Recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Mexico have made this year the worst since 2005 in terms of number of storms and storm strength. In parts of eastern North Carolina, residents are sympathetic to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as they are still recovering from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.
Many reporters have been reflecting on how they can improve their coverage before, during and after storms. But, how does the business model behind the news organization affect the journalism of extreme weather disasters? UNC’s Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penelope Muse Abernathy explored this issue in her report titled Thwarting the Emergence of News Deserts as a companion to the programming at our March 2017 symposium. This article takes a look at local coverage of Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina and found that independently owned newspapers covered the hurricane in greater depth and used their editorial voices to press for policy changes.
Local Journalism in the Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew
Hurricane Matthew hit eastern North Carolina on Saturday, October 8, 2016, with an unexpected ferocity, dumping as much as a foot of rain on the region and leaving reporters scrambling to cover widespread damage. In the days after the storm, the weather was beautiful – moderate temperatures and plenty of sun – which made the flooding seem even more surreal. A natural disaster was unfolding under clear skies.
The staff of the locally owned News Reporter in Whiteville, a small town in southeastern North Carolina, had to react quickly to cover the effects of the storm. Les High, the paper’s editor, had begun the weekend visiting his daughters at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 145 miles away. As he attempted to travel back home on Saturday, he soon discovered the roads east were flooded, so he returned to his hotel room and began assigning stories. When he finally made it home to Whiteville Sunday night, he found a staff that was determined to meet its Monday deadline.
One of the paper’s reporters had 14 inches of water in his house, but he managed to write more than 1,000 words on the storm, as well as his weekly column. Others had to make their way around flooded roads to get to the paper’s makeshift newsroom – High’s generator- powered home. The small team worked through the night so they could electronically deliver their newspaper on Monday morning to The Fayetteville Observer, which had agreed to print the edition. The copies of Monday’s paper were driven from Fayetteville to Whiteville in a rented truck late that afternoon, and the staff began delivering to as many homes as possible. The four journalists on the paper published over a dozen articles related to the storm in the Monday edition, including the first story to appear in any paper or news outlet about Fair Bluff, a community of 1,000 in southern Columbus County. By Monday, the entire downtown area of that picturesque community, which dated back to the early 19th century, was submerged under the waters of the swollen Lumber River.
The Cape Fear Region: Coping with and Covering a Disaster
Recovery from a disaster such as Matthew is slow and multifaceted, requiring significant coordination among municipal and county governments, state departments, and federal agencies. Water systems were badly corrupted, schools were closed, roads were destroyed, livestock and crop damage was extensive, and thousands were displaced from their homes.
In all, flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew produced an estimated $1.5 billion in damage to over 100,000 homes, businesses, and government buildings and caused more than two dozen deaths in eastern North Carolina. National news organizations – such as NBC and The New York Times – rushed in to cover the disaster. But community newspapers in the region were on the front lines and were the first to arrive on the scene.
Much of the Cape Fear region is economically vulnerable, suffering from high poverty rates, under-performing public schools, and poor health. In Robeson and Scotland counties, for example, one out of three residents lives in poverty. Because of these vulnerabilities, the local newspaper is the primary source of news and information in many of the communities in eastern North Carolina.
Through the stories their editors choose to cover and the editorials they write, local papers can provide an historical record of events, as well as a roadmap to recovery, during times of disaster.
This article explores how five area newspapers dealt with the challenge of documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. This analysis covers the five papers profiled in the previous article on the 2016 elections: two independent newspapers (The News Reporter in Whiteville and The Pilot in Southern Pines); and three papers owned by investment firms (The Robesonian in Lumberton and The Laurinburg Exchange, owned by Civitas) and The Fayetteville Observer (a previously independent paper purchased by New Media/Gatehouse in August 2016.) Data for this analysis was collected over six weeks, from October 1st-November 10th 2016.
The challenges differed from county-to-county, depending on the severity of the flooding and local circumstances. The hardest hit areas included Robeson County (home of the Robesonian) and Columbus County (home of the Whiteville News Reporter), both of which faced historic flooding of towns and communities along the Lumber River. The Cape Fear Rivers also flooded in Cumberland (home of the Observer). Both Cumberland and Moore County (home of the Pilot) dealt with the week-long threat of a dam collapsing on a lake that bordered the two counties. Flooding was least severe in Scotland County (home of The Laurinburg Exchange).
