By Neil Offen
It started with a sense of loss.
Over the last dozen or so years, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community had experienced the disappearance of a number of local newspapers — The Chapel Hill News, The Chapel Hill Herald, The Carrboro Citizen. It was not a unique phenomenon. Across the nation, more than 2,000 American newspapers have closed in the last 15 years. Around 40% of journalists have either lost their jobs or been furloughed since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
But that sense of loss was especially acute in such an educated, engaged and active community like Chapel Hill-Carrboro. A number of community members were understandably concerned about the effects of such a loss: according to numerous research studies, when newspapers die, property taxes go up, voting participation goes down and civil discourse ebbs. Corruption increases because no one is watching. Our sense of community and our trust in democracy suffer.
Nearly three years ago, those concerns prompted a small group of community activists — a number of whom had been involved in saving another local institution, the Chelsea movie theater — to consider creating a new local news source in our community. The first step they took was to survey local residents. They received nearly 1,000 responses to the survey, with the vast majority saying we needed a new local newspaper.
With no specific political agenda, no money-making scheme, the community group, calling themselves The Friends of Local Journalism, created The Local Reporter as a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) corporation. From the beginning, The Local Reporter was designed to be, as journalist Jock Lauterer, puts it, “relentlessly local,” an online news startup serving Chapel Hill, Carrboro and southern Orange County.
Working with an all-volunteer staff, The Local Reporter launched its website, thelocalreporter.press almost exactly two years ago.
The goal was — and remains — to offer rigorous reporting on issues including the activities of local government, the university, law enforcement, development and our schools. The plan was also to publish features on local sports, arts, dining, music and obituaries. Equally important, from the start TLR was intended to be a site for a civil forum for public debate, through guest columns and letters to the editor.
The website was meant only to be a prototype of what a truly local paper could be. Nonetheless, over the two years of publishing, The Local Reporter has published a number of important stories.
They include the impact of high-density projects in Chapel Hill; OWASA’s long-range plan to secure an adequate water supply; and proposals to mitigate flooding in the Booker Creek watershed. TLR has reported on local student climate activism; an effort to change cash bail; vandalism in a Chapel Hill cemetery; and whether police should remain in our schools. Plus, there have been a wide range of stories about the coronavirus impact on our area, including feeding schoolkids when there’s no school, how local churches have adapted to social distancing, the rise in domestic violence incidents, how students who graduated high school during the pandemic are adapting to college, among many more.
In addition to its news coverage, TLR also regularly publishes columns on gardening, wildlife, local real estate, biking, photography and baby boomer humor.
Meanwhile, The Local Reporter has indeed offered a platform to community members who have shared their opinions on development, the pandemic, homelessness, the criminal justice system and deer hunting, among many other subjects.
The site also continues to evolve. Recently, it has added coverage of school board and town council meetings, obituaries and a personal finance column, increased its local arts coverage and plans to add movie reviews.
The Local Reporter currently reaches around 3,000 regular readers. The free-access website is updated frequently and TLR sends out, as well, a weekly news email. Plans still include, if funding allows, a printed weekly for those who prefer a physical newspaper.
Two years on, the site remains a work in progress, a developing example of what a full-fledged local news platform can be and what Chapel Hill-Carrboro deserves.