A project of Democracy Fund
The Local News Lab has been archived as of March 1, 2023. This page will remain online but will not be updated. More info.

December 10, 2019

Community Organizing in the North Carolina Local News Ecosystem

This post on the North Carolina local news ecosystem is part of a series on the future of local news profiling efforts by ecosystem builders across the country. You’ll learn about some of the work of these local leaders and connectors, whose stories can inspire your use of our new Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem.

by Kip Dooley

In the North Carolina local news ecosystem, organizations are finding new ways to grow and change amid cutbacks
(Kevin Crosby / Unsplash)

Alicia Bell’s introduction to journalism came in 2018, through convening journalists and communities in North Carolina’s urban centers. As Organizing Manager for News Voices: North Carolina, a project of the nonprofit Free Press, Bell facilitated workshops and public dialogues, drawing on experience organizing communities around education, healthcare, housing, and elections. Journalism should be thought of as a public good, Bell says, and community organizing has a wealth of tools to help local news ecosystems provide it.

Bell is one of many Ecosystem Builders working across the country to build healthier local news ecosystems. We define Ecosystem Builders as people in a community who are designing new models for local news. They are innovative, connected deeply to communities, and hold many relationships across their ecosystem. These Ecosystem Builders, and the connecting work they lead, are vital to the future of local news ecosystems. (Read more about them here).

Alicia Bell (right) listens to a participant in “The News Charlotte Needs” public forum at Johnson C. Smith University. Photo by Jonathan Cooper.

In our Guide to Assessing Local News Ecosystems, we profiled the work that Free Press and their local leaders did to help build stronger communities in New Jersey. In the past few years, they’ve taken their community organizing approach to the North Carolina local news ecosystem.

Bell’s early conversations found that Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham‘s local news ecosystems faced two major problems: loss of coverage, and uneven, unfair, or exploitative reporting in communities of color that had eroded trust.

Many journalists Bell met were interested in meeting with community members to address these long-standing issues. And as they got a taste for the work, they expressed interest in taking it beyond the city limits. “The more conversations we had in Durham with journalists, the more they wanted to know more and be in communication with people from rural areas,” Bell says.

Mapping a rural news ecosystem

Through these conversations, Bell saw an opportunity. The effects of newspaper closings are widely known in the North Carolina local news ecosystem, as UNC Chapel Hill is at the forefront of research on the topic. So-called “news deserts,” where there is little to no local news coverage, have been most severe in rural areas.

Through connections in Bell’s organizing network, Bell was introduced to community members in Rocky Mount, a city of about 50,000 outside of Raleigh-Durham. The town is served by a single newspaper with a staff of three, and many of the radio, TV and digital reporters who cover the town for urban outlets do so on short time frames and small budgets. They rarely get the chance to get to know people in the community.

Placing people at the center has strengthened the North Carolina local news ecosystem
The ecosystem approach starts with understanding a community as a whole because the people — not the media — should be at the center of our thinking.

After building rapport with community leaders and introducing the News Voices project, Bell organized a dinner where journalists and community members could meet face-to-face. That was followed by a series of workshops where the two groups mapped the local news ecosystem together, discussed the state of local news coverage in the area and collectively envisioned what local news coverage that reflected the community’s needs might look like.

In addition to mapping how information flowed in and out of the community, participants were asked to place themselves in the ecosystem, and to identify on the map points where trust was strong and points where trust was weak. Assessing local news ecosystems in the age of news deserts can feel bleak; the collective mapping process allows community members to realize their own agency, and helps reporters understand how to tap into networks of trust and source stories that serve the community, not just their own headlines.

Through the workshop, Bell and others identified gaps in information, along with frustrations some residents felt with poor coverage and unfair representation of black communities by the local paper, whose staff and ownership is all-white.

After the News Voices workshops, a few residents decided to start an email newsletter covering issues in eastern North Carolina, where news coverage is sparse. News Voices is now working with them to build out coverage and turn basic information reporting into stories that can fill gaps in their local news ecosystem.

From mapping the ecosystem to dreaming a new future

The second workshop, called a “dream salon,” asked participants to share their physical experience of local news: what it looks, sounds and feels like. Then Bell asked them to dream up ways that local news could better serve the community. Bell says that the final piece of this workshop is often the most difficult. “Dreaming needs scaffolding. It’s hard to jump from daily living to something more expansive.”

Bell says these workshops, which can seem daunting and unfamiliar to journalists, can surface positive dynamics, too. While residents expressed some frustrations with the local paper, they also said they appreciated how accessible it was, unlike newspapers in large cities. In Rocky Mount, they could easily get a letter to the editor published, or approach journalists in town to lodge their complaints.

Melanie Sill of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund says small, for-profit papers like the one in Rocky Mount have distinctive strengths, and play an important role in rural news ecosystems. “Their big weakness is lack of diversity, but they tend to be very plugged into communities,” she says. Among her recent efforts, Sill convened a group of small for-profit publishers in August, 2019 to share resources and develop ideas for how to adapt small newspapers to the digital age.

“Face-to-face, actual human interactions with people give you different kinds of information than what you get from survey responses,” says Nancy Watzman, a co-founder of the Colorado Media Project “It’s especially important to do this with underserved communities, where you can tease out information and talk things through. CMP also recently partnered with Free Press on community meetings in Colorado, taking learnings from the events Bell led in North Carolina. These workshops, where reporters engage with communities in a more collaborative fashion – often alongside other reporters – do require a shift in mindset.

Community-newsroom gatherings are  strengthening the North Carolina local news ecosystem. Learn how you can do the same in your region through our new guide.
Section 4 of our new guide offers ideas for workshops and other community events

“This kind of listening takes time,” says Watzman. “We don’t just have to convince journalists, but also their bosses. If you’re filing three to four stories-a-day, it’s hard to go out and interview people ‘just because.’ We want to provide support and training for journalists to do that, and the resources.”

Bell also notes that workshops like these help residents understand that the challenges and limitations they see in local news are connected to issues that reach far beyond their town paper. “Local news issues can’t be solved without solving other issues like inequality and racial tension,” Bell says. “Naming those things as being connected, saying ‘this impacts journalists and newsrooms’ is important.”

Going forward, Bell says they’ll work with people in Rocky Mount to build more community space for gathering and for hosting outside journalists interested in making connections with local residents. News Voices’ creative use of community organizing strategies is a reminder that news ecosystems, in which newsrooms are just one part of an interdependent whole, need input and innovation from people with non-journalistic backgrounds to identify and leverage networks of trust.

Learn more:


About the Author

Public Square Intern Kip Dooley wrote this series of case studies on local news ecosystems

Kip Dooley was the Public Square Program’s Summer 2019 graduate intern. This project was originally completed for his MA in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University and was edited for the Local News Lab. You can learn more about Kip and his work here on his personal website.