Threat of “news deserts” in North Carolina is changing the media landscape

Story, pictures and captions by Mary Glen Hatcher

WHITEVILLE, North Carolina — In 2017, The Smithfield Herald died.

In its wake, at least 35,000 readers in Johnston County, North Carolina, were left without a community news source.

Suzanne Taylor and Jud Patterson, owners of the Oak City Collection in downtown Smithfield, said they’ve grieved the loss of the Herald for their town and their business.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in Smithfield, and I don’t know how people know because there’s no newspaper,” Patterson said.

Traffic in their South Third Street boutique, which showcases local artists and merchants, has slowed with the rise in online shopping. But without a local paper to publicize the town, Patterson said it’s gotten even harder to drum up business in Smithfield – let alone their store.

“Local (TV) news really doesn’t cover Smithfield; they’ll cover something in Raleigh, Cary or Apex, but they don’t come down here,” Patterson said.

“And they (the Herald reporters) really, really knew the community,” Taylor said. “I miss them terribly.”

Residents of Smithfield are not alone.

Buyouts and mergers, compounded with a steady decline in print readers and advertising revenue, have whittled away nearly 1,800 newspapers across the country for the past 15 years, according to “The Expanding News Desert,” a 2018 report from researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

Penny Abernathy, UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, said the trend has left more than half of the counties in North Carolina with a single newspaper and at least six counties in the state with no newspaper at all.

The phenomenon has created information voids – “news deserts” – in towns and cities across America. Publications that once covered the important day-to-day actions of a community have been shuttered with little or nothing to take their place.

After purchasing the Smithfield Herald in 1980, The News & Observer acquired a series of small publications throughout the Carolinas over the years to extend its readership. By 2012, the N&O was publishing 10 community weeklies in Wake and Johnston counties, reaching an estimated 475,000 households each week.

But the financial burden of sustaining the small papers caused the N&O to shut them down in 2017.

“When I found out, I remember I was so mad and so angry because I remember just trying so hard to do the best job that I could,” said Paula Seligson, who reported for the Herald after graduating from UNC in 2013.

“I knew what I wrote mattered to the people in Smithfield. I wasn’t just shouting into the void,” she said. “I felt like this town deserved to be covered. I remember just trying so hard to set the paper up for success, and then it just died anyway.”

But the consequences of these closings and cutbacks reach far beyond the media industry itself. Studies have shown that the death of a local paper can cause a cascading series of social, political and economic fallouts – from increased government spending to decreased civic engagement. Without a monitoring system in place to cover the small stories, bigger issues run the risk of going unnoticed and unchecked, to the community’s detriment.

“Small towns need papers just as much as big cities,” said Andrew Kenney, who also reported for the Herald in 2008. “[Small town] government officials are usually part-time and have few audit or oversight resources, so reporters are arguably more productive there in telling those important stories.”

Seeing an opportunity for expansion, the Johnstonian News, a county-wide weekly, expanded its circulation to cover Smithfield town government and events in November 2018.

“When the Herald went out of print, it created this void in our county seat,” said Steve Reed, a staff writer for the Johnstonian News who now covers the Smithfield beat. “It was an opportunity for us to increase our reach, so we naturally wanted to expand there, and I think it’s been going well.”

Still, two reporters at the paper cover five Johnston County communities – Smithfield, Selma, Princeton, Kenly and Pine Level.

“Ultimately, the whole point of being a journalist is serving the community – it’s about the people you’re covering,” Seligson said, who now works as a reporter for Debtwire in New York. “But because of what’s happening in the industry, the story is becoming about the journalists who can no longer cover these communities.”

 The industry’s current financial woes have been driven by digital ad giants Facebook, Google, and increasingly, Amazon. Combined, these companies rake in more than half of all marketing dollars spent in the U.S. each year, eroding the primary funding mechanism that has sustained newspapers for decades.

“That has fundamentally changed how we operate,” said Robyn Tomlin, McClatchy Carolinas regional editor and editor of The News & Observer.

“The ad model and the unlimited opportunity for people to put ads all over the Internet means that the value of ads and the cost of those ads is a lot lower than people expect, and that’s just not a sustainable model,” she said.

For papers to survive, Tomlin said they’ll need to embrace new digital strategies and membership models that encourage readers to invest in the value of information, recognizing that it makes them better citizens in their communities.

But that can be a challenge for papers in rural communities – like The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina – where readers are less willing or unable to accommodate price hikes from their local newspaper.

But The News Reporter staff hopes creative solutions will help them adapt.

A mural outside The News Reporter’s main office in Whiteville, North Carolina, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the community paper with a nod to the First Amendment. (Photo by: Mary Glen Hatcher)

More than one-third of the nearly 6,000 residents in Whiteville live at or below the national poverty level. Two hurricanes over the past four years and a slow exodus of small businesses have caused severe economic hardship for the community and The News Reporter.

“We’re close to the beach, but not close enough, not to mention the damage that’s been done by the loss of tobacco and textile industries,” said Leslie High, third-generation journalist and publisher of the paper.

“We are that part of the two Carolinas that’s just been left behind.”

According to “The Expanding News Desert,” the situation in Whiteville is mirrored in roughly two-thirds of the counties in the U.S. that house the country’s remaining independent newspapers. These publications serve some of the most vulnerable members of society – rural, low-income residents who are often the most isolated, least educated, and least attractive to print advertisers.

To combat this, journalists at The News Reporter adopted creative revenue models to keep their paper afloat and their community informed.

After partnering with researchers at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, the Whiteville paper took a multi-pronged approach to newsroom innovation. This included a revamp of its digital content and social media presence, and establishing an in-house digital ad agency and several community magazines. It also added a metered paywall with new digital and print subscription models.

Being a family-owned business, High said they’re not beholden to the bottom-line or big profit margins like other papers under corporate ownership, though just breaking even while innovating – during what High has called the paper’s “Hail Mary phase” – might be a challenge itself.

“We’re hoping that we can keep this going for years, hopefully generations, but it’s going to be tough,” High said.

“My family made a decision a long time ago that we were not going to be part of a crappy newspaper, and we didn’t feel like our community deserved a crappy newspaper. So, however people get their news, whatever form that might be, we’re committed to seeing that happen.”

Leslie High, third-generation journalist and publisher of the Whiteville News Reporter, browses the archives of his family’s paper, which date as far back as the late 19th century. (Photo by: Mary Glen Hatcher)

Even as The News Reporter embraces innovation, High said the industry’s uncertainty presents a real threat that their paper may not survive. But High said he’s committed to staying true to the fundamentals that have made The News Reporter great since its beginning – providing good content, maintaining a high level of accountability, and investing time and energy into informing and empowering the citizens of Columbus County.

“The hope,” High said, “is that all those things still matter.”

Mary Glen Hatcher
Mary Glen Hatcher

Mary Glen, a senior from Mount Airy, North Carolina, is a reporting major with a minor in social and economic justice. Mary Glen currently works in the Reese News Lab, researching and developing newsroom technologies. Previously, she served as a staff writer for the Daily Tar Heel and worked as a social media intern for the Eagle's Nest Foundation. After graduation, Mary Glen hopes to land a career in multimedia and documentary storytelling.

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