On a cold, rainy day at the end of April, more than 30 people gathered at a co-working space in Charlotte, North Carolina for a public conversation about the future of news in the state.
Five days later, more than 50 people got together for a similar conversation at a jazz club in downtown Durham. At both events, attendees — which included local journalists and community activists to retirees and entrepreneurs — were asked to share how they got their local news, how the news impacted their lives and what stories needed to be told about their local communities.
Both events kicked off News Voices: North Carolina, a new initiative from the advocacy group Free Press, which is bankrolled by The Democracy Fund, aimed at fostering collaborations and strengthening the bonds between journalists and the communities they cover in the Tar Heel state.
Over the past decade, North Carolina’s reporters — like those in many states — have seen the newspaper industry consolidate, ownership turnover from family-owned businesses to ones owned and operated by investment firms (which now own 40 out of the state’s 185 papers) and major staff layoffs, which as Matt DeRienzo notes in an excellent piece about recent Gannett cuts, tend to hit “small-town journalism hardest.”
News Voices wants to make North Carolina “a model for the future of news” by bringing listening and community engagement to the forefront of North Carolina’s local newsrooms to create what Fiona Morgan calls "a virtuous cycle of trust, quality news and sustainable media."
Morgan, a long-time Durham-based resident who directs Free Press’ journalism programs, is co-leading News Voices: North Carolina effort alongside Charlotte-based activist Alicia Bell.
“The fundamental issue [that] we’re trying to work on [is this]: If only journalists care about the future of journalism, we’re in big trouble,” says Morgan.
Over the next months, Morgan and Bell plan to bring journalists and community members together for public conversations about the local news ecosystem across the state, shoring up newsroom capacity and helping communities find ways to connect with the local newsrooms in their areas.
News Voices: North Carolina follows a similar effort in the state of New Jersey, which launched in 2015. I reached out to both Morgan and Bell to learn how they plan to connect with residents across the state and what other newsrooms can learn from this effort.
I know News Voices started in New Jersey and is now in North Carolina. Why those two states in particular, and what learnings from the New Jersey program are being applied in North Carolina?
Morgan: The two things that led us to decide where to bring this project boil down to need and infrastructure. New Jersey and North Carolina rate highly on both, for different reasons.
New Jersey, despite being the most densely populated state in the country with 9 million people, is in a sense a news desert because it lies in between two of the largest media markets in the country: New York (which is number one of course), and Philadelphia, which is number four.
[That means] New Jersey gets very little broadcast coverage of its state and local public affairs and has historically been even more reliant on print newspapers than most places for its news. And print newspapers in New Jersey are experiencing the same problems that print everywhere is experiencing.
Yet New Jersey is also a place with a lot of exciting journalism going on, especially by startups like New Brunswick Today (which you may have seen on Samantha Bee’s show), Jersey Shore Hurricane News and NJ Spotlight. Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media has become a national leader in talking about how to do collaborative journalism, but more than that, their NJ News Commons is a hub for journalists and news outlets of all kinds across the state.
All of that together, I think [is] the infrastructure that made News Voices successful in New Jersey: a great funder who supported us with more than money, a network that had already been established where we didn’t have to talk people into the idea that engagement and collaboration are worthwhile, partners and allies already in place and eager to work with us.
North Carolina has approximately the same number of people as New Jersey, but they’re far more spread out across both square miles and media markets. Like a lot of states, we have an intense rural-urban divide, and that plays out in our media. NC’s got two of the top 25 media markets in the country (Charlotte and Raleigh) and give total primary markets, plus at the edges of the state people get news from Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
The attention is dispersed, and the main newspapers that used to reach from the mountains the coast — The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer — have reduced their footprint, seen their newsrooms shrink and as a result of both have lost the reach and influence they once had.
Why is that a problem? Because this is a Dillon’s Rule state, which means that the state legislature has the power to make decisions that affect everything that happens at the county and municipal level.
Metro newspapers that have been critical institutions are getting weaker all the time. Community newspapers are facing market pressures, losing readers and becoming more consolidated (see UNC professor Penelope Abernathy’s report on news deserts). Yet we also have very good public radio stations across the state, especially WUNC and WFAE. We have a public TV system with incredible reach to all these disparate markets. And then there are these individual outlets doing great work.
WRAL is a locally-owned station located in the Triangle investing a lot in its programming both for broadcast and digital and has done a tremendous job on covering the state legislature. There are nonprofit news organizations doing great work: Carolina Public Press, NC Health News, EdNC, NC Policy Watch, Coastal Review Online.
We have ethnic media going strong across the state, too. We have very strong journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon University and NC A&T, plus dozens of other journalism programs that are growing. And beyond just the J-schools, North Carolina is so rich in colleges and universities that are anchor institutions for culture and economic development.
I also hope we can help get at this structural issue around the legislature and reporting that connects the dots between people’s experiences and the policies at work. I would love to find a way not only to bring coverage of the legislature to more people, but to bring the local perspectives around specific issues and specific bills to the reporters covering the legislature.
