News deserts pose challenges for local governments, concerned citizens

Closures and mergers of hundreds of newspapers in recent years are leaving city and county communicators across the country without a reliable news platform to reach residents. This is not only creating an information vacuum for residents, but also leaving many communities without a journalist to cover important county commission or town council meetings.

“Since local newspapers are often the prime source of credible information about important public policy issues and major events in many rural or suburban communities, I’m glad to see a realization at all levels in communities that this is a problem that needs to be solved,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics.

In a presentation in New Bern to the North Carolina City and County Communicators (NC3C), an organization of 150 communications professionals, she outlined ways they could, individually and collectively, work to thwart the threat of news deserts in their communities.

Penelope Abernathy, UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, speaks to North Carolina City and County Communicators (NC3C), an organization of 150 communications professionals. (Photo by NC3C)

Many communities that have lost newspapers are rural and impoverished.  However, affluent and well-educated communities in urban areas are also losing their papers. Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina, lost its century-old paper last year. It and nine other sister suburban newspapers owned by McClatchy, publisher of Raleigh’s News & Observer, were converted into weekly advertising publications, distributed free to all households in the community. This left the UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, as Chapel Hill’s only local newspaper.

“Chapel Hill has not lost all media coverage, although it has diminished with the loss of The Chapel Hill News,” said Catherine Lazorko, communications manager for the Town of Chapel Hill and president of NC3C. She added that while the town appreciates the coverage from regional metro papers, their reporters are not able to cover every council meeting.

In the wake of this newspaper environment, city, county and town communicators have been forced to adopt new methods of reaching residents. Chapel Hill, for example, has been exploring outreach to neighborhood associations and homeowners’ associations. The town also delivers messages directly to residents via email news notifications and a weekly news digest that is emailed to a list of about 5,000 subscribers.

“Most importantly, we are working to enliven our messages with videos and photos,” said Lazorko, who is a former newspaper reporter. “Our news should be ready for public consumption as we cannot rely on journalists to translate ‘governmentese’ and convert news releases into interesting stories. In addition to sending information, we need to be listening and responding to create true community engagement.”

According to a 2018 community survey, Chapel Hill residents rank “town communications with the public” as fourth on a list of items that need attention from town leaders, behind traffic, parking, and stormwater. In a 2015 survey, “town communications” ranked 10th on the list.

“To me, these numbers indicate that a highly engaged community like Chapel Hill is longing for community news and information,” Lazorko said. “This is a challenge for a small government communications team whose primary function is communications for government activities and services, not everything that’s happening in a community.”

Lazorko wrote in a blog post about local news and civic engagement that the current role played by government employees in providing local news suggests a need for strengthening professional standards to give assurance that public information officers’ maintain “political neutrality.”

But even if government communicators are able to fill some of the local information voids in their communities, they cannot act as watchdogs of their own entities.  The types of stories strong community newspapers write, Abernathy said, “aren’t always popular with the mayor and Chamber of Commerce.”

Given the lack of local news, one NC3C member voiced his concern about the future. “More (papers) are going to close. And, this may not be a popular view, but I think you’re going to see more corruption in local government as a result,” he said. “And you could see a narrative play out at the state and national level that says, ‘We should take away authority from local government because of that.’”