Exploring news deserts


My colleague Penelope Muse Abernathy is making news about a lack of news.

As Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, she is researching “news deserts” — areas of the United States that are running dry on information. Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have gone out of business, many of them weekly publications.

It’s a problem that speaks to the heart of our society. Here’s how Abernathy describes it:

The stakes are high, not just for the communities that have lost newspapers — or are living with the threat of losing a local newspaper – but also for the entire country. Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished.

The latest research by Abernathy and her team consists of two parts: “The Loss of Local News” looks at the trend of diminishing publications and readership. “The Enduring Legacy of Our New Media Barons” examines changes in newspaper ownership, including the role of private equity firms and other investment companies.

These reports are making news of their own. Brian Stelter of CNN interviewed Abernathy for a story and podcast. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, cited her work in this column about the importance of local news.

I encourage you to explore “The Expanding News Desert,” a website that collects Abernathy’s reports on this topic. There, you can see where the news deserts are, who owns the newspaper in your community and much more.


The front page still matters

Roseanne Barr made news this week when ABC canceled her show a day after she posted a racist tweet. Puerto Rico was also in the news because of a study that put the death toll from Hurricane Maria at more than 4,600 people — much higher than previously reported.

Which story is more important? A lot of the discussion I saw on social media argued that the Roseanne news was overplayed and Puerto Rico underplayed. Here’s an example from Twitter:

It’s interesting that the writer uses the print edition of The New York Times as a measure of its priorities. In 2018, he is judging its news judgment based on a printed page — not a website, podcast or Facebook posts.

Here in North Carolina, I noticed that The News & Observer, the newspaper I read every day, placed the Roseanne story on page 2A and the Puerto Rico story on 7A. Local stories about the state budget and gentrification in Durham made the front page. That makes sense, given the Raleigh newspaper’s focus on the state’s Triangle region.

Page number alone doesn’t provide a full picture of story emphasis. In this instance, the N&O ran about nine column inches on the Roseanne story but more than twice that on the Puerto Rico story as well as a photo.

Nowadays, many of us primarily read our news not by turning pages, but by scrolling on smartphones and laptops. We get news in a timeline format on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Algorithms influence what we see there.

Yet many readers still rely on the front page in print — with stories selected by editors — to reflect the important news of the past day and the day ahead. These readers see the front page as an indicator of a news organization’s values. What does this newspaper care about? What are its priorities? How is it serving the community?

These are questions that can be answered on a front page. Even in 2018.

Two N.C. journalists sign off

In my nearly 30 years in professional journalism, I have been fortunate to work with many talented colleagues in newsrooms and classrooms. Two of them retired last week:


Dan Barkin at his sendoff from The News & Observer. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Hyman)

Dan Barkin stepped down as managing editor at The News & Observer. He previously served as business editor at the Raleigh newspaper, leading one of the country’s best business sections.

I worked closely with Dan in the early 2000s when he was deputy managing editor and I was Nation and World editor. He helped the N&O newsroom coordinate coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the 2004 presidential campaign. His advice and guidance were invaluable.

Dan plans to spend time with his grandchildren, go for long walks and enjoy the North Carolina coast.


Jock Lauterer at his sendoff from the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Jock Lauterer stepped down as senior lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school. In his 17 years of teaching at his alma mater, he led the Carolina Community Media Project to boost local journalism. He’s written a textbook on that topic and led workshops at community newspapers throughout the state.

In 2008, Jock started the Durham VOICE, a student-produced website and monthly newspaper that covers a part of Durham that is often overlooked by other news organizations. Students in my Advanced Editing course contribute by editing and posting stories to the site. Our collaboration brought back that unique feeling of working in a newsroom.

Jock plans to return to the VOICE in spring 2019 as a part-time instructor. He’s also taken up the cello.

Best wishes to Dan and Jock on their retirements. Thank you for making me smarter and for bringing the news to readers across North Carolina.


Student guest post: A voice other than our own

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Allison Tate is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting. A native of Caswell County, North Carolina, she has served as a staff writer and photographer at The Caswell Messenger and as co-editor of the Durham VOICE.

Pat and I stood in the old “backshop” of The Caswell Messenger, peering at the freshly printed proofs of the newspaper that would land in mailboxes tomorrow, Wednesday or next week depending on how the post office behaved.

The white-haired, longtime office manager of the Caswell County newspaper had become the principal photographer of community events. The page of photos in front of us was, if memory serves, of a concert held at the pavilion down the street.

While she had definitely seen more of life than I had, she had also seen more of Caswell, too. She was a veteran newspaperwoman; I was a bright-eyed newbie who had been interning at my hometown paper for two months.

I asked her what she thought of the page. Had I used the photos she had liked most? She smiled just as she always did when I showed her the B-section pages I designed. She said that I had. Then her voice lowered as she told me about a concern that seemed to hover over her whenever she ventured out with her camera.

Someone always seemed to be rubbed the wrong way come Wednesday, she told me. Someone would tell her that the quantity of the photos favored the community’s African-American population. Others would tell her that there were too many photos of whites.

Racism was a problem that plagued our little community newspaper in the rolling hills of rural North Carolina, and it played a part in how stories were presented.

