Q&A with Triangle Blog Blog

Melody Kramer, Stephen Whitlow, Martin Johnson and Geoff Green are contributing writers/editors at Triangle Blog Blog, which describes itself as “a group blog for the civically curious.” Launched in March 2022, it focuses on issues such as housing, transportation and governance in two adjacent North Carolina towns, Chapel Hill and Carrboro. In this interview, conducted by email, Kramer, Whitlow, Johnson and Green discuss TBB’s purpose, how posts come together and its place among Triangle media.

Q. What is Triangle Blog Blog, and where does it fit into the media landscape in this part of North Carolina?

MELODY: I’ve been thinking about what Triangle Blog Blog is a lot lately — and I should first say what it’s not: Triangle Blog Blog is very intentionally not a traditional news organization.

I come from news. I spent a decade or so in public media and had a Poynter column covering local media for a number of years. I’ve worked with and in newsrooms all over the country. 

Triangle Blog Blog is a group blog, with the ethos and spirit of blogs from the early 2000s. We all have day jobs in all sorts of fields. But the gist is that we write about topics that are pertinent to Chapel Hill and Carrboro, a lot of us write in humorous ways, and we try to provide primary sources and fact-checking so that people know we’re not bullshitting them — and we make our point of view very clear.

Our point of view, if I had to summarize it, is this: We’re a college town that benefits from new people and new ideas and new people moving in and out. There are no affordable starter homes here. We know UNC graduate students using food pantries. We see people driving more than an hour to teach in our school system. We live here, and want to make this a better town — and that, to us, means building more housing, more types of housing, and talking about the racism baked into housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. It means building more ways to get around by public transportation and bike — for our health, for the environment, for our kids to safely get to school, and to create the kind of community we want to live in.

I think of a news organization as having some sort of hierarchy, and we don’t have that. There’s no “editor.” We all edit each other. We write about things we care about. 

We have a backchat going to share links and trade ideas, which is really nice, because it sparks us all creatively. In 2022, we published over 200 pieces.

We have good journalists here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro: I would be remiss to not mention The Daily Tar Heel and Tammy Grubb’s reporting in The News & Observer and Chapelboro, which all do excellent coverage of the region. But Chapel Hill’s survey of town residents finds that the majority of residents get their news through things like neighborhood email listservs. And we’re on some of those — they’re primarily for homeowners and neighborhood-based — and we see a lot of misinformation circulating on them, often about housing and developments. 

Chapel Hill has had a lengthy history with organizations that have opposed development — the first was the Alliance of Neighborhoods, which started in the early ’80s. And these organizations are very influential and often interconnected. They currently have a PAC. They run candidates in elections. They raise money and really shape narratives around civic issues. And they “flood the zone” with emails and phone calls and requests for  in-person meetings to town staff and council members. It’s hard to understand the extent of it without filing public records requests, which we’ve done. 

Four years ago, a number of people affiliated with the PAC started a newspaper. And we’ve covered that news organization extensively. The board has access to the editorial email box and remained on the PAC listserv, they’ve supplied reporters with lists of questions and sources to contact without revealing their previous relationships, they had a former elected official serving as editor for a few months and didn’t announce it, the former head of comms for the org with the PAC was editor for over a year, things like that. And it’s troubling that there’s been an opening for them to do that. 

Last year, I asked people to forward me emails that they received from neighborhood listservs with misinformation — and Andy, it was overwhelming. I received dozens of emails, often using heightened language and fear and scare tactics close to the election cycle. So I thought “Well, what would happen if we countered this and sprinkled some sunlight on a blog instead, so anyone could share the links or information with their neighborhoods, and just see what was circulating.”

The blog rounds up a bunch of smart, funny people who were already doing this work, but scattered around platforms — you know, the kind of people who watch council meetings for fun. And we just kind of went from there. Our main goal was to put out high quality, fact-based information about civic life, and to inject humor where we could (because we’re funny people.) 

