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Local news: after turmoil, rays of hope
Newspapers have slashed jobs and reduced local coverage in the last 15 years. But many people who work in local news see reasons for optimism.
On Thursdays in March, The Ledger is marking its 4th birthday by taking readers behind the scenes of our operation. Today, we are examining the evolution of local news over the last few decades — and where The Ledger fits into that scene.
Local news in Charlotte and elsewhere has suffered because of steep newspaper cutbacks. But new publications are working to reverse that trend.
by Tony Mecia
When Carolyn Callison Murray started her first job at the St. Joseph Gazette in 1977, reporters at the Missouri newspaper had just started using computers to write articles.
By the time she retired in 2015 as editor of the Myrtle Beach Sun News, technology had transformed local news. Articles were easier to research, with a mini-computer in everyone’s hands. Sources were easier to reach, through social media or text messages, instead of calling on landline phones — the kind with cords.
But technology also brought a darker side for newspapers, in the form of newer and more efficient ways for advertisers to reach customers. It upended longstanding business models and ushered in waves of layoffs and sharp cutbacks.
Those cutbacks, Murray says, have come at a cost. Across the country, fewer independent eyes are looking out for the interests of the public.
“We’ve lost the watchdog role that journalists play, from the big to the small,” she says. “We’re just not devoting the kind of time we used to be able to devote to those kinds of things. Communities have lost in that equation.”
For nearly 40 years, Murray was part of an industry that transformed and shrank. And for a few of those years, starting in 1998, I worked for her. It was my first reporting job, covering the city of Gastonia in The Charlotte Observer’s Gaston County office. One of Murray’s other hires, in 2000, was a young Associated Press reporter named Cristina Bolling, who many of you now know as The Ledger’s managing editor.
This month in The Ledger, in honor of our 4th birthday, we are highlighting our story and taking readers behind the scenes of our operation. We’re also pushing to get to 2,500 paying members by the end of this month — and letting people know how they can help in our mission to deliver smart information to Charlotte.
Today, we’re looking at how journalism has evolved since the late 1990s, when Cristina and I, early in our careers, honed our reporting and writing skills at government meetings, murder scenes and neighborhoods in Gaston County. And we’ll examine where The Ledger fits into the larger universe, and what the future of local news might look like.
The golden age of newspapers
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the late 1990s, The Observer had satellite newsrooms in surrounding towns: Gastonia, Hickory, Concord, Statesville, Monroe and Rock Hill. The bureaus, as they were called, produced bonus newspaper sections for readers in those counties. For young reporters, those offices also served as farm teams for The Observer’s main uptown Charlotte newsroom on South Tryon Street (now home to the Legacy Union office tower development). Prove yourself in a bureau for a few years, and you could land a coveted uptown reporting spot.
The Observer’s bureaus competed fiercely with local papers in those counties. In Gastonia, we had fewer people than the rival Gaston Gazette. But by today’s standards, our newsroom was robust, with 10 reporters, three editors and a couple full-time photographers producing a separate section seven days a week. We worked out of a metal building on East Long Avenue, down the street from the police station and around the corner from a fried food joint called The Shrimp Boat.
Gastonia was a great news town. It was proudly gritty, with a more rough-and-tumble identity than Charlotte, but with some of the same tensions surrounding growth and the conflict between old and new. There were some famous news stories our bureau covered extensively around that time: The Loomis Fargo heist took place about a year before I arrived, and one of our fellow reporters wrote a book about it. The disappearance of Asha Degree, which remains a mystery, took place about a year and a half after I got there.
Asked this week about that era, Murray said she recalls a lot of meetings and thoughtful deliberations about the kinds of articles the community needed.
“Putting breaking news aside, it was all guided by what are the local issues for this community that we should delve into in a way that adds context and usefulness for the people who live here?” she said. “We had more time to think about what approach we were going to take and how we were going to tell the story.”
In daily print journalism, there was basically a single deadline, at the end of the day — so reporters and editors typically had time throughout the day to develop well-formed articles with context. In contrast, with the pressures of 24-7 digital publishing and social media, “today feels a lot like the Oscar-winning movie this year: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’” Murray said.
Although the internet revolution was beginning, newspapers saw little reason to innovate. They were financially successful, and many in the industry figured newspapers were irreplaceable.
“We were like, ‘La-de-da-de-da — no one is ever going to take their computer terminal into the bathroom in the morning. They will always need a print publication,’” Murray recalls.
Murray left The Observer in 2000 for its sister publication in Myrtle Beach, The Sun News. I joined The Observer’s business desk in Charlotte in 2001. Cristina came into the Charlotte newsroom in 2002.
In the 2000s, cracks started to appear in newspapers’ business models. An upstart buy-and-sell website called Craigslist was gaining popularity and cutting into papers’ classified ad revenue. Papers started posting their articles online, but finding a way to make that profitable proved elusive.
When the recession hit in 2008-2009, advertising revenue plunged. It kept falling throughout the next decade, as advertisers took their money to new tech platforms like Google and Facebook, which allowed more precise customer targeting. Advertising revenue at McClatchy — the parent company of The Observer, the News & Observer, the Sun News and other papers — fell from $2.1 billion in 2005 to $337 million in 2019, a decline of 84%. With those numbers, layoffs and buyouts were inevitable.
Advertising revenue plunged 84% at McClatchy newspapers between 2005 and 2019, resulting in big cutbacks. (Source: SEC filings)
Among the casualties were The Observer’s regional bureaus, including the one in Gastonia. It’s now the office of a heating and air conditioning contractor.