As I’ve had time to ponder that afternoon and to look around at the media outlets that surround, I’ve realized that racism’s role in the media isn’t limited to America’s small-town newspapers. And its effects don’t just come in the form of self-conscious photographers. The effects of racism touch media outlets in our urban centers, too, and it affects what—and how—stories are covered.

Northeast Central Durham, home to the Durham VOICE, continued my education after that summer at the Messenger. The impoverished inner-city community, if you’ve heard of it, has a less-than-stellar reputation. Authorities refer to it as the Bull’s Eye for its criminal activity. Homeless men and women roam its streets. The houses that aren’t being gentrified are falling into disrepair.

And there we are, a cohort of mostly white UNC-CH students that switches out semester after semester, roaming the community and telling the stories that seem to have either been unseen or unacknowledged as newsworthy by the larger media outlets. While others have heard of Northeast Central, we get to know it.

To know it is to know Samuel Jenkins and why he decided to keep his barbershop on Alston Avenue.

To know it is to meet Wanda Boone and see her eyes brim with tears over the sadness of losing teenagers to overdose and the joy of seeing her mission to end overdose gaining ground in the community she loves.

To know it is to meet Phyllis Terry, the owner of J.C.’s Kitchen with a beaming smile who took charge of the restaurant after her sister’s death.

To know such a place is to love it and to learn from it.

Of the seasoned media professional I ask, what communities like this have you heard of, and what communities like this have you known? Of the journalism student who is fresh out of the gate I ask, what communities will you take at face value, and what communities will you immerse yourself in?

It would be a denial of the truth to say that race — which, unfortunately, touches every corner of our society — doesn’t affect the way the media informs and shares with readers. It is not a denial of the truth, however, to say that the issue of racism is here, that we can learn from communities like Northeast Central and that through learning and knowing we can make a difference in our profession that has long been overdue.


Learning from the Durham VOICE

For nearly 10 years, the Durham VOICE has covered the northeast-central area of Durham, North Carolina.

The VOICE is a student-produced publication and a collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University. Teen journalists contribute material as well.

Students in my Advanced Editing class play a role in the VOICE too. On five occasions this semester, they will edit stories reported and written by students in the Community Journalism course taught by my colleague Jock Lauterer. In addition to editing posts, adding links and writing headlines in WordPress, my students also create printer-friendly PDFs of the stories using InDesign.

This week, we posted the second batch of stories. They show the array of people, places and issues in an area of Durham that is often overlooked by other news organizations.

I encourage you to check out the VOICE website and Facebook page. You can also follow on Twitter.

My students learn a lot from the VOICE. Perhaps you will too.

Giving thanks and giving back


The Thanksgiving edition of U.S. newspapers is the thickest of the year. The bulk of that consists of advertising inserts from stores promoting Black Friday.

But my favorite part of the Thanksgiving edition of The News & Observer is about giving, not buying. The annual Triangle Gives section looks at the remarkable work that nonprofit organizations do in this region of North Carolina. It also offers advice on donating to these groups.

Today, on Black Friday, I will select a few organizations to help. As an editor, I am partial toward ones that promote literacy. But all of the groups in the Triangle Gives section deserve support.

If you missed the print edition or live outside the N&O’s circulation area, you can read about Triangle Gives on the newspaper’s website. I encourage you to take some time reading the profiles there and considering donating to the organizations of your choice.


Guest post: Why that ‘furry’ headline isn’t funny



Forrest Brown is an editor who has worked at numerous news organizations, including CNN.com, The Charlotte Observer and the Greensboro News & Record. This essay, shared on Facebook, is reposted here by permission.

What’s easy: To get on Facebook or Twitter and make fun of this headline.

What’s not easy: To go into work every night in what’s probably the most high-pressure, least-appreciated job at a newspaper these days — editing stories and writing headlines.

I imagine the person who wrote that headline is probably doing an amount of work that was likely spread among five or more people back around 1995. And you’re flying without a net. After all, you are the net.

He or she may have gotten that story just a few minutes before deadline. The editor may have been past deadline by a minute or two and just had to shove the page on out from a pub center hundreds of miles away.

He or she may have caught numerous typos and mistakes the very same night that a double “r” was typed in haste. I’d imagine the person knows the difference between “fury” and “furry.”

I loved copy editing, but it can be a downright vicious job at times. Your many triumphs are never noticed. Your rare mistakes are paraded out for mockery, including by — and especially by — other journalists. And most especially by journalists who tend to turn in mistake-laden copy themselves. The sloppiest ones really do seem to be the people who pile on the most when there’s mocking to be had.

You’re on a team that’s always first in line when they’re sharpening the ax for the next round of cuts. Do well, and no one ever notices you. Do poorly, and you will get noticed.

It’s probably the only newsroom job where you never, ever want to be noticed. At all. Which is why your team is first on the chopping block for cuts because all they know about you and your team is you mortified the paper six months ago one time.

Copy editing is — at best — a zero-sum game these days. The very best you can hope for: Don’t screw up big. Because you can wipe out a thousand good deeds with an extra R.

And I’m pretty sure when the publishers and managers do the post-mortem, they won’t be looking in the mirror when they ask how this can happen.