A conversation with Antionette Kerr of Davidson Local

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

I recently got to chat with Antionette Kerr, co-founder with Kassaundra Lockhart of Davidson Local, a free, ad-supported, hyperlocal digital news site in Davidson County. 

Members of Davidson Local
Some of the Davidson Local crew, celebrating the Lexington Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 Emerging Entrepreneur Small Business Award. Left to right: Business reporter Vikki Broughton Hodges, reporter Brooke Maners, co-founder Antionette Kerr, editor/reporter Ken Lack, and co-founder and Managing Editor Kassaundra Lockhart.

Davidson Local is a subsidiary of Bold & Bright Media, Kerr’s multimedia publishing company. The news site was launched in 2021 in partnership with Magic Mile Media, a Kinston-based marketing firm led by BJ Murphy that had launched another hyperlocal site in 2018, Neuse News, to cover Kinston and Lenoir County. Both sites provide local news and opinion, investigations and coverage of culture, education and health news.

Kerr worked for more than a decade in the nonprofit world before leaving to pursue writing and publishing as a career. She co-wrote a guide titled Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits and worked as The North Carolina/Tennessee producer for radio with The Public News Service. She’s a board member, director and consultant for multiple nonprofit agencies and has provided training through Women AdvaNCe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The National Council of Nonprofits, Nonprofit Marketing Guide and The Nonprofit Academy. 

Kerr told me that Davidson Local also just added Sidney Briggs, a high school senior who “really wants to be a journalist,” as an intern. “As former interns, Kassaundra and I got so excited about the next generation,” Kerr said.

Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Tell me how you got started in the news business.

First of all, I’m a local news nerd. I’ve worked in the industry since 1995. I started with our local newspaper (The Dispatch in Lexington). At that time they were owned by The New York Times, and I worked as a student with our (Lexington High School) paper, and we put the paper together at the local newspaper. They were kind enough to let us come and invade their space, and I was fascinated with the news world, and reporters. And that was the era of cut and paste — like, literally, we had those knives — you remember those?

Uh, yeah, sure.

And I would walk through the newsroom and I would hear the fax machines, all these things going off. Anyway  — loved it. So whenever I turned working age, my mom was like, you know, you need to get a job. My mom worked at a local restaurant, and I was terrified that I was gonna have to do that. And I went to a mentor of mine, and I was like, “I just want to write. I want to work at a paper.” So I ended up being an intern at the local newspaper. And I worked in circulation — I took stops and starts. So people called, and I remember folks being like, “You throw those papers in my rose bushes again, we’re gonna get you!” And I was like, “Ma’am, are you communicating a threat?” That’s what I did. I loved it so much. And I would wander out and bother reporters.

Later I did freelance for them. I was a columnist for them… up until the day that Gannett came in and fired all of the columnists, even people that were working for free. It kind of broke our hearts. I started my column as “Just Sayin’” … because “Just sayin’” was like … you hear all those awkward things, you know, so-and-so, and you’re like, “That’s pretty racist. Just sayin’.

And then you got into journalism at UNC.

Yeah, I worked for The Daily Tar Heel, and I worked under Sharif Durhams. I thought he was such a great editor. He walked in the room and you knew that it was going down on the journalism side. He was pretty awesome…

So you know when we used to sleep on couches there? And you weren’t going anywhere if you didn’t spend the night there. And I was like, “But I have grades!” And you have to pass a grammar slammer, which took me way too long…

In my mind, I thought I would be on a track to be an editor at The Daily Tar Heel, which is like, isn’t that the thing that’s gonna lead you to USA TODAY or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? But I left, and people were like, “OK, you’ve lost your mind if this is what you want to do.” But I kind of liked this idea of revolutionary media, and reviving the Black Ink (the publication of the Black Student Movement at UNC). And we did.

I was under the vision of Chuck Stone, who was just beyond beyond. I mean, I wanted to get in his classes, but I couldn’t get in. And that was hard. But he ended up being the advisor for the Black Ink. 

He got me an interview with OJ’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran. And the only thing I could not ask him is, “Did OJ do it?” And I got to interview Angela Davis. 

What was she like?

Oh, my goodness. Prison industrial complex. I’d never heard those words put together. She was intense. Yeah, there was so much education in one little interview that it’s hard to take it in. I mean, for a student I was out of my league — and all I remembered was prison … industrial … complex. I thought we would be talking about the Black Panthers. And I wasn’t prepared, to be honest. So I felt really small talking to this larger-than-life woman.

