Thursday, November 21, 2019

In-depth report describes civic impact of decline of local news media with case studies, including one with rural flavor

Greg Barnes, a former reporter for the Fayetteville Observer,
still sends the paper news tips. (Photo from PEN America report)
A new report "paints a grim picture of the state of local news in every region of the country," Julie Bosman summarizes for The New York Times. "The prelude is familiar to journalists: As print advertising revenue has plummeted, thousands of newspapers have been forced to cut costs, reduce their staffs or otherwise close."

The report is from PEN America, a nonprofit focusing on freedom of expression for writers of all stripes. Titled "Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solution," it draws on Penny Abernathy's ongoing national research at the University of North Carolina and uses several case studies to make its points, including one of a rural county and a larger, adjoining county in the Tar Heel State.

"For many Americans—especially people of color and residents of poor communities or remote rural areas—inadequate local news coverage has been the norm for decades," the report notes. Now those shortcomings have spread: "At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever."

The rural-oriented case study is of Robeson and Cumberland counties in North Carolina. In 2015, Sanderson Farms decided to put a chicken-processing plant in Robeson, population 20,000, rather than Cumberland, pop. 320,000, due to public outcry spurred by robust coverage in the Fayetteville Observer and friendlier coverage by The Robesonian, circulation 5,000: "Like so many local outlets, it has changed ownership several times in recent years and its newsroom has been subjected to significant cuts; today, it’s owned by Champion Media" and has three and a half news reporters.

The report says Robesonian Editor Donnie Douglas "is able to stack the opinion page with criticism of the county board, which he says is composed of 'crooks—and I don’t use that word lightly.' But he has to pass on more ambitious stories. Even if he’s intrigued, he says, he’ll often think, 'That story is probably too big for us.' . . . Scott Bigelow, a longtime Robesonian reporter and editor who now works there part-time, attributes the newspaper’s general dearth of agricultural reporting to the fact that no one has covered that beat full-time for years."

But things are also worse at the Observer, which was North Carolina's largest independently owned paper until it was bought by GateHouse Media in 2016. Former reporter Greg Barnes "says that toward the end of his three decades there, his job had essentially become filling holes for the rapidly diminishing staff instead of doing the sprawling investigations that had long been his trademark," the report says. "Those who care about the future of Fayetteville and Cumberland County say they worry about what happens when a respected, independent publication no longer has the strength to push back against government or conduct comprehensive investigations. John Malzone, a prominent Fayetteville developer, laments that the Observer is a shell of its former self."

Fiona Morgan, a news consultant based in North Carolina, told PEN America, “Many community newspapers have never done the kind of accountability reporting associated with bigger newspapers. Not all local papers see it as their role to question authority in that way. You’ve always had news deserts even in places where there are outposts. Some local newspapers have been failing to provide aggressive accountability coverage for a long time, especially in rural communities. Where there’s no competition, there’s no pressure to do better.”

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