Jul 13, 2022 - News

North Carolina's local news scene is changing

Illustration of a crumbling newspaper
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After 118 years in business, the Mount Olive Tribune closed its doors last month, leaving the small town in the Goldsboro metro without a newspaper.

The Tribune's closure is hardly an anomaly. Around two newspapers in the U.S. are closing every week, according to a new report, suggesting the local news crisis made worse by the pandemic will continue to grow in coming years, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The lack of reliable local news compounds governance issues that make communities less efficient and prosperous. One study suggests government costs increase when local newspapers shutter.

  • "At a minimum, the loss of local news worsens the political, cultural and economic divisions in this country," said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill and primary author of the report.
  • At the same time, though, the changing news landscape has given way to a new era of news: One that challenges traditional journalism and seeks to inform the public and hold leaders to account in more accessible ways.

The bad news: Around 7% of America's counties — six in North Carolina — now have no local news outlet and around 20% are at risk of their communities becoming news deserts in the foreseeable future.

  • The surviving newspapers are a fraction of their former size, and revenues and profits have significantly declined. In 2005, newspaper revenues topped $50 billion compared to roughly $20 billion today.
  • Newspaper employment has fallen by around 70% since 2006, with the most significant cuts (82%) attributed to production and distribution staff. The number of editorial staffers in local newsrooms have dropped by 58% to 31,000.
  • The decline of local newsrooms has in part led to the rapid rise of "hyperpartisan" websites that masquerade as local news sources.
  • "We suspect many of the local sites are not based in or actually operating within the communities they serve," Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli, both of Duke University, wrote in 2020.

The good news: A flurry of new outlets — many with a mandate of bolstering local news reporting — have launched in North Carolina in the last year or so, including digital magazine The Assembly, Axios Raleigh and daily legislative newsletter NC Tribune.

Yes, but: Many new outlets popping up, including Axios Raleigh, cover the big city, leaving more rural parts of the state still under-covered, further driving disparities between rural and urban areas.

  • All hope is not lost, though, as North Carolina is also home to a handful of nonprofit news outlets that cover the far reaches of the state, including Border Belt Independent and Carolina Public Press.
  • The Assembly also regularly writes stories about more under-covered parts of North Carolina. This story was one of Lucille’s favorites.
  • "Every county deserves that same depth of coverage," said Kyle Villemain, founder and editor of the statewide digital magazine The Assembly, which launched in 2021. "I don't want to live in a state where just Charlotte and Raleigh get the kind of interesting, compelling coverage that every county should have."

Meanwhile, existing outlets are joining together to make up for shrinking news coverage.

"Local news isn't dying," Villemain said. "We are re-envisioning what it means to do reporting."

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