The Assembly: Searching for McClatchy's North Carolina future

I took on a longform assignment for The Assembly to look at the future for NC's big legacy media institutions. It got interesting.

Journalism is awkward.

We ask people to reveal hidden truths and put their stories in our hands. Trust us, we whisper. We can hold your story and act as a mirror, giving it voice, power and independent authority that you couldn’t do on your own. Allow us to expose what’s rotten about your company, your agency, your experience with public accountability issue X, and transparent beams of sunshine will help ail what’s rotten. And don’t worry too much — we’re pros and we got this.

There is truth in that, of course, but like all truth summed up in a pithy aphorisms, the whole thing is more complicated than it’s made out to be.

That difficult bargain that we make as part of the journalistic process becomes immediately apparent when we put ourselves through our own journalistic mill. Few who have power want someone else to hold up a mirror in front of them and describe what they see.

Pushback during the reporting of the piece published yesterday at The Assembly about the newspaper company McClatchy and its North Carolina newspapers — the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer — is only a part of the story. (You can read about the specifics in the story, only a part of the larger tale). I also found as I tried to dive deep on the present and future of these newspapers — and what role they might play in the dire local news and information crisis — is that legacy media is not a huge part of that conversation, in North Carolina and elsewhere. That’s despite the fact that they generally have far more resources than their competitors. In one quote that didn’t make the final piece, Bettina Chang of City Bureau, a progressive non-profit in Chicago that pushes for more authentic storytelling in communities of color, told me:

“It requires people with an imagination about media and community, and those people don’t stick around at legacy newspapers.” (Full disclosure, I worked at City Bureau once upon a time).

As newspapers transition to being reliant on subscriptions, there is a bigger incentive to forge a more genuine relationship with communities they cover — their audience. In this case, Chang and those who advocate for a more just media have said that legacy media need to do more to reckon with their past, which have ignored and played a harmful role in communities of color. For some, it’s about living up to espoused ideals as much as it is sound business practice.

“Figure out what has been good and what has been harmful,” the Free Press’s Alicia Bell told me of one suggestion she advocates for legacy media organizations. Basically, she’s proposing to put up a mirror to journalism itself, that journalists use their own process to look inward. “I think that’s a really good place to start. Developing conversations with community members to figure out what recommendations people have and what people want, and figuring out how to make things possible.”

I could see how fruitful those conversations would be for any community and how they could even work toward bringing people together around shared information needs. I bet, for those who could afford it, they’d even offer a dollar or two toward coverage that helped them navigate the world in a more productive way.

This kind of piece seeking those answers about journalism is a rarity — kudos to editor Kyle Villemain for pushing it forward over the last few months as we worked through more drafts than I’d like to admit. These days, local journalists rarely try to cover other local journalists or find out answers about their businesses and institutions. The days of the newspaper ombudsman — an internal position that would advocate for the public in the newspaper’s own pages — are also long over. Plenty of industries operate in the shadows, with little transparency given the stretched resources of media these days, especially at the local level. We don’t think of it often but local media is on that list, too. What are the consequences?

Yesterday was an interesting day. We got a lot of praise for the piece at least in what people sent to me — and that was cool, and I thank folks who took the time to read and think about the issues raised. But I also wonder what was being said on Slack or in texts at the N&O or in Sacramento at McClatchy HQ, if it made it that far. I wonder if this conversation about legacy media has been advanced at all within its own walls. Or if the business concerns the piece dives into are all-encompassing.

I’ll admit that my attitude when I worked at legacy media organizations was not always productive. My job was to report stories as best I could — the bigger-picture thinking had to come from elsewhere, I often thought. Hopefully, Bettina Chang is wrong and there are more willing to take on these bigger challenges from within legacy institution’s own walls. They have tough jobs under difficult circumstances and the future is uncertain no matter what.

Change doesn’t come from one story, but for all of us who do this kind of work we hope it’s a start for a deeper, more informed conversation that leads to progress. Isn’t that what journalism is supposed to be all about?

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