You’re probably thinking — why did you name it Triangle Blog Blog because that’s a ridiculous name? One, we wanted it to be apparent that it was a blog and two, every single person remembers it and (most of them) laugh. Because it’s funny. And also, nothing makes me laugh harder than critics who have to use the term blogbloggers to talk about us. It’s like a tongue twister!

MARTIN: Mel said a lot, so I’ll keep my comments short. Chapel Hill has a long and rich history of local journalism and spaces for conversation, from the Carrboro Citizen (2007-2012) to Orange Politics (2003-2021).

In recent years, that conversation has migrated to NextDoor and Facebook groups, which are hard to navigate and feed off of negativity. While we share TBB posts online, our hope is for people to turn to the site itself as a reliable guide to what’s happening in local government and politics.

STEPHEN: I see TBB as offering an alternative voice in this part of the Triangle. I’m a native North Carolinian and Chapel Hill has always meant something to me. When I was young and learned the Jesse Helms quote about putting a fence around Chapel Hill instead of building a zoo, I knew I wanted to be there. I take a peculiar pride in living down the street from Bill Friday’s old house and being able to see lights from Dean Smith’s old home from my backyard.

We used to attract and produce progressive giants who reshaped our community and the state as a whole. Now, we seem more concerned with preserving the wealth of local homeowners and excluding others from the many advantages this community offers to residents. 

Just as the mission of UNC is to benefit all of North Carolina, not just the lucky few who get to attend, I believe that Chapel Hill should be a model for towns across the state with fewer resources. Chapel Hill is among the most educated places in America and one of the wealthiest towns in North Carolina. If we can’t figure out how to tackle climate change or protect pedestrians or create economic opportunity for low-wealth households, how can we expect, say, Rocky Mount or Wilkesboro to figure it out? 

I see TBB as a way or reminding ourselves of what Chapel Hill claims to aspire to be – a truly progressive place – and highlighting ways we can achieve that. Often, that involves pointing out the ways in which we aren’t as progressive as we claim and the concerted efforts of a small group of people in town whose actions suggest that they prefer we remain an exclusionary place. 

GEOFF: Back when he was a member of the Durham City Council, Charlie Reece would do Facebook Live sessions before most meetings where he would discuss what was on the agenda. I thought that was a great way to demystify what goes on in local government, and is especially important these days now that there’s so little media coverage. So, while we certainly advocate for things, we always try to make sure that we are providing accurate information about what is happening at council and in local government.

Q. You use a variety of formats for sharing news, including a newsletter, social media, GIFs and even live-blogging. How do you decide which story form matches the needs of your readers?

MARTIN: One thing that’s really great about TBB is that we’re simultaneously old school—who starts a blog in 2022?—and flexible enough to experiment with finding readers where they are. For example, we get a lot of engagement on Reddit, a community that’s mostly ignored by politicians (with the exception of the newly elected U.S. House-member Rep. Jeff Jackson) and traditional journalism outlets. We also get to see what kinds of arguments and topics resonate with people and what doesn’t. There are posts that get really high engagement on Reddit and are basically ignored on NextDoor, and vice versa, which is a reflection of who is active on these various platforms. 

STEPHEN: It’s often driven by the preferences of the lead author. We have a good mix of skills, interests and creative drive, which works its way out various modes. Since most of us are not real newsies, we experiment a lot, then see which posts get traction or don’t. Sometimes, especially when correcting misinformation being spread before a council meeting, we aim for speed. Other times, we may work on revising a longer piece for weeks. As for live blogging, the goal is to be informative while having a little fun. Essentially, we sit through five hours of hell so our readers don’t have to. 

MEL: I helped run social media at NPR for a few years and later led audience growth and development at the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. So a lot of my career has been thinking about large global and national audiences — formats, platforms and measurement — and ways to tweak and refine to reach specific audiences. 

If you think about who can participate in the political process — who can attend council meetings and who can write letters and who has the time to stall or stop housing projects, it skews older, white, male and wealthy (which is backed up by research.) And we want to make sure that even if you can’t attend a meeting, that there’s a way for you to know what’s going on and what you need to know (because these projects often take years and years and years to complete.) We try to give the timeline and the context.

