The news from Ocracoke

by andybechtel

I just returned from spending several days with my son on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We enjoyed a stay at Ocracoke, a self-described “village” at the southern end of the island of the same name.

Ocracoke has a year-round population of less than 1,000 people. You have to take a ferry to get there, which is part of the charm of the place.

I had last been to Ocracoke in 1994. Then, the primary news source was The Virginian-Pilot, published about 170 miles away in Norfolk, Va. No other daily newspaper was available, not even the ubiquitous USA Today. The house we stayed in did not have a television. Internet access was very limited, and cell phones were used to talk to people, not to text or check e-mail.

Returning to Ocracoke 16 years later, I was curious about how I would get news about the area and the mainland. What would the media landscape look like now? Here are some observations:

  • The Virginian-Pilot is still the only daily newspaper on the island. One copy was available each day in the breakfast room of our hotel, and we were encouraged to share it with our fellow guests.
  • A desktop computer in the breakfast room was very popular. A hotel guest used it to catch up on the news about tornadoes in her hometown in Minnesota. A teenager used it to check Facebook as he talked to a friend on his cell phone.
  • AT&T has no service on the island, so my iPhone was useless except when I was able to use the hotel’s free wifi.
  • Teenage girls sat on the beach, sending text messages to their friends. I guess they had Verizon.
  • At a small grocery store, a man bought a pack of cigarettes and a copy of The Coastland Times, a tri-weekly newspaper for the region. It has no website to speak of.
  • The Ocracoke Observer is a monthly newspaper that seems to be aimed at tourists more than locals. It also has a minimal presence online.
  • Cable TV is available throughout the village, in the hotel, rental houses and bars. The World Cup was on everywhere; cable news was nowhere to be seen.

Overall, news was more widely available on Ocracoke than it was in 1994. Still, the island’s relative isolation makes it more difficult to keep up with events than in so-called civilization. A visit there was a nice vacation from information overload.

Yet, as we returned to the Triangle, I switched the car radio from satellite to terrestrial to listen to WUNC-FM. As the theme music from “All Things Considered” came from the speakers, my son said: “It sounds like we are home.”

Indeed we were.

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