12 votes

What happens when local news outlets don't exist?

1 comment

  1. Kuromantis
    (edited )
    A very (7.5k words) long article about what happens when the county you live in doesn't have a local news outlet. The writer of this went to a small town (311 people as of the 2010 census) called...

    A very (7.5k words) long article about what happens when the county you live in doesn't have a local news outlet. The writer of this went to a small town (311 people as of the 2010 census) called Pollocksville to interview some people, including a few former workers at a local newspaper and the town's mayor. I found this part at the end really relevant:

    A few weeks after leaving Pollocksville, I called the mayor of Pollocksville Jay Bender to tell him that I’d received a tip. Did he really spend sixty-seven thousand dollars of town money, I asked, without the approval of the town board, on rebuilding the town hall where he’d kept an office for decades? He said that he had. “We signed architectural contracts to move the town hall to another lot. We’ll close in the next week or two on the purchase.” This money had to be put toward that specific project, he told me. Anyone who was confused by that “lacks education on the use of public funds,” he said.

    I asked if he could provide proof that the aid was tied to the renovation of the town hall. “Charles,” he said, “this has kind of gone way off the edge from what you said you wanted to talk to me about.” When I had first contacted Bender, in November, I had told him I was writing a piece about news deserts, and what happens when an area goes without substantive reporting. “I kind of feel like I’m being a majorly interviewed person here,” he said. I reminded him that he’d told me previously that if a journalist got a tip about Jay Bender it would be reasonable for that journalist to look into it.

    “I think the minutes and all my reports would reflect that I’ve made no secret of wanting to preserve the town hall,” he said. “No secret at all.” He added, “I have been confronted by a couple of board members who said that I was not being objective. And I have firmly admitted, publicly and privately, that I wanted to see that project succeed.” Bender, returning to an argument he’d made in our first conversation, told me, “Individuals have a personal responsibility to get the facts.” I asked how a poor Pollocksville resident driving to another county to work a twelve-hour day in a factory, then returning home to young children, could realistically be expected to get facts about the financing of a project like the town hall. “Let’s don’t pick on the town hall,” he said.

    As we got toward the end of our conversation, Bender acknowledged that a newspaper could be useful to explain how and why public funds are used for certain projects. And I acknowledged that it was unusual for a reporter from a national magazine to call up the mayor of a town of three hundred people and ask about the paperwork for sixty-seven thousand dollars in public money. Later, Bender sent minutes from town meetings when the subject of the town hall’s preservation was addressed. The notes were mostly brief. Another town commissioner, Sherry Henderson, said, “The proper channels should have been followed,” but pointed out that, at the time these decisions were being made, “We were concerned with survival.” It wasn’t clear whether the town was even going to come back from Hurricane Florence; in some ways, it’s still not clear. The mayor, she suggested, was just trying to get things done.

    It didn’t seem like a dire scandal, but it did seem like the kind of thing that a local reporter might ask about, and might write about, if there were an outlet for such a story. Maybe some tail-burning would have been involved. But no one in Pollocksville had a professional responsibility to ask annoying questions about the things that matter only to the citizens of that town, and to no one else, and to print the answers. I was writing a story that was mostly for other people, who didn’t live here. And a lot of people in Pollocksville wouldn’t necessarily trust what I published—they were only inclined to believe stories from people who’d spent more than a few days in their county, and more than a few months trying to understand it. They had told me so.

    On the phone with the mayor, I sensed the awkwardness of our situation. Somebody else was supposed to be asking these questions.

    7 votes