Left in a fog: Chatham County’s news desert through the eyes of residents

Chatham County Watertower flickr photo by Donald Lee Pardue shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

As I wrote in our recap, Reese Innovation Lab interns are working to create sustainable media products for Chatham County this semester in partnership with UNC’s new Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. To get started, we went on a field trip to Chatham County last Friday, led by Paul Cuadros, a professor at the School of Media and Journalism and the author of A Home on the Field.

Reese Innovation Lab decided to focus on Chatham County this semester because it’s a local example of what a news desert looks like in North Carolina. There are three news outlets dedicated to Chatham County, but a look into consumer surveys showed us that 43% of Chatham County residents did not find their newspapers a good source of local information. So instead of meeting with these news organizations, we decided to meet with their customers–the community members that need better information.

We had a busy day meeting with community members in Pittsboro and Siler City. Thanks to Paul and the Chatham residents who took the time out of their day to speak to us, we can now put a face to the news desert we’ve been reading about.

After talking to people like Greg Lewis, owner of the Pittsboro Roadhouse, and Janet Ramirez, Program Coordinator at the Hispanic Liaison, we have a better understanding of how that actually affects the people that live there. And for different people that live in Chatham County, the lack of easily accessible materials causes different problems. These range from the theoretical to the immediate.

Discussing “credible news” at the Pittsboro Roadhouse

Some folks, like Greg Lewis, are involved in their local communities, but worried about where to find “credible news” about the issues they weren’t involved with. For Greg, the commercial development around Pittsboro was a key concern. He worried that it was difficult to find out what was getting developed–and when–important issues that might affect his business.

For other community members, like the two high school students we spoke to in Siler City, the issues were more immediate: What do I do when I graduate? How do I find a job or a scholarship? The students looked to mentors, like their teachers, for advice when they needed more information, but they often didn’t know how to begin looking alone.

It was especially difficult for immigrant families to gather the information that they needed. Janet Ramirez noted that it took her multiple resources to get the information that she and her clients needed; her clients often weren’t sure where to even start.

Not only did it take work for her to gather information, but it took more work to disseminate it. We saw a continuing issue from community leaders–they had just as much trouble informing the public as the public had getting information.

Intern Reagan Cline asks design questions at the Courtyard Cafe. Credit: Paul Cuadros

On the other side of the equation, county officials like Layton Long, Public Health Director, say they have limited channels to communicate important messages through. Without a common news source among the communities in Chatham County, his department focused their communication efforts through their webpage.


Similar issues plagued community leaders like Lesley Landis and Janet Ramirez. While their focuses diverge–Leslie on the board of the Chatham Arts Council, while Janet is more concerned about empowering Latinos–they both have to work around the lack of traditional media when informing their communities. And for both their organizations, social media has become a main source of communication.

Though the different communities that we met with had different needs and problems because of the news desert they lived in, each person we spoke to felt that better information would make their lives in Chatham County better. Paul Cuadros explained that he and his neighbors often found themselves “left in a fog.”

Our Reese Innovation Lab interns left excited to brainstorm new products for the county. On our drive back to Chapel Hill, we couldn’t stop wondering: what can we provide to Chatham residents that they would actually consider informative and relevant?