Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 19th of those posts. Natasha Townsend is a senior majoring in reporting and psychology. She has interned at The Hendersonville Lightning and the North Carolina Press Association, and she is a student researcher for the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Since last summer, I have been interning for Penny Abernathy, who leads the research team at UNC within the journalism school where she chronicles news deserts throughout the country. A news desert is a place where communities are vulnerable to losing newspapers because of many factors including poverty, polarization and political apathy.
Last summer, one of my biggest projects was to manage a database of thousands of newspapers across the country that have closed or merged from 2004-2018. We found that more than 1,000 communities throughout the country have no newspaper.
One of the most interesting things I’ve found from this research is that not only are there political implications, but also this has a direct effect on the amount of tax dollars that people are spending. Interestingly, when communities lose a newspaper, there’s less accountability from local government officials. For instance, our research has found that with this lack of accountability, the government is more likely to spend taxpayer money behind closed doors. Because of a lack of newspapers in poor, rural areas, there’s no watchdog institution.
With the lack of newspapers in these communities, journalists are also having more trouble finding jobs, and as a result, editors are having an even harder time. With newspaper consolidation and the current economic state of the field, there are fewer resources and fewer jobs for journalists. News companies are slashing their staffs and making people do more things, stretching the employees too thin. Editors, especially at smaller local papers, are being laid off, so reporters must take on the editor role themselves.
I saw this firsthand when I interned for the Hendersonville Lightning, a newspaper in my hometown. The paper is owned by Bill Moss, a veteran journalist. He saw a need for a hyperlocal newspaper to serve the needs of the community that weren’t being met by the competitor regional paper.
The Lightning is a one-man show, where Bill does the reporting, photography, editing, captions, you name it. As an intern, I found it was very hectic, and there was a lot of extra responsibility. While my official title was reporting intern, I had to fill additional roles, one of them being editing my own work. Bill would glance over my work and catch factual errors, but the more stylistic edits, such as captioning, photo, headline, design, things that are typical of a traditional editor, I had to do on my own.
This was indicative of how the field is changing and how the reporter role has become more flexible. Not only do reporters have to report their own work, but they also have to edit it and brand it to their individual style.
As a result of journalists becoming their own editors, a question arises of how objective the writing can really be without an impartial person also viewing the work. I think the editor role should be separate from the reporter role, because journalists can become too close to the story and lose sight of the ultimate objective or be subject to inherent bias in their writing.