• 55°

John Hood: Local news needs reader support

By John Hood

RALEIGH — Oh, boy, did I screw up my first attempt at covering a town-council meeting.

It was 1986, and I was spending the summer interning at a weekly newspaper in Nash County called the Spring Hope Enterprise. I had taken newswriting and reporting classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school and served as managing editor of my high school newspaper. But real-world experience was what I needed.

The editor of the Enterprise, Ken Ripley, immediately assigned me to cover a town council meeting. I came, I saw, I thought I conquered. While I got the gist of the proceedings right, I misspelled multiple names, misunderstood a key fact, and missed a promising story lead. It wasn’t just Ken who spotted and corrected my errors. An annoyed town manager called and asked to meet with me. Let’s just say that I never wrote about anyone again without at least checking to make sure I had the name spelled correctly.

I spent the next couple of years working for Ken, off and on, and learned a great deal not only about reporting and editing but also about the critical role that local news organizations play in their communities. (I also started writing a regular column on politics and public policy for the Enterprise in 1986, syndicating it to other papers shortly afterward. You are reading it right now.)

Although I suppose personal experience may explain my continuing affection for local media, you should feel it, too. If you don’t subscribe to your local newspaper, whether in print or in online format, you should. If you don’t listen at least occasionally to news on your local radio station, please do. It is not overstating the case to say that the fate of self-government may hang in the balance.

While there are many problems with today’s media coverage of the president, Congress, the federal courts and national politics, scarcity is not one of them. We are blessed or cursed, as the case may be, with a great number and variety of outlets presenting news, analysis and commentary on national affairs in text, audio video, and multimedia platforms. You can consume highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow. You can read left, right and center. You can listen to raging righties, loony lefties and a bewildering array of podcasts.

When it comes to state and local government, however, news scarcity is very much a problem. As the business model for journalism has changed — we now shop for homes, cars, jobs and other products primarily with online tools rather than ads bundled with news — local outlets have struggled to adjust. Readers, listeners and viewers always paid for what they got, even if they didn’t realize it. The fee was embedded in the prices of goods and services.

Covering political disputes, complicated issues and governmental bodies well requires experienced professionals. State and local journalists were never highly paid but they can’t work for little-to-nothing. Some public-service journalism can and will be funded by philanthropy. That’s the avenue I chose when founding Carolina Journal in 1991. Its print edition, website, statewide radio show and news service reach hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians each month. Other nonprofit enterprises cover North Carolina politics and policy, as well. But they don’t produce much in the way of local news.

When reporters aren’t around to cover counties, municipalities and school boards, the public lacks the basic raw material with which to practice self-government. I’m not saying that our governments are full of creeps, cranks and crooks. Most public servants mean well. But we all need someone looking over our shoulders, checking our premises, asking us hard questions.

According to recent polling, we trust local news outlets more than we do national ones. But unless we accompany that greater trust with greater support, a critically important institution will be lost.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

Comments

Education

RSS budgeting for tens of millions in federal COVID-19 relief funding

East Spencer

‘Back in full swing’ for the spring: East Spencer community gathers for food, fun and fellowship at Spring Fest

Local

Rowan native Lingle among those honored with NC Military Veterans Hall of Fame induction

Business

Former pro baseball player, Tar Heel standout Russ Adams finds new career with Trident Insured

Education

Profoundly gifted: Salisbury boy finishing high school, associates degree at 12

Local

Cheerwine Festival will stick to Main Street, stay away from new park in September

Lifestyle

Celebrating Rowan County’s early cabinetmakers

Education

Service Above Self announces youth challenge winners

Business

Economic Development Commission creates search tool for people seeking Rowan County jobs

Columns

Amy-Lynn Albertson: Arts and Ag Farm Tour set for June 5

High School

High school baseball: Mustangs top Falcons on strength of hurlers

Business

Biz Roundup: Application process now open for Rowan Chamber’s 29th Leadership Rowan class

Sports

Keith Mitchell leads McIlroy, Woodland by 2 at Quail Hollow

Nation/World

States scale back vaccine orders as interest in shots wanes

Nation/World

Major US pipeline halts operations after ransomware attack

News

NC budget dance slowed as GOP leaders differ on bottom line

News

Judge limits footage that family can see of deputy shooting

Coronavirus

People receiving first dose of COVID-19 vaccine grows by less than 1%

Education

Rowan-Salisbury Schools brings Skills Rowan competition back to its roots

Business

Weak jobs report spurs questions about big fed spending

News

Judge limits footage that family can see of deputy shooting in Elizabeth City

Sports

Woodland, two others share lead; Mickelson plays much worse but will still be around for weekend at Quail Hollow

Business

Former NHL player to open mobster themed bar in Raleigh

Nation/World

California population declines for first time