But that makes it sound too formal. We basically just do what seems like the best medium for the moment. We’re all people who spend a lot of time online. We’re a range of ages, which is nice — we have some grad students at UNC who have contributed. We have someone who is exploring TikTok at the moment. We have someone who is one of the funniest people I’ve ever written alongside. John is a biker and likes to write about biking. The blog provides a home and the audience and people can write whatever is intriguing to them at the moment. There’s no editorial meeting where someone’s assigning stories.

We just want to share this stuff in the ways it makes sense to do so — sometimes that really is helping people grok these really tough concepts and breaking them down, sometimes it’s making people laugh, sometimes it’s asking our audience for help (which we plan to do soon as we examine neighborhood covenants.) 

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at TBB?

MARTIN: One real advantage of a group blog format is that we can lean on each other to test out our ideas. One of us will propose writing on a topic, and we’ll get feedback on whether it’s worth pursuing or not before we invest too much time into it.

People think local government is boring, but the powers we’ve given to municipalities—how we regulate the use of land—are so fundamental to everything else. The very patterns of our lives — how much we drive, the kinds of homes we live in, who lives next door to us — are mostly determined by policies set by local governments. While it’s challenging to get people to care about things like the “land use management ordinance,” we’re doing our best.

STEPHEN: A typical exchange about my pieces looks like this:

Stephen: “I wrote something. Is it offensive?”

Everyone else: “Ha-ha. Yes.”

Stephen: “What if I say this instead?”

Everyone else: “That’s actually worse.”

Stephen: “Shit. Can someone else rewrite it?”

Everyone else: “Sure.” 

MEL: We have a shared Google Drive where we put documents. Often, more than one person contributes, and we list everyone at the bottom of a piece. And we run it through a few people just to make sure we’re not missing the mark, that everything is easy to parse, that it’s accurate, and that we’re not being too snarky. There’s a line that can be crossed where things can get … mean? 

But there’s also this ongoing discourse in Chapel Hill that everything has to be “civil.” If you look back at old letters to the editor, there’s a bunch on civility. There are columns in the Chapel Hill News about it. When these anti-growth groups in Chapel Hill are critiqued, they often ignore the substance of the critique and instead try to publicly rebuke the author and/or shift the public conversation to one about tone, language, or civility. They attacked a high schooler who wrote a pretty conventional piece about them last year. It got pretty ugly. 

And I always think, “Who gets to set those terms? Who decides what is civil? Who benefits from the status quo and talking about tone instead of content?” There’s a balancing act between trying to correct facts — we recently did one on how many voters live in the Berkshire — and trying to show how ridiculous some of this is.

Q. You have been called a “shameful nuisance,” among other insults. How do you respond to such criticism?

STEPHEN: In my opinion, we’re mostly upsetting the right people. If they see themselves in our critiques of NIMBYs, phony environmentalists, spreaders of misinformation, or people who have hijacked our local government in pursuit of their anti-growth and anti-change agenda, that says more about them than us. (I bet someone right now is reading that last sentence and getting upset!)

It’s actually been eye-opening to me how many people message us privately to say that they appreciate our work and to thank us for saying what they cannot say publicly. Often, these are people doing the Lord’s work, like actually building affordable housing in town. We have given so much weight to anti-housing voices here that people who build affordable housing are secretly rooting for us to speak up on behalf of more housing. That’s totally nuts!  

MEL: A very small group of people criticize every single piece we put out. They call us names when we post things on social media. A lot of it is attacking us personally instead of the arguments we’re making, and it can get pretty heated. They’ve written to town council about us. We know in other places, similar groups have contacted people’s employers. 

I understand why people don’t generally speak up about these issues because it can be scary and threatening. We live in a college town, where there’s also a power imbalance between tenured faculty and untenured faculty, staff, graduate students and undergrads. It’s hard to oppose a person who may also be on your tenure committee. 

