NC Local for Feb. 3: The crabgrass, and the palm trees, in our back yard

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Feb. 3 edition: NCPA conference agenda, remembering editor and mentor Mike Yopp, journalism shoutouts, jobs and opportunities; DTH prevails in UNC suit and reveals misleading communication in Silent Sam legal settlement. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

In the local news landscape in North Carolina, speaking metaphorically:

There are some “weeds growing up in the empty lots,” as Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project says about the creep of disinformation. And there are partisan pitches masquerading as news. But here and there, an oasis is growing in a news desert — with some help from our community of purpose.

My final takeaways from speakers at the NC Local News Summit / The Power of Many

GETTING IN THE WEEDS

Philip Napoli, professor of public policy at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and Asa Royal, research associate at the center:

Napoli, who will become director of the DeWitt Wallace Center in July, for years has been researching the health and quality of local news beyond the metrics, in a qualitative way: Is this reporting really local? Is it original? Does it address community needs? Recently he and Royal have been digging into the rise of hyperpartisan sites in the guise of local news. You can read some of the findings in this Nieman Lab piece.

Royal and Napoli report that in North Carolina, an organization called Metric Media has 49 digital outlets, deployed all at once in 2018, with home pages that are nearly identical and with content that’s often dated, much of which links to a single source called Old North News.

“They’re a combination of pay-for-play reporting, where political operatives will pay to place stories, and partisan reporting disguised as local reporting,” said Royal, who has looked into the sources of the content. The names of the sites are tied to localities, Royal said, but the “content they report is not really local — or news.” Most of it, Royal said, is computer-generated, and the few human journalists who contribute to the sites are from outside North Carolina.

(I took screen shots, above, on Tuesday morning, February 2, of the homepages of Onslow News and Cabarrus Today. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that the “hometowns” of these two Metric Media sites are more than 200 miles apart — or that both of the top two stories were written before last fall’s election.)

You can learn more in Napoli’s and Royal’s presentation at the Local News Summit, beginning at 36:40 on the summit video.

Meanwhile, Napoli said he wants to help cultivate collaborations in the state’s news and information ecosystem:

‘I would really love … to make the DeWitt Wallace Center a research collaborator, a research resource, specifically on questions related to journalism within the state.’

If you want to work with the center, learn more about its research or discuss other topics, contact Napoli or Royal. 

   ➵ More on the network that includes Metric Media and on Brian Timpone, who’s behind its rise, is in this report from The New York Times in October and this CJR piece from 2018 by freelance journalist Jeremy Borden, who’s now based in Durham.

   ➵ Colin Campbell of the NC Insider looks at NC news sites funded by out-of-state political organizations (News & Observer subscriber-only link).

   ➵ Napoli and Royal on Monday published this take on advertisers’ role in enabling disinformation.

BUILDING THE OASIS

Anika Anand, deputy director of LION Publishers:

Anand, who grew up in Kinston, brought the better news. She helps LION support independent digital news organizations, and in that role she also works with Google News Initiative to help local newsrooms get started, and with Tiny News Collective, a LION partnership with News Catalyst, to help launch sustainable local news outlets by supplying them with affordable resources and support. (More on that in my January 6 newsletter.)

LION, which has 17 members in North Carolina, is working on a database of all local independent news publishers in the United States and Canada as part of Project Oasis, working with the UNC Hussman School, the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC and Douglas K. Smith. It’s also creating a playbook for startups — collecting tools, tips, templates and other resources.

In a conversation with Melanie Sill, interim executive director of the NC Local News Workshop (at 1:40:25 on the summit video), Anand had this advice for startups:

  • Identify a problem you want to solve for the audience you want to reach.
  • Understand the challenges your potential audience faces as you develop a solution.
  • Start quickly — build a minimum viable product, get feedback, experiment and make changes. 
  • Connect with peers and share what you’re learning.

LION can also help existing newsrooms adopt new strategies, Anand said, if they’re willing to rethink their “core hypotheses.”

The resources, and a request 

➡️ Here’s the Big Resource Document from the summit, which was hosted by the NC Local News Workshop at Elon with support from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC. It’s a collection of links and resources from all of the speakers, presentations and breakout sessions.

➡️ I’d love to hear and share your thoughts — and also to hear about any initiatives you launch based on ideas, knowledge or resources you gained from the summit. My DMs are open, or you can email me.