Let’s talk about relationships

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Eric here. If you haven’t read the Nieman Lab piece by Durham’s John Zhu on the usefulness of local reporting on schools (particularly coverage by The News & Observer), it’s here. It was adapted from a post on his blog, Palette.

I’d say he sums up his critique of common news philosophy when he writes that “covering school board meetings doesn’t serve the community if you

John Zhu
John Zhu

are not actually covering the things that the community wants and needs to know about its schools.” In his case, that mostly means reporting on schools’ specific measures to protect their charges from COVID. His was a call for less reactive reporting and for more proactive coverage — answering readers’ questions on unresolved issues, holding leaders’ feet to the fire. 

(Before we go further: As many of you know, I spent more than three decades in the N&O newsroom, ending in February 2019.)

Zhu, a communications professional, was a sports correspondent in Durham for three years before working for several years in design and editing on the sports desks of The Herald-Sun and The State in Columbia.

He says his critique could apply to the state of local news almost anywhere.

“I wrote about The N&O’s coverage because that’s my main local news source, so that’s the coverage I see,” he told me Tuesday, “but the reaction to the piece showed that this is obviously an issue in many other communities….”

“I think it just points to the ongoing challenge and need for local journalism outlets everywhere to re-envision their relationship to their communities and how that relationship affects the kind of journalism they produce.”

Sharif Durhams
Sharif Durhams

I also reached out to Sharif Durhams, managing editor and interim executive editor of The N&O and The Herald-Sun. In addition to expressing disappointment that he was not contacted for comment before Nieman Lab published Zhu’s post, here’s his response:

“We had all of the same questions [Zhu had]. We also had questions about the policies at hospitals, large employers, grocery stores, bars, public buildings and many other places that were making decisions this summer about reopening. When we answered those questions, we often had those same questions again days later because policies kept changing.

“So we did our best to provide guidance. We asked readers what questions they wanted answered. We put expert guidance in stories and videos, so that people would have an idea of how they might behave, whatever the policy turned out to be. We wrote what we knew about school policies when those policies were decided and when we thought a lot of people would pay attention to those stories.

“As the piece notes, we answered many of the questions raised about schools with single stories that included the answers from several school districts.

“We know people want even more. That’s one reason we are adding to our staff this fall, so that we can boost our ability to answer practical questions that will help parents and others make decisions.”

I asked Zhu whether he had additional thoughts after absorbing the reaction to his post. Here’s what he said by email (words in parentheses are Zhu’s; those in brackets are mine):

“In case anyone gets the wrong impression … I definitely didn’t write the piece just to cast stones. As I noted [Monday] on Twitter, I may prod The N&O (and other journalism outlets) from time to time, but I will always support local journalists. Having been one myself, I fully appreciate the importance of their work and recognize the challenges and pressures they are facing. I also have friends and former colleagues who work at The N&O. 

“What I wrote came from frustration — both as a former journalist and as a parent — at what seemed to be missed opportunities to really serve the community, and a desire to see that change.

“If we want to see journalists do better, though, we need to support them. That’s why I keep subscribing even though I may rant about The N&O’s work (and my travails with their customer service) sometimes. It’s also why I plan to donate what Nieman Lab is paying me for rerunning the piece to local journalism outlets (including The N&O, if I can find a donate link on their site). 

“Since I complained about what I considered to be insufficient coverage, I guess I should also point to some good coverage. One example I saw today was a story from WRAL [by Travis Fain]. It’s based on a recent study, so in a way still kind of reactive, but I liked that the second half of the story then went beyond the study and dug into what local schools (or at least Wake County schools) have done on the issue of ventilation. I particularly liked that it provided context that’s useful for parents [on types of filters being used, and their empirically measured effectiveness]…  

“I would love to see more reporting that doesn’t wait for an event (e.g., a new study) to dig into these topics from perspectives that help parents make decisions and take action.”

We should see this episode as an opportunity. North Carolina’s news and information community is an innovative place full of smart people, so let’s keep this conversation going. Please click here and share your insights on local news providers’ relationship with their communities, the challenge of meeting community needs, and any other thoughts or ideas you have. We’ll talk about them in future newsletters and other forums.

(And don’t forget that great force multiplier: Collaboration.)