The analysis of coverage in these papers revealed the following:
Number of stories published: The Observer published the most staff-written stories on flood-related topics – twice as many as The News Reporter and The Robesonian. This perhaps is not surprising, given that The Fayetteville Observer is the only paper in the area that publishes seven days a week and tries to cover major news events in the 10 counties that comprise the Cape Fear region, which includes Robeson and Columbus counties. It also has more than three times as many newsroom staff members as the other two smaller community papers. The News Reporter and The Robesonian each published the same number of staff-written articles on the flooding, even though the News Reporter is printed only twice weekly compared with the Robesonian, which publishes six times a week.
Length of stories: The News Reporter wrote articles that provided the greatest in-depth coverage. Twelve of the 20 longest staff-written stories by word count appeared in the News Reporter. The Fayetteville Observer published five of the longest stories and The Pilot published the other three long articles. The News Reporter and the Pilot had the most average words per flood-related story. Stories in the other three newspapers were considerably shorter.
Editorials: While the Observer, News Reporter, and Pilot all published editorials that called for specific actions or policies, the editorials in Robesonian generically called for additional resources to help with the recovery, without prioritizing what was most urgently needed. (There were no editorials on the hurricane aftermath in the Exchange.) The Observer editorials focused on issues that required specific policy action, including one on the dangers of crumbling infrastructure, such as dams, and another on funding recovery with money from the state’s rainy day fund. The News Reporter wrote an editorial documenting long-term drainage issues and another highlighted the need to restructure federal disaster relief to small businesses. The Pilot editorials focused on past failures to secure the ailing Woodlake Dam that threatened to collapse and flood parts of Moore and Cumberland Counties.
The Digital Editions: All three of the papers in the most heavily impacted counties relied on digital media to keep residents up-to-date. “The tools that we have at our disposal to report are completely different from what we had (recently) – social media, videos, a more engaging mobile site,” said Matt Leclerq, managing editor of the Observer. The Robesonian was constantly updating its website, as well as its Facebook account. Les High, editor of the News Reporter, said, “We’ve gotten as much positive feedback from both subscribers and nonsubscribers for what we did digitally as we did for what we did in print.”
The Independent Papers
The two independently owned newspapers in our analysis – the News Reporter and The Pilot – covered local flooding in great depth and used their editorial voices to press an agenda for moving forward on major policy and funding issues.
The two newspapers cover very different communities. In Columbus County, home of the News Reporter, one in four residents lives below the poverty line. In contrast, in Moore County, home of the Pilot, only 15 percent of residents live in poverty – a rate that is comparable to the U.S. average. Moore County is known for its golf courses, horse stables and retirement communities. The Pilot has twice as many newsroom staff members – eight – as the News Reporter.
The owners of both papers live in their respective communities.
“We believe, to our core, that we exist to serve our community. Too many media companies today have that reversed, and they think the community exists to provide them a living, and that has been the Wall Street corporate ownership of our newspapers,” said David Woronoff, part-owner and publisher of the Pilot.
The Pilot and The News Reporter both publish two times a week – less frequently than the three investment-owned newspapers in this analysis, which publish five, six, and seven times a week. As a result, the independent papers rely on their own staff writers to fill their pages, not on the wire services. Publishing less frequently also allowed the reporters to write longer, more in-depth stories about the hurricane.
The extensive coverage of Hurricane Matthew provided by the News Reporter is emblematic of the commitment the paper makes to being the most comprehensive and credible source of news and information about Columbus County. For example, the flooding in Fair Bluff, a town about 20 miles west of Whiteville, received sparse coverage in the Fayetteville Observer, which relied on a correspondent from the Tabor-Loris Tribune to report on the situation. In contrast, the News Reporter provided staff-written articles on Fair Bluff in all its editions throughout October and into November.
It also used its editorial page to address specific policy concerns. One editorial cited the travails of small businesses seeking assistance and advocated for changes in how FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) supports them.
