Q&A with Western NC researcher, Brenda Murphee

Brenda Murphree is the WNC Research & Community Listening Fellow at the NC Local News Workshop. This week, the Workshop published its year-long, community-listening intensive, research project focused on the news and information needs of Western North Carolina. This is the first project of its kind focused on the region.

CISLM intern Katelyn Chedraoui sat down with Murphree via Zoom to talk about the project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: So, you’re about to wrap up and publish your Western NC Research & Community Listening Project — tell me a little bit about it.

Brenda Murphree: This was a year-long project.

We used a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods: a 24-question online survey, one-on-one interviews and small-group listening sessions. Those were our three primary tools, in addition to that towards the end of the project, we held a regional community forum, bringing together journalists from the area with community members, nonprofit leaders, to pull people together to talk about the kinds of issues that were important in their communities, the kinds of stories that they wanted from local news organizations, looking at the kind of representation that they wanted from their communities. So that was great, we held that at Western Carolina University in collaboration with three other partners; two news organizations, Blue Ridge Public Radio and Carolina Public Press, and also the Western North Carolina Health Network. So those were the three main tools.

Our focus was on identifying the needs and gaps in local news and information in specific communities. We really wanted to look especially at communities that have historically been underrepresented or not fully a part of traditional local news organizations. And so we were looking especially at communities of color, ethnic and immigrant communities, really rural residents,, and people struggling with poverty, low-income residents, and also people who are hampered in access by problems with broadband and internet access.

CISLM: How did you decide on the combination of research methods that you use? Explain to me a little bit about your selection process.

BM: In terms of the methodology, the thought processes, we knew upfront that we wanted some insightful, more people-focused kinds of information, and for that we would turn to talking with people, listening to people, so community listening was an important part of everything that we were looking at. And for that, the obvious things would be one-on-one, talking with people in small focus groups, so we planned that upfront.

We did a deep dive into three particular communities to highlight in the published report. That includes those in the Qualla boundary, focusing on specific needs and concerns of Indigenous people, and then looking at the Hispanic and Latino communities and the Black communities in Western North Carolina.

We also knew that we needed some hard quantitative data, because we were hoping to be able to, in addition to learning from the community listening, we wanted to collect enough information and data that could potentially be used as an assessment that could support potential future funding and potential future initiatives, new things or new collaborations. So we knew upfront that we needed a mix of those two types of research methods.

CISLM: Community listening seems to be a really important part of the foundation for this project. How did you and your partners go about opening the door for those sessions and getting people to talk to you?

BM: Ah, just getting out there and meeting with people. I’ve worked as a community organizer for the last seven and a half years, and in the process, I have gotten to know a lot of activists in the area and a lot of other nonprofits, especially groups working around voting rights and voter engagement. So I had a good network of nonprofits in the region and some of the grassroots groups and started reaching out to them.

When we identified the types of the communities in terms of demographic profiles, and where they were most concentrated geographically — because I couldn’t go to all 19 Western North Carolina counties — we had to sort of prioritize, and after identifying those areas, I just reached out to organizations and nonprofits that were active in working in those geographic areas with those with those particular communities.

CISLM: That was really interesting that you come from a community organizing background instead of the traditional academic research or journalist background.

BM: My professional background is in marketing and communications, but not in journalism. So I have, you know, I have the communications background, I have the more recent organizing experience, and I’ve also lived in Western North Carolina for a very long time. And you are not a real western North Carolinian unless you were born here. I wasn’t born here, I’m not a native, but I’ve lived here since the 90s and have a good understanding of the area as a whole.

It was very important that we do this (research) in a more organic fashion, so it was fascinating as we made contacts with new organizations and new people as a result of the research, and there are some people out there doing awesome work in Western North Carolina.

CISLM: So as you’re wrapping up your year-long study, what are some findings or takeaways that you could share with me?

BM: There were several key themes that emerged across all of our research and community listening. The primacy of social media, unfortunately, was right up there at the top. (Social media) ends up being the initial source for most people for most of their critical news and information. And we define that is the news and information you need in daily life, not just news proper, but what you depend on daily. Social media came up repeatedly in interviews, listening sessions surveys, as the first source of information for people across the board.

Interestingly, that was not where people would turn for actively looking for more information. That was up there, but online news sites, other trusted organizations in their community, local news organizations, these things popped on up above (social media) as to where people would turn actively after initially hearing, but for breaking news, both locally and nationally, social media was right up there at the top.

Another thing that we learned is that especially in the very rural areas and small towns, Facebook groups ended up being a primary gathering spot for people in a place where people would first turn to get news and information about what’s going on in their local community.

One thing I do want to point out is that in all of our 19 counties, every county has some local news, and a local newspaper that’s still operating. I don’t know if they’re thriving, but they’re there and they’re an important part of the community.

Another finding that came up was that especially in the small towns, people seemed to trust and respect their local newspaper. These are weeklies in these small, small towns, and most often they’ve been around for a long time. And yet (residents) didn’t turn to them for immediate information, because — as I interpreted (the results) — they still think of them as a print product, even though every one of them has an online presence, and most of them update with new news on a fairly regular basis. Most of them also have a Facebook presence, but we found that residents turned to their Facebook groups for sourcing information on a daily basis before they would turn to their local newspaper also on Facebook.

CISLM: That was really interesting because my question was going to be, is it like just a bandwidth thing, that a lot of newspapers don’t have the time to develop a digital presence or strategy.

BM: Right? I’m sure that’s a big component because they’re not out there in the same way that the Facebook groups are, but they are present, so that was a real interesting finding.

People also had requests for more positive news. That was a big strong thread that ran through everything. What people specifically asked for was more positive representation of their local community. That was very helpful because I mean, people (had) very specific things, like profiles of our elders, stories of a day in the life of a nonprofit. Tell us about these hidden heroes, people right here in our community, that we don’t know about but I know they’re doing something. Tell us about how somebody is addressing a problem in our community and how they’re actually getting something done. So we really got some very specific requests for positive stories.

CISLM: So zooming out from this specifics of this project, what inspired you and the NC Local News Workshop to do this research?

BM: A couple of things, but first off, it hadn’t been done. Nobody to our knowledge had looked at the region as a whole and tried looking at doing a deep dive into news and information ecosystem and needs of particular communities within one of our key regions in the state. Last year, (Workshop executive director) Shannan Bowen decided to focus on community listening as the NC Local News Workshop is expanding its reach, and its mission of convening and collaborating and bringing people together and building capacity for news organizations. She wanted to focus on community listening in order to understand what communities really need before starting to build capacity for organizations to better meet those needs.

It was really exciting, in so many ways. For me personally, I have seen that the connection between having access to reliable, fact-based news and information and civic engagement, especially small and rural communities. It is critical. If you can’t trust your sources of information, how can you effectively deal with managing your life and yourself within a community?.

CISLM: I have one last fun question, what is something that helps you get through a long day of work?

BM: A trip to the gym, or a long hike back in one of our mountain coves that are right around here.

CISLM: Do you have like a favorite spot that you do?

BM: Yeah, I have several favorite hiking spots and a favorite walking spot nearby. I have three little coves, I’m up a mountain, and there are plenty of little off-roads that are great walking spots to just kind of get back up into some of the coves. But they’re great. They’re great hiking trails all around up in the mountains in national forests, not far from us either. So that’s fun, and it’s rejuvenating.