How do you plan to engage or connect with people beyond the urban areas of Charlotte and the Triangle? I know that Internet speeds and access vary considerably — how do we engage people who are underserved?
Morgan: That’s a great question. And yes, broadband access is a significant issue in our state. I wrote about it quite a bit when I was a reporter.
In terms of geography, our plan right now is to start in Charlotte and the Triangle and to expand from there. We’re talking to folks in Asheville, the Triad (that’s Greensboro Winston-Salem and High Point) and Wilmington. Our goal is to host our first big public forum in Charlotte in August, and the next in the Triangle in October. Leading up to those forums, there will be other, smaller conversations and a lot of one-on-one organizing to figure out what we’ll talk about and what will come out of it.
The big conversation in Charlotte right now is around economic mobility and the inequality that persists there. So we’d like to add to that conversation by talking about the role of news and information in addressing those problems. What are the stories that need to be told about economic inequality in Charlotte? Who needs to be heard from? Those are the questions that drive our planning.
Journalism needs to grapple with the rural-urban divide in a serious way, and it’s tough. News organizations find more bang for the buck covering the areas with more people.
I talk to reporters all the time who tell me they know there are Pulitzer-worthy stories waiting to be told out of small towns, out of counties where no one shows up to report on the commissioners meeting. It’s a matter of capacity.
We have capacity limitations, too. Face-to-face engagement is tough to scale. Engagement is about relationships. It’s about trust. The need is great and the infrastructure is not.
I would love to do some work with rural communities. It all depends on the newsroom and community partnerships we can secure, and probably, to be honest, funding. You don’t have to drive very far outside of Charlotte or Durham or Asheville to be in rural North Carolina. So it may be that we work in a rural community that’s adjacent to one of the cities we’ll be working in.
In my mind, it would probably be a pilot project in one distinct community where we had strong partners and a clear goal in mind. We’re thinking about what we can bring that’s doable and useful and sustainable.
Bell: Part of engaging and connecting with folks beyond the urban areas means acknowledging, learning and deepening understanding about what engagement and connection is already happening. It’s our intention to map out some of the organizing and community, connection oriented work happening outside of the metropolitan areas of our state. Upon completion of that map work, we can reach out to folks to figure out how to support the work they’re already doing.
How will this information be conveyed to newsrooms, and what will they do with it?
Morgan: I’ve already begun reaching out to editors, reporters and producers across the state. We’re using an organizing approach — organizing newsrooms, really.
That means listening to what the newsrooms are trying to accomplish, what stories they want to tackle, what stories they’ve done or are doing that they’d like to have greater impact, what they’d like to do better, what relationships they’d like to strengthen or mend and what sort of engagement they’re already doing or thinking about doing. I’ll think through with them the ways our engagement work can boost their capacity to do what they want to do.
I’m in a position to play a kind of consulting role with newsrooms, in the sense that I can bring examples of work other newsrooms in other parts of the country are doing that they could try. I thinking of things like editorial advisory boards, pop-up newsrooms, issue-based forums, crowdsourced reporting projects.
I can make connections, arrange meetings or phone calls, be available to bounce ideas around, invite them to discussions with community members. And when we plan our big public forums, part of what we’ll do is try to make sure that the content of that forum is valuable to the newsrooms based on their goals.
We published a toolkit for newsrooms on how to do community-based engagement based on what we learned in the first year and a half of doing News Voices in New Jersey.
We’re also collecting feedback about that toolkit from newsrooms and hoping to publish a new-and-improved version in the fall based on what we hear.
What themes or frameworks emerged from the initial conversations in Charlotte and the Triangle?
Morgan: In addition to working on the News Voices project, I’ve also been working as a local news consultant with our funder, Democracy Fund, to produce a report about the media ecosystem in North Carolina. So I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks across the state that have informed all the answers I wrote above about what’s happening here.
What we heard at our launch events echoes a lot of that. Journalists should take heart in the number of people who are outside the profession who care about good reporting and want to help. We’ve had folks approaching us very eager to help and asking how, so that’s part of the work in front of us, to figure out what they can do.
I hear people wanting to share their skills and expertise, both journalists and members of the community. Journalists and educators talk about the urgency of media literacy. There’s also a community literacy piece to this that journalists can benefit from immensely. People in the community are well aware that their local newsrooms no longer have the institutional memory they once did, and they want to make sure the reporters know the local history and context of the place they’re writing about.
A lot of people talk about the disconnect between people’s lives and community problems and the policies that are behind it all. Especially people who work in the nonprofit sector or who are active in civic life, they really want the media to do a better job connecting those dots for the public.
Bell: I’ll add this: People are thirsty and excited about the possibilities of having news and information that’s community rooted and representative of a vast array of community issues. People’s main source of news and information is often another — but who are the vectors? The original folks getting news from publications that are the impetus for things being shared on social media or via email?
And we’re finding that folks don’t always know the basics of a lot of different things. For example, what does it mean to encourage folks to write letters to the editors of their community papers if they don’t know how to format or write such a letter?
