: Primarily oversight over your elected officials. When you are denied access to your local city council meeting, that's a problem. That's a violation. That's illegal. And it's also unconstitutional. And things like that are happening down here. And so separately from all this election stuff, I'm involved in a big struggle with the city...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you're fighting for the citizens of your county.
KEMP: Yes, yes, yes. I'm doing my job, which is to make sure that the people of Clayton County are able to see and hear what their government is doing, to know what is going on, to know what larger questions may be affecting their quality of life. You know, how much gun violence is there in Clayton County? How is the water supply? How is the air pollution? All of those things that reporters really need to keep track of. In every community where there is a news desert, this is going on. And I really, really urge anybody who's listening, please, please check and see who your local nonprofit news organization is, because those are going to be your frequently your very best journalists who have been laid off from somewhere else. And they are serious about keeping that sunshine on the wheels of government.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robin Kemp, her news site is the Clayton Crescent.
Thank you very much.
KEMP: Thank you.
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