Another editorial argued that local and state agencies needed to work together to address long-term drainage issues in Columbus County that would prevent significant flooding in the future.
Although Moore County suffered minimal damage from the storm, The Pilot wrote a number of articles on the Woodlake Dam, which was in danger of being breached as the lake rose. The news stories provided continuous updates on the dam’s status, as well as in-depth context and history on the need for longstanding need and repairs. A Pilot editorial chastised the dam’s owners for inaction.
The Investment-Owned Papers
Two of the three investment-owned papers – the Observer and the Robesonian – devoted considerable space and staff to covering the flooding disaster. But the stories in these two papers tended to be less in-depth – and provide less context – than the stories that appeared in the independently owned Pilot and News Reporter. (Scotland County was the least affected by the flooding. Most of the stories in the Laurinburg Exchange focused on widespread power outages and wind damage.)
Fayetteville experienced significant flooding, but the Cape Fear River receded more quickly than rivers in other parts of eastern North Carolina. The Cape Fear River was at flood stage for six days compared with the Lumber River in Robeson County, which over flowed its banks for more than two weeks. The Observer published stories on the flooding in Robeson County and other parts of the Cape Fear region, and the potential breach of the Woodlake Dam in Moore County. However, the majority of its reporting focused on the damage and recovery efforts in Cumberland County. Editorials in the Observer focused on the need to prevent future floods in the Cape Fear region and on funding relief efforts for distressed communities, such as Lumberton in Robeson County.
The Robesonian and its staff faced the greatest challenges. Several staff members were displaced by the flooding and forced to live in shelters. The newspaper’s offices were destroyed and out of commission. Travel was severely limited with the downtown area of Lumberton under water for more than a week. “We were challenged by [the flooding] – I think we responded very well,” said Donnie Douglas, editor of the Robesonian.
Both the Robesonian and the News Reporter have four full-time journalists. Both papers faced similar hardships, including loss of their offices and their printing presses. They published the same number of staff-written stories on the flooding. But the stories in the Robesonian, which is published six times a week, were much shorter than those in the twice weekly News Reporter and tended to focus on specific events or personal stories of hardship and compassion, instead of providing analysis or context to the larger recovery challenges.
Asked if his paper would have been able to cover the storm’s aftermath in greater depth with more staff, Douglas said, “I think so – we still haven’t told the story about people getting in boats and rescuing folks.” He continued, “Right now, I struggle to put out the paper every day.”
In an editorial published on October 19, nine days after the storm hit, the Robesonian acknowledged that it had been struggling to report on much beyond the immediate effects of the storm:
“The worst of Hurricane Matthew has brought out the best in many of us. We have been solicited many times to tell the stories of compassion, generosity, even bravery, as local residents have taken care of each other, pushing aside the petty things that separate us, such as race and economic status. As a newspaper, we have struggled to tell those stories, overwhelmed by much that has conspired against our ability to report the news — a newsroom that still is not full staff, the loss of our building, our press temporarily disabled and, immediately following the storm, the loss of internet and power that made (sic) restricted the delivery of news to robesonian.com and social media.”
A story in The New York Times on October 12, 2016 described the devastation along the “lovingly maintained main drag” of Fair Bluff. There was waist-high water on Main Street. “Most of the awnings and street lamps were eerily intact, even as merchandise and storm debris floated through businesses like the Ellis Meares and Son hardware store and community pillars like town hall.”
The flood waters have long since receded. But the citizens of Fair Bluff, like residents of many other communities in eastern North Carolina, are still dealing with the consequences of Hurricane Matthew. Mold damage caused by the flood waters has rendered all the homes and businesses in downtown Fair Bluff and along the Lumber River uninhabitable. Residents wonder whether they should rebuild or abandon their once picturesque downtown and move to higher ground.
The national, state and regional news organizations that covered the flooding have moved on in pursuit of major stories in other parts of the country. But the Whiteville News Reporter continues its vigil, chronicling the day- to-day lives of the citizens of Fair Bluff while also providing information and data that will help residents make difficult decisions about the fate of that community.