Yeah, I think she wrote the book on that. So … later you worked at a housing agency for a while. Tell me about that.

Yeah. I grew up in substandard housing. I grew up in poverty. And so I thought that I was going to be a journalist, but I went to South Africa, and that’s when I kind of shifted and added African-American Studies as a major because I worked with people in poverty, and I realized that they didn’t have the types of programs that we have in our government in the United States. And as someone who grew up living in substandard housing, that was one thing that I felt like I could help shift and change. And I was actually going to stay there and work for an NGO in South Africa for a little while. I was gonna just quit at Carolina and just, like, sell everything, you know, that kid passion that we used to have and I’m gonna change the world, right? 

You keep testing my memory.

Well, I was like, I’m just here, I’m going to sell everything and change the world. Because I just didn’t see that happening through journalism. Thankfully, through The Dispatch, I had done a New York Times editorial internship. I’d worked for The Daily Tar Heel. I had helped revive the Black Ink with the help of amazing people, including Chuck Stone. I won the Ernest H. Abernathy Prize for editor of a student publication, a Chancellor’s Award, while I was there. But I still just couldn’t see the path of trying to change the world through journalism. So I worked in the nonprofit space (as executive director of Lexington Housing Community Development Corp.).

So then, what inspired you to do Davidson Local?

Well first, Kassaundra Lockhart and I, we both had been interns at The Dispatch. We’ve been all around, we’ve been through the magazine, we’ve been through all the iterations. We’re very fond of the people there, and grateful to them …

I knew I would want to start a publishing company. Actually, I did, in Bold & Bright Media, which is a book publishing company. I did not start a newspaper publishing company until we didn’t have a way or space to publish. 

And Bold & Bright Media is very similar … We’re just trying to be here, bringing these stories from people that you wouldn’t hear from otherwise. And the thing I love about Bold & Bright Media is that our nonprofit guides are short, they’re small. They’re print-on-demand, and they’re really designed for people who aren’t necessarily going back to school — they’re just trying to learn. And it’s the same thing with Davidson Local.

So Davidson Local is free. We’re not trying to take the place of another media source. We’re just trying to get people to understand how they can get information, something quick, or stories that other people aren’t telling. That’s one big thing that we do. We did a whole series on questions that a lot of people in the community had about a Rosenwald school, a historically Black school. And a lot of people don’t have the time to invest in that, or the relationships, which is another thing. Because not everybody’s gonna talk to you about everything. I’m a journalist, so I’m pretty damn open. But the level of trust that you have to have in a community is very different.

So how did you get this thing on its feet?

Well, one big help was Neuse News, which is out of Kinston, and their model of hyperlocal. We keep using this term, hyperlocal, because if it’s not local, we don’t publish it. 

BJ Murphy (president and CEO of Magic Mile Media) down in Kinston — he was the former mayor there, and he had a model that a friend of mine connected me with. And I saw that whole model and I thought, “OK, I like the hyperlocal idea because it really gets to what a lot of people in the community were complaining about. You know, “We can get AP news all day long. There’s a ton we can watch on TV. But how do we know what’s happening at school board? Or city council?” So we modeled it after Neuse News and connected with BJ Murphy, and his team helped us on the back end. And, you know, one thing he told us — and I think that’s hard for me as a journalist, you know, Kassaundra and I are kind of wordy if you haven’t noticed — he was like, you’ve got to get it out. 

So we went digital — obviously print costs money, but we wanted it to be free. And we actually trained some seniors — and seniors are more tech savvy than people want to give them, because if you want to see your grandparents on Facebook, like your grandchildren on Facebook, you’ll do it. You will do it. … And there’s a whole group of seniors that love one part of our paper. It’s so interesting, because if Miss Cathy doesn’t publish her thing … 

(That’s Cathy’s Creative Corner, written by Catherine Lyons. “We jokingly call it our soap opera that attracts an older audience,” the website says.)

So give seniors more credit. And more than 90% of our traffic is coming from a cell phone. 

How did you train them?

Well, we held little sessions or went to events, and we showed them how to subscribe. We showed them: “So now it comes to your cell phone every day.” If they have an email address, then you can get it. It’ll come to your phone. 

And you know, these are the same folks waiting for a paper to be delivered to their homes. They’re getting things in the mail, which are two to three days late. So for example, if you’re looking for weather information or whatever, you can watch it on television and hope they talk about Davidson County. But Davidson County doesn’t have a television station. So you can get it on your phone.

