A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit a small newspaper in Whiteville, North Carolina.
Sounds thrilling already, I know.
The drive was long, and I had to get up slightly earlier than I would have liked to in order to get there.
As my group member, Mary Glen, and I drove down to Columbus County, we joked about this being the “real North Carolina.” Winding back roads twisting through miles of rolling farmland, and plenty of Confederate battle flags flying along the way.
When we finally reached Whiteville and pulled up to the News Reporter, it didn’t seem like anything too grand. A modest office building with a well kept front, and a picturesque lawn sign letting people know the paper had been there since 1896. We were trying to get video for a Media Hub story on news deserts, and this little paper in Whiteville was the last line of defense for Columbus County.
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. I have never been especially interested in print media. I have the utmost respect for it, but the prospect of being a print journalist never thrilled me. You hear horror stories about print being a dying medium, and I would be lying if I said that didn’t slightly scare me away from anything that had to do with print.
As soon as we walked in the door, I could sense there was something different about this paper.
It wasn’t sleepy or slow like I had expected. It was buzzing. Full of friendly people working on everything from digital advertising content, to what would be in Thursday’s paper. Each and every person had a smile on their face, and after sitting down with them and meeting almost the entire staff, I knew why.
They love what they do. They believe in what they do, and who they do it for.
They stressed that journalism should never be about the money, but about the people you serve. Your community deserves to know the ins and outs of what is happening. They’re busy people, just like you. They have kids to get out the door and money to make, and if you can help their day out just slightly by giving profiles on who is running for county commissioner, then that’s a job well done.
It shouldn’t matter how much air time you’re getting, or whether or not your story is above or below the fold. The people we serve as journalists deserve to know the answers to tough questions from their president, governor, or mayor.
During our interview with the publisher of the News Reporter, Les High, he said something I think should be plastered on the walls of every journalism school across the country: opinions are easy, but facts are hard.
As a journalist, you have a front seat to the best and worst of humanity. Already in my time as a student journalist at UNC, I’ve covered rallies and causes I would lay down my life for. At other times, I’ve sat through meetings and decisions I couldn’t believe. It’s difficult to write objectively about a Confederate statue standing on campus when you have friends that feel intimidated and distraught by its presence. It’s difficult to write objectively about the effects of new Title Nine policies on your campus when you know too many women that have experienced sexual assault, but if it were easy everyone would do it.
It’s not hard for me to write these blog posts and tell you what I think mindfulness means or how all of the Marvel movies should be ranked, but I also know, in the end, that this isn’t what’s going to fulfill me.
In coming to the Media and Journalism School at UNC, I made the choice to lay down my opinions and present the facts in order to help people form their own, because knowledge is power. Sometimes I think we, as students, get swept up in thinking about these grand jobs we might have one day at CNN, NPR, or the Washington Post. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about breaking news, grilling high profile politicians, and getting the inside story. It seems so glamorous.
But being at the News Reporter reminded me of something very important that my professors and assignments at the MJ School seemed to be teaching me, without me even realizing it: the facts and the people you serve should always be at the center of every story.
Here’s the finished story for Media Hub about news deserts, and how papers like the News Reporter are adapting in order to survive.