Where the citizens fill the gaps

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

What happens when a devastating flood comes to a place that probably qualifies as a news desert? How do the residents get essential information?

In the case of Transylvania County, in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, it’s the residents themselves who bridge the gaps —  sharing news in informal networks, on social media and in human contact. It’s a process that illustrates the incredible power of community engagement, but can include some of the perils of sharing information outside the rigors of professional reporting.

When Tropical Storm Fred rolled through the mountains last Monday and Tuesday, media from outside Transylvania County, including WLOS television in Asheville, covered some of the disruptions there. But by Wednesday, most of them had moved on to places such as Haywood County, where the toll at last report was five dead and one person missing.

But while no one died in Transylvania, the flooding there was severe. The Transylvania Times in Brevard, the county’s only newspaper, which publishes print editions on Monday evenings and Thursday mornings, reported on the storm on its website, but its staff is small — one editor and three full-time reporters.

Kevin Smith“So the TV station sees us as a niche,” Kevin Smith, PIO of the Transylvania County Schools since 2014, told me Sunday. “The radio station (he referred to WSQL in Brevard) is under-resourced. The newspaper comes out twice a week … they’re looking to modernize and smooth out the path to getting good information out sooner, whether it’s through a mobile app or through more daily use of social media, but frankly, they don’t have the resources to be the go-to news source.

“There’s no better way to put it: People have had to step in and fill the gap.”

And they did. One was Jessica Whitmire, who preceded Smith in the comms job for the school system.

“Her family owns Headwaters Outfitters in Lake Toxaway, and they were directly affected — they were posting photos and videos to social media showing the water coming right up to their front door,” Smith said.

“By the next morning, it had become clear that they were going to be a hub of good information, and she had already said (on Facebook): We will be at Champion Park, which is right at the headwaters of the French Broad River, we will be there in the parking lot at 9 a.m., ready to mobilize anybody who wants to come and figure out how to get good information or get work done.

“By 9:15, after saying a quick prayer, and doing a quick ‘around the circle,’ folks just started walking. They walked past Rosman Town Hall into a trailer park neighborhood. They walked over into downtown on Main Street where teachers and teacher assistants and other folks in town had had their houses inundated, and may be out of their homes for up to six months.

“Folks just started walking. It was a little miracle.”

The connections for such impromptu missions of assistance, Smith said, are mainly Facebook and Instagram. 

“Individuals started sharing this information, and they have their own networks, so it’s almost like a phone tree on social media. Facebook groups have filled in the breach.” 

The most remarkable of those groups is We Are Brevard NC, which was founded in 2012 and now has about 16,300 members, almost half as many as the county has residents.

Toby BrownToby Brown is the administrator. (His day job, believe it or not, is doing marketing and tour coordination for Outdoor Africa, a safari company based in South Africa.)

The Facebook group has a business focus, Brown told me, but also shares local events, community news and general information. But “reliable news is tough these days, as it seems everyone tends to lean into whatever news source better props up their belief system.” 

And therein, of course, lies the risk. 

“It can be tough on platforms like ours with so many people involved and so much misinformation floating out there that can be shared with the click of a button. We do our best to moderate the group in a way that best serves the community at large…

“Social media has a pretty fantastic way of giving a voice to every single one of us. It allows for worthwhile causes to be amplified. Unfortunately, it also allows for a lot of ignorance and hate to be amplified. As a moderator of a group this size, I believe it’s our responsibility to help cut through that noise and give useful information to as many members and visitors to the group as possible.”

    ➵ Another Facebook group that has shared information and coordinated relief efforts is We Are Rosman NC, which has about 1,500 members. (Rosman’s population is 701.) 

Smith also clearly sees the peril of leaning on social media.

“Understand, it’s a hotbed for every kind of craziness when the administrators turn away for five minutes, and so it’s a constant civic duty for the administrators to try and keep this thing on the straight and narrow.

“Anybody who wants to be reputable and credible is going to make sure that they’re talking with the right folks. There’s a huge swath of our community that is not worried about being reputable and credible; they want to be the people who are out in front and have the first information. And first isn’t always best. So we do an awful lot of backtracking. 

“If anything turns out to be non-credible … going back and getting that, it’s like rice, or noodles, all over the floor. It’s like, ohhhh, now we have to go back and get all of that.”

But he stressed, again, that social media are “one of the ways that people get massively good information in a town like this.”

Other, more traditional community institutions play key roles, Smith said. Churches are crucial hubs of help and information, as is the school system. After the storm, Rosman Fire Rescue sent up its drone to survey the flooding so residents would know where the hazards and the needs were, Smith said. The sheriff’s office, police departments, and Highway Patrol troopers share information with residents. Many people listen to public safety scanners.

The Transylvania County Library, when the pandemic hit last year, “shifted to being the county’s info desk and help line — front line for everything from PPE to masks and where to get treatment,” Smith said. It did the same during and after the storm.

But ideally, “we want to have a more robust media environment,” he said.

Speaking of which: Brown and Smith both said they are fans of the newest source of reliable news in the county…

Dan DeWittDan DeWitt is an Ohio native who worked for 28 years as a local reporter and columnist at the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times. He and his wife, Laura, bought a vacation house in Brevard 11 years ago and, with their kids grown, moved there for good four years ago.

This year he started Brevard NewsBeat, a Substack newsletter that already has 1,500 subscribers, to “dig into issues that impact the local quality of life, economy and environment.”

The Transylvania Times, DeWitt told me, does a good job covering breaking news with its limited resources, “but they essentially don’t do any enterprise reporting. And that’s the niche that I was trying to fill.”

DeWitt goes to the council, commissioners and school board meetings, and he follows up. He has written about schools, economic development, trails, trash, affordable housing and land-use issues, such as the fate of polluted property once used by the Ecusta Mill paper plant in Pisgah Forest. 

He also has done a good bit of real shoe-leather reporting — picking up story tips while working part-time delivering packages throughout the area. “I’ve learned a lot about the county,” he said. “I mean, I know every neighborhood.”

DeWitt’s contribution to the storm reporting was a deeply reported look at what future floods in Transylvania might look like, and possible mitigation efforts.

The Transylvania Times, which had been owned by the Anderson and Trapp families since 1941, was sold this year to CNHI, LLC, which operates more than 90 community newspapers, websites and niche publications in 22 states from its base in Montgomery, Alabama.

The newsroom has four full-time staffers, editor Derek McKissock told me Tuesday. It has a Facebook page, which shared its storm reporting and information on relief efforts with its nearly 12,000 followers. The paper’s print circulation is in four figures. It has no email newsletters.

    ➵ A postscript: I caught Kevin Smith in the final week of his seven-year run with the Transylvania schools. He’s moving on to do marketing and communications for North Carolina Education Corps, leaving some big shoes to fill.