We respond by writing about their criticism, because it often has factual errors in it. I don’t think we’re going to change that group, but we try to stay very calm and respond factually and with links and primary sources. NextDoor is just insane. I feel like I need therapy after engaging there. But most people aren’t flitting around NextDoor — it’s really not representative of who lives here.

We have thousands of readers. We have received fan mail. And I know that many of the journalists and civic leaders in the area are reading and engaging with the blog, and that’s great. 

I don’t think housing is covered particularly well in the United States. It’s so much easier to cover people trying to stop something or to quote people who attend council meetings than it is to cover the potential for something different: people who may benefit in the future from something not here today. And if you’re covering one of these council meetings, you may not realize the backstory of who is at the podium or what organizations are connected to each other.

It takes a lot of background knowledge to do well, and it’s often benefitted our “neighborhood defenders.” It makes them look much bigger than they actually are, and it’s how they recruit new members. (There’s a case study in a marketing book that profiles some of Chapel Hill’s anti-development voices, and it details how they engage the media to further their goals.) But this isn’t specific to Chapel Hill or Carrboro. We see the same language and same tactics being used in Palo Alto and Boulder and Cambridge and Princeton and Ann Arbor and in other places across the country. It’s amazing how many of their websites look and sound the same.

One thing I’d really encourage college journalists to do before tackling any topic about housing or any civic topic, really, is to do a bit of Googling of who you’re interviewing and what the context is for the discussion.  We’ve seen articles that will feature three or four people, and they’re all connected to the same interconnected organizations. It’s very hard to discern if you’re new to a beat or area that every single person you’re talking to may say they’re part of a different group, but those groups are all connected to each other. It’s like untangling a mystery.

MARTIN: Many of us also follow these issues nationally, and the ugliness of the fights in other places we’ve lived, from Brookline, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, all of which remind us that we’re not alone in being criticized for advocating for housing and transportation reform. Countries go to war over land. In the U.S., people go to town council meetings. 

Q. Your readership is growing, and you just launched a redesign of your website. What’s ahead for TBB for 2023?

MEL: We’re launching an NFT and getting into crypto. That’s a joke.

No, but seriously we’re going to formalize ourselves so that we can maybe raise some money very transparently and start to take our stuff offline. I always think about The Office of Creative Research, which came out of the NYTimes R&D lab. They were very effective in bridging off and online stuff. I always look to people like Bridget Todd and Alexis Lloyd and Darius Kazemi and the folks at the Library of Congress Labs and Amy O’Leary for inspiration. The Milwaukee Public Library TikTok is just :chefs-kiss: 

I don’t think we want to take ourselves too seriously — this is meant to be fun and not a slog.

We want to be able to pay our writers, particularly any undergrads and graduate students who shouldn’t write for free. We’d like to be able to hire a student or two to make data viz and really start to tell stories they’d like to tell. 2023 is an election year in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. There are big issues that are coming before both councils, so we’ll cover those. We’ll continue to point to great journalism we see locally. 

STEPHEN: I would die a happy man if we can raise enough money to buy naming rights to one of the apartment buildings everyone hates. Who wouldn’t want to live at The Triangle Blog Blog Luxury Vacant Lofts at Blue Hill?

MEL: We’re all civics nerds so getting the chance to bounce off smart, funny people and go deep on these wonderfully obscure topics is just delightful and scratches an itch. We’ve all become friends.

I don’t know — a few years ago, I wrote that I really had to reframe what my journalism career meant. Is this journalism? (I’m going back to your first question and my first answer.)

It is, in that we break stories and report on things and file public records requests and dig into archives and interview people. But it’s not a news org, at least in the traditional sense — and we’re not “the view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen would say. And we all have day jobs and lives and I have two little kids, so I think of it more as a passion side-project. But when you have enough people making something a side project, it can be really, really great.

GEOFF: Our primary goal for 2023 is to launch a local pickleball vertical. (That, too, is a joke.)

MEL: It’s not a joke

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