When Karen Howard’s family moved back to their native Bahamas during her childhood, her parents made a point of reading the local newspaper with their children.
Now, as an adult, Howard knows that strong local news sources will help Chatham County—her adopted North Carolina home—keep its sense of community even as the rural county booms with growth.
That’s why Howard, who’s served as a Chatham County commissioner since 2014, attended the Sept. 11 community conversation hosted by Our Chatham, an innovative student-staffed news product produced by the Reese News Lab at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
The community conversation, co-hosted by the Chatham News + Record, examined poverty’s effect on education and was the second of two community conversations in Chatham County held by the media organizations. An earlier conversation in May discussed socioeconomic inequality in Chatham County.
The Sept. 11 community conversation was held at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, a city located in Chatham County’s west.
“Having a strong news source is absolutely critical to having a strong community,” said Howard, a former attorney who moved her family to Chatham County from New Jersey in the early 2000s, in part because of the county’s tight-knit community feel.
Our Chatham, which uses the Hearken model of audience engagement, turns the traditional editorial model on its head by prompting readers for article topics and hosting community events in an effort to create personal engagement in a media climate where countless information sources are only a click away.
Such innovation proves critical as industry pressures and an increasingly digital publishing climate challenge traditional news sources. Research from the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability at the Hussman School shows a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers since 2004.
“Events like community conversations help people understand that Our Chatham cares about the real issues that impact Chatham County residents, their families and the towns they live in,” said Eric Ferkenhoff, the UNC lecturer who leads the Our Chatham project.
Diana Hales, vice chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, also attended the community conversation. As a former news radio reporter, Hales understands the importance of local news.
“If you don’t have access to a source of news that’s not just the Internet or your family it disconnects you from your community,” Hales said.
Chatham County’s sense of community remains precarious as the county grows, Hales said. According to U.S. census figures, Chatham County’s population has increased from 63,481 in 2010 to 73,139 in 2018, an increase of 15 percent.
The growth’s been disparate, Hales said—affluent white collar growth branching out from Orange County at the county’s eastern border while working-class families, many immigrating from Latin America, move to factory jobs in the county’s west.
One of the Sept. 11 community conversation’s panelists reflected a key trend in the county’s shifting demographics—the county’s growing Latinx population.
Community conversation panelist Jazmin Mendoza Sosa was 8 when she moved from Mexico to Chatham County with her family. Her father worked in the county’s poultry plants as the family worked to assimilate into North Carolina culture. Now in her 20s and the first in her family to graduate from college, Sosa has returned to Chatham County and through a nonprofit works as a support specialist in the county’s school system. At work, she often acts as an interpreter—in language and in culture—with Latinx students whose stories mirror her own.
Sosa takes part in events like the Sept. 11 community conversation to speak for such families, making sure the Latinx voice is part of the county’s dialogue about the future.
According to U.S. census figures, Chatham County’s Latinx population now represents 13 percent of the county’s population. In Siler City, census estimates place the Latinx population at 44 percent.
“It’s my motivation to bring not only awareness but bring a change,” Sosa said. One change she’d like to see: Chatham County news sources better engaging Latinx audiences.
Our Chatham and the News + Record both cover issues relating to the Latinx community, such as articles about Latinx youth programs and an article documenting how the Hispanic community came together to help a community of displaced families in Siler City.
“Also, at our last event, the programs were printed in both English and Spanish because we were drawing people from a majority Spanish-speaking area around Siler City schools,” said Ferkenhoff, who noted that Our Chatham has also considered translating their stories into Spanish.
One of the best ways to continue reaching all the county, including the Hispanic population, remains the community conversations, Ferkenhoff said.
Video by Charlotte Ririe.
Bill Horner III, publisher of the News + Record, agrees, noting the community conversations have played an integral role in his retooling of the News + Record since purchasing the newspaper in November 2018. The newspaper’s changes have also included a redesign of the print edition, a new website and a newsletter in an effort to better reach the community.
“It’s important for a newspaper to play an active role in the communities it serves, and part of that involves helping steer the discussion on important topics,” Horner said. “We see the community conversations as a chance for the News + Record to help promote constructive dialogue about critical issues within Chatham County and to provide readers and citizens a chance to engage in conversations on things they feel passionate about.”
Our Chatham and the News +Record hope to begin having the community conversations quarterly.