Neil Offen is an editor at The Local Reporter, a news startup in Orange County, North Carolina. He has worked as a reporter at several newspapers and magazines, and as a radio news director. In this interview, conducted by email, Offen discusses the focus and objectives of The Local Reporter, and he offers advice to student journalists interested in covering their communities.
Q. What is The Local Reporter? How does it fit into the media ecosystem of the Triangle region of North Carolina?
A. The Local Reporter is a new online hyperlocal news startup serving Chapel Hill, Carrboro and southern Orange County. It is, as Jock Lauterer, a Hussman School adjunct professor and part of our governing board, puts it, “relentlessly local.”
That means we don’t cover Durham news. No state news, national nor international news — except in those cases where there is direct impact on our local area. We cover only the stories that emanate from and have a direct impact on residents here.
The Local Reporter was launched because a number of community activists believed there was a need for that kind of coverage and were concerned that it increasingly was disappearing from our community. Within the last decade, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area had lost three local newspapers to the now common economic stressors affecting journalism. The Chapel Hill News, The Chapel Hill Herald and The Carrboro Citizen all went out of business.
Meanwhile, The News & Observer in Raleigh saw cutbacks after cutbacks and consequently reduced its day-to-day local coverage, particularly of outlying parts of its readership area. The Herald-Sun of Durham, after its purchase by the N&O’s owner, the McClatchy chain, became, essentially, a pale replica of its sister paper, with some additional regional focus.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro still have The Daily Tar Heel, which has increased its local coverage in the wake of those changes. It also has Chapelboro, the online affiliate of the radio station WCHL.
But the DTH remains overwhelmingly focused on the university — as it should. It also depends, naturally, on journalists who may be here in this community for just a few years and thus may lack institutional memory. Chapelboro devotes much of its efforts to sports — WCHL is part of the Tar Heel Sports Network — and breaking news, and focuses as well on a broader geographical area.
Still, both do good work and are useful platforms, but Friends of Local Journalism, a 501c3 nonprofit that established The Local Reporter, felt that our area needed more. The 20-or-so founders believed that the lack of a truly local newspaper dedicated to covering the range of issues that directly affect our community, and putting them in context, is detrimental to the area’s civic health, its sense of community and ultimately to its viability.
The goal is to offer the full panoply of what community journalism can do:
- rigorous reporting on local issues, of course, including government, law enforcement, development, business and the schools;
- features and lifecycle coverage reflecting the rich mosaic of life in our community;
- a civil forum for public debate, through a robust offering of guest columns and letters-to-the-editor, airing the views of our diverse readership.
Do we do all of that now? No.
The free-access website today is a prototype of what we hope a full-fledged news platform can be. It is updated frequently, we send out a weekly news email, and we reach around 3,000 regular readers. We do this mostly with volunteers, but as our fundraising increases, we have begun paying freelance reporters.
Yet even working with a predominantly volunteer staff, we have published some important and significant stories, including:
- The impact of high-density projects in Chapel Hill: https://thelocalreporter.press/high-density-projects-are-they-working-for-chapel-hill
- Breaking local news: https://thelocalreporter.press/rest-in-peace-southern-village-residents-angry-saddened-by-cemetery-vandalism
- And a wide range of community responses to the COVID-19 crisis: https://thelocalreporter.press/feeding-schoolkids-when-theres-no-school
In addition, we have published many guest columns, on subjects including the pandemic, homelessness and the criminal justice system: https://thelocalreporter.press/challenges-increase-for-non-citizens-during-the-pandemic/
As funding increases, we have been able to add a series of locally focused regular columns on bicycling, gardening, wildlife and vegetarianism, the kinds of columns and varied voices that have disappeared from regional newspapers during this era of consolidation.
Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at The Local Reporter?
A. Although we now pay freelance reporters, the core staff of TLR remains volunteers. Most of those involved with the launch of The Local Reporter are community activists, not journalists. We have people, fortunately, who are skilled in grant writing and others who have financial management expertise and deep governmental and community involvement.
As one of the few professional journalists involved, I do the great bulk of the editing, with occasional help from Alan Cronk, a longtime journalist and former features editor with The Winston-Salem Journal.
Stories are sent to our editor email and then to me. After editing, I return the copy to the writer for review — if there have been any significant changes — and then send it on to (our paid) web person, who posts on our site. I write the headlines for all our stories, although our columnists and reporters are encouraged to suggest heads for whatever they’ve written.
Q. The Local Reporter is a digital publication, though its founders have considered a print edition. What is the latest on that possibility?
A. Last year, when we surveyed residents about what they wanted in a local newspaper, we received nearly 1,000 responses to our survey, and they overwhelmingly favored print.
But print, of course, is far more expensive than digital. During TLR’s gestation period, we discussed this desire for print at great length, but realized, finally, that print is not practical at this financial moment for The Local Reporter. Depending on finances, we still intend down the line to publish a weekly print version of The Local Reporter, with a strong selection of all our new stories.
In the meantime, if we can obtain the necessary grant funding, we intend to publish a special print edition focusing on a series of stories documenting how the local school system has addressed the issue of remote learning for disadvantaged communities. The system, generally considered among North Carolina’s best and one of its most affluent, has nevertheless struggled for decades with equity issues and a significant achievement gap. This special print edition would be direct mailed to households in neighborhoods having a high percentage of disadvantaged residents.
Q. You have a storied career in local journalism. What advice do you have for student journalists who are interested in reporting about their communities?
A. Explore your community. Read about it. Walk around it. Talk to people in it. Get out of your bubble — we all live in our own bubbles — and find out about aspects of your community that might be new to you.
I’ve worked for big city newspapers and national magazines as well as for small, community-based publications and broadcast media. And everywhere I’ve worked, the best stories I’ve done have been the ones where I probably started off not knowing very much about my subject matter. I always did a lot of research, even before Google, when it wasn’t easy to do a lot of research.
I may not have known a lot in the beginning, but I wasn’t afraid to admit that, and to ask questions. Lots of questions.
It’s OK to admit you don’t know about something or someone; in fact, a lot of times, it’s better when you say, “I don’t know about that. Can you explain it to me?”