Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A deep dive into the failing local-news ecosystem of a hard-hit rural N.C. county that no longer knows what to believe

New Yorker illustration
"What happens when the news is gone?" The New Yorker asks, in a headline over Charles Bethea's 7,265-word account of the failing local-news ecosystem in Jones County, North Carolina. It is the best case study of the local-journalism crisis we have seen, and a model for future reporting; there are plenty of opportunities.

It's a story about the lack of accountability that occurs when the local newspaper becomes a "ghost newspaper," the term Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina coined to describe papers that no longer fulfill their basic First Amendment functions: "The quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content are significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided."

Jones County, North Carolina (Wikipedia)
Jones County was hit hard by Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The mayor of one of its three towns, Pollocksville, population less than 300, spent $67,000 to fix up the town hall without approval of the town board; later, the board passed an ordinance to limit flood damage, after the mayor posted a notice in the New Bern Journal, the daily paper in the county to the east. "Few people in Pollocksville read it," Bethea reports. "Most people would tell you that Jones County doesn't have a newspaper."

But it does, in name only: The Jones Post, which has no dedicated staff and is run out of the Kinston Free Press, a daily in the county to the northwest, owned by Gannett Co. Inc. (actually GateHouse Media, which absorbed Gannett and took its name). Bethea said he asked Gannett's regional editor, Chris Segal, "if the paper could serve as a civic watchdog, covering crime and corruption." Segal replied, “Our reporters are keeping an eye on those things. . . . We called the sheriff last week. He still hasn’t scheduled an interview with us, because he’s so busy.”

Segal's predecessor, Bryan Hanks, told Bethea, “It’s scary. Because government officials, they know. You like to think they’re good people, especially in a community as small as Jones County, where everybody knows everybody. But if you don’t have media that’s going to hold them accountable for their actions—or, heck, even just report what they’re doing—how are the citizens going to know? They don’t know.” County Commissioner Sondra Ipock Riggs, a former Jones Post reporter, told Bethea, “We got officials here think they can get away with things.”

Jones County is typical of many small, rural counties where weekly newspapers have closed or become ghosts. It is North Carolina's fifth least populous county, with about 9,000 people. Its median household income in 2010 was $38,354, well under the state average of $45,570 and the national median of $51,914. In terms of supporting a news outlet, Pollocksville is even worse off; it's not the county seat and is the county's smallest town. When the mayor spent the money on the town hall without board approval, "No one in Pollocksville had a professional responsibility to ask annoying questions about the things that matter only to the citizens of that town, and to no one else, and to print the answers," Bethea notes.

And the loss of a newspaper has a broader impact, he writes: "Dan Ryan, a town commissioner in Maysville, told me that the region didn’t understand itself as well as it should in the absence of local reporting. 'The census is coming up,' he pointed out. 'How many people have we lost since Florence that aren’t ever coming back? . . . Reporting along those lines hasn’t happened, along with the ongoing recovery effort — who’s doing what, grants that had been received, money that’s been distributed, who’s been helped. It just gets left to be told through the rumor mill.”

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