‘Doing more with less’
By 2009, some of the cutbacks had started. Against that backdrop, Glenn Burkins decided it was time for a change. He had been a Wall Street Journal reporter and came to The Observer as its business editor. For a few years, he was my editor, until he was promoted.
Asked this week about the start of those cuts, Burkins said: “It was depressing. I was going to a lot of meetings where we were talking about doing more with less.”
He says he saw that news was shifting online, and he harbored a dream of starting a locally focused digital publication for a Black audience. So he did. He founded QCity Metro, one of Charlotte’s first digital-only publications.
Those early years were tough, he says. He drew down his savings and “went years without making a dime.” Advertisers didn’t know what to make of a small online, independent local media startup.
“There was no model,” he says. “I felt like I was pioneering something entirely new here to some degree.”
Meanwhile, in Myrtle Beach, Murray was growing tired of the shifting tactics to try to prop up the business.
“We kept having these meetings on strategy,” she said. “And we’d come up with a strategy. And we’d do it for a minute. Then we would try another strategy. It felt a lot like we were just panicking. We weren’t thoughtful about it.”
In 2015, after being asked to implement another round of layoffs, she said she decided she had had enough and that she asked to be among the group of employees who were let go. The newsroom of 65 when she started there about 15 years earlier had shrunk to 12 people. Other McClatchy papers had endured similar deep cuts, including The Observer and News & Observer, whose newsrooms today are around 1/5 the size that they were in their heyday.
Murray bristles as some modern media practices — like rewriting press releases with no context, and getting caught up in “driving traffic” with crime news and kitten videos. “That’s not what we bring to the table,” she says. “We put things in context. That’s our role as journalists.”
Yet she says she’s optimistic, because there are still journalists out there doing high-quality work. She’s retired now and lives in Greensboro and was judging a journalism contest this week in Atlantic City, where she says she has seen “really good work that’s being done around the country.”
News deserts and ‘ghost’ papers
In 2020, a study by UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school documented the depths of the problem. It found that in the 15 previous years, 1/4 of the country’s newspapers disappeared, and along with them, about half of the country’s local journalists. The cuts left “residents in thousands of communities — inner-city neighborhoods, suburban towns and rural villages — living in vast news deserts,” it said.
While much of the decline was inevitable because of business conditions, the study said, “some of the harm has been self-inflicted.” It continued:
An initial lethargy, or arrogance, at many newspapers hindered innovation and a quick response to a rapidly shifting environment. As the industry went into free fall, many newspaper owners also adopted the business practices introduced by the large private equity and hedge fund owners that prioritized bottom-line performance over journalism’s civic mission, dooming hundreds of news organizations to irrelevance.
Because of the cutbacks, even some of the papers that remained are “‘ghosts,’ or shells of their former selves,” the study said.
Today, though, many people who work in local news say they see reasons for optimism.
Eric Frederick, a freelance writer who spent nearly 40 years at the News & Observer and writes a newsletter about local news called N.C. Local, says there are now plenty of examples of entrepreneurs working to address the problem — as well as a new understanding by readers and philanthropic donors that the stakes are high. He says it’s a “life or death problem for democracy.”
“There is enough urgency around the problem of the decline in resources for local news, and there are smart people working on it,” he says. “I am optimistic that things will get better.”
The Ledger, which started in 2019, is one small part of that solution. There are plenty of other promising experiments that have started in recent years. In Charlotte, the lineup of upstarts includes Axios Charlotte, Queen City Nerve and Unpretentious Palate. Across North Carolina, there are other examples including The Assembly,and Asheville Watchdog. There are Substack newsletters now that cover Indian Land, S.C.; Brevard, N.C. politics, the N.C. General Assembly and local arts. The technology of producing information is getting easier, and the barriers to entry are lower. Consumers have more choices: Different publications find different pockets of readers.
None will ever rival the reach and influence of local newspapers of 20 years ago. Collectively, the number of reporters and writers in Charlotte is still fewer than at its peak.
A McClatchy editor was quoted in 2021 saying she believed that new publications such as Axios Charlotte, The Ledger and others “have audiences so small that they don’t even register on Comscore,” referring to an analytics service that measures web traffic. (The Ledger, which is primarily an email newsletter, does not consider website clicks to be a relevant data point to the success of our business.)
At QCity Metro, Burkins has been expanding the operation lately and now has a staff of eight — a stark contrast from its leaner early days: “That’s a long way from where we used to be,” he says.
Unlike when he started the publication 14 years ago, he feels as though QCity Metro and others are making headway.
“I don’t think we have solved the local news problem by any means,” he says. “If you put all of our resources together, we don’t begin to touch what The Charlotte Observer used to be. But we are building. … It feels like there are people who are stepping up to try to do new things. Some of these things may work, and some may not. But it feels like we’re in a lab, where we are at least attempting to address the problem.”
Tony Mecia founded The Charlotte Ledger in 2019. He was a reporter and a business editor at The Charlotte Observer from 1998 to 2009. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Related Ledger articles:
“Why I started The Ledger” (by Tony, March 10, 2020)
“Why I joined The Ledger” (by Cristina, April 19, 2020)
“The future of Charlotte media is digital and niche” (Nov. 15, 2019)
🎧 Ledger origin story podcast: Listen to Tony and Cristina discuss building The Charlotte Ledger in a recent episode of The Charlotte Ledger Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other major podcast platforms.