I see this as one way to engage the public and get their input to help newsrooms become more audience-centric. But that seems driven in one direction. How does this facilitate a two-way conversation, and are there opportunities not just to report on various underreported communities, but to hire people from within them so that a diversity of ideas is also coming from within the newsrooms themselves?I
Morgan: I’m glad you asked about two-way conversation, because that’s very much at the heart of this project.
I often look at this as a project in inter-cultural communication between people who are journalists and people who aren’t. There’s an element that’s about helping newsrooms become more culturally aware and connected with the communities they serve. There’s an element that’s about helping communities better understand the role journalists play in their communities, the constraints they face and how to think not in terms of issues but in terms of stories that someone can tell.
When we host public forums, that two-way communication is really the goal. We don’t do panel discussions where the experts take turns talking and the audience sits quietly and takes it in until maybe they can ask questions. We use dialogic processes — small-group discussions — to draw out the wisdom of all the people in the room.
This takes us from really general issues to specific people and policies institutions. Journalists walk away from our public forums with stories they can immediately go out and report. Community members walk away realizing the stories they’ve unknowingly been sitting on.
I love that idea of hiring people from within the community to do the work of reporting, so they can bring those perspectives to reporting and to setting the agenda about what gets covered and how. I love what City Bureau in Chicago is doing, pairing experienced journalists with folks with deep roots in the community. That’s one of the models I would present to a newsroom that was interested in doing a better job covering communities.
Bell: A goal of this project is to move past the transactional nature of information gathering into a more relationship based approach to information gathering and sharing. When there are relationships between journalists, newsrooms and other community members, community members have a direct line to uplifting stories and issues.
When community members trust journalists, they’re more willing to be more honest with them or allow them into a greater amount of spaces, which creates a better story for the journalist writing it. Similarly, when journalists are in relationships with other community members, they’re able to be more proactive, rather than reactionary in how stories are told.
The trust building is cyclical. People want their stories told and journalists want to write good stories, but to really do that in a deep and sustained way requires some level of trust and relationship. Perhaps that shifts at some point into newsrooms that are more representative of the communities they’re a part of, especially being representative of more marginalized communities.
In two years, where do you see New Voices in North Carolina? What are news organizations doing with it?
Morgan: I wrote a blog post awhile back where I laid out our Theory of Change, to use a phrase from the nonprofit world. A theory of change is basically a carefully thought out answer to the question, “If you do what you plan to do, what do you think will happen?” With News Voices, our goal is to set in motion a positive feedback loop of community-informed journalism that stimulates community readership and support, which in turn supports more of that kind of journalism.
Our theory is that if news organizations stand up for people by reporting with them in mind, people will in turn stand up for the news organizations. That can mean donations and subscriptions. It can also mean sharing stories with friends. It can mean waving a story in the face of a decision maker and saying “Hey, what about this?” It may also mean that if the legislature votes once again to create more exemptions to public records law, or does something else that reduces transparency, people will stand up and say no.
So in two years, I hope to see signs that we’ve set that cycle in motion in the communities we’re working in. I think we’ll see those signs in the news coverage itself.
By playing consultant or bridge-builder or networker and by showing people the value of engagement and how to do it, I hope we can get to the point where people can move forward on their own and won’t need us anymore.
Bell: In two years, I’d like to see self-sustaining relationships between journalists, newsrooms and other community members to the point that an entity like Free Press or News Voices doesn’t have to curate spaces for conversations and relationships to grow as often or at least not in the same geographic communities because the conversations and relationships are already existent and growing steadily. And perhaps that means that, in whichever cities we work in, we should be making efforts to work ourselves out of the current jobs we hold.
There's been much written about the need for local reporters on the ground since the election, but there's also a large pay divide between local and national organizations. How do you keep reporters in NC or attract reporters to NC and get them to stay?
Morgan: None of the reporters I know here in North Carolina are doing it for the money, I can tell you that. I don’t think we need to attract reporters to North Carolina so much as make the lives of the people doing the work more sustainable. I know people who are only able to keep at it because their partners are the breadwinners, or because they don’t have kids, or because they cobble together other kinds of income through teaching or side jobs or commercial work. My friends and compatriots at the NC Newsroom Cooperative are looking at ways to address that problem of sustainability so we can keep the folks we’ve got.
Historically, lots of great reporters have come through media outlets around here and moved on to national outlets. But a lot of people stay because they want to be here, and this is home, and the work needs doing. And there are a lot of great reporters who are now doing other things because they can’t make a living being journalists, but they’re still here and they still have the skills. I want to pull them into this effort.
I'm curious about your thoughts when national reporters drop in for a few days and do a piece on NC. They're sometimes accurate, but they don't always paint the full picture. How do we balance the need for good local reporting with fewer and fewer reporting organizations in-state?
Morgan: Ugh. I read so many parachute pieces about North Carolina that are not accurate or at least fail to offer much insight on what’s happening. It bugs me. Fortunately there are some excellent reporters who live here who do write for national publications, who have the institutional memory and expertise to do those stories justice and the skill to pull back the lens and present it to a national audience.
This gets back to the need to make that work sustainable. It would also be nice if national outlets changed the way they think about assigning those stories, if they placed more value on that local expertise.