Our next iteration would be to have an app. I mean, we would love to do that. But right now, if you have an email address, it can come to you. They weren’t thinking about it that way. It was just a matter of going into events — and we’ve done a lot of events. We have been so event oriented — you know, we’ve done at least two or three events, or gone to at least two or three events, in a month, which is nice, to have your local paper do that again. I grew up with a local paper that was engaged in the community and involved in events. The Dispatch started The Barbecue Festival. Just stay with that for a minute. The Dispatch started The Barbecue Festival.

There’s barbecue in Lexington?

Sorry. 

So talk about your business model. I know you sell advertising and your content is free. How are you sustaining yourself?

Right now, it’s a real struggle. But we believe in what we’re doing. And I can say this. We have amazing volunteers (and paid freelancers). And events actually are a big part of what we do. I learned just through this whole conversation as we built this whole concept and brand, you know, digital — I think everyone’s still holding out hope on paper. And I love paper. So I think you build into paper — we get the privilege to build into paper if we want to do that, if that advertising is available. 

But I think the real thing is just events. I got an award from Yale to go to a publishing course a couple of years ago, and the people from Bon Appetit and Conde Nast, huge publications were there. And they were making more money off of events than advertising, traditional advertising, and I learned something there that I brought back. 

One of the things they said — they were making more money off of events advertising. And I started doing that. I think we’ve probably been a part of six or so events. You know, Food and Wine magazine does a cruise. They’re making a lot more off of those opportunities in advertising, which allows them to bring the content to the consumer.

What sort of events have you had?

They’re mostly food and music events. We had a jazz event. And that’s really what’s helped. People are still selling advertising, but for us, in a new place, it’s been easier to sell advertising from an event than to say, you know, here’s what you want to do on a monthly basis. 

What’s the best thing Davidson Local has done so far?

I would say we’ve had series on some deep community issues that required intense research. The Dunbar School, for example, the Rosenwald school that went through some transition. (It closed in 2008, and efforts to preserve and repurpose it have been a subject of some dispute.) And now no one’s really sure what’s happening, and the fate of it, but everyone in the community has whispered about it. So we did a long series on that

I think that our outreach, and to be balanced — and really, you know, I tell people local is our bias — that has been really challenging for some people. People know me, they know my politics. They know Kassaundra, they feel like they know her politics. But really, our biggest bias is local. If you’re not local, we’re not talking about you. And that has really been surprising for people. I had a call late one night from a group of people that I did not think I’d be taking a call from, and it was about their perspective about where they relocated a statue, and I was like, OK, you know, here I am. I don’t know how I got on this call, but I’m here. 

But you know … local is our bias. 

And for me, I go back to training and education and, you know, at The Daily Tar Heel, I had to get three quotes — and at least one of them had to be someone who would oppose the other two people. And I couldn’t leave! I worked at the state and national desk. And I literally slept on that couch because I was waiting for that third person to call me.

And so I kind of bring that back into the whole situation. There’s a lot of conversation about where journalism is, and how we are, but right now I feel like — at a school board meeting, for example, really, there’s not a lot of objectivity even brought there. But we’re just bringing in information. I mean, people just really have to know what’s happening so they know how they can even vote, when they can vote, and all that good stuff.

So how do you feel about that journalism concept of equivalency?

I believe in a well informed populace. And I love information, and I trust people to know. So, you know, that’s been a real big point for me. It’s been hard for me too. I have a lot of opinions, I’m an opinionated person. And I write opinion columns all the time. If people look them up, they might be really damn confused about what I believe. But I really trust people in knowing and having information. That’s why I got into this work. If I didn’t believe that people could hear truth… 

I don’t have to tell people what to believe. And somehow we got into the commentating part of this. And I do that, you know, I’m a commentator. I think a lot of us are in this business. But I will confuse the heck out of people… if you looked at me personally and tried to figure out who I am, what I believe? Good luck with that. Good luck with that. Because what I really believe is that people need information. 

And I won’t stop believing that. Some of journalism school, I’ve unlearned. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve unlearned some things about sources and how you treat sources. But I still just believe in humans.

What have you unlearned about sources? Is that what we were getting at, about a false sense of balance, having to get both sides?

Yes … And things like public information. I am a huge, huge advocate for access to public information. I think to me, the most important thing we can do, even as journalists, I’ve helped teach people — I would call them civilians — on the street and be like, “No, no, no, you don’t have to go through the journalist. You have access to the same public information that I do.” I just know what they can and can’t tell me I can have. And that’s been a huge, huge part of education and information — just to say no, this whole denial of access to public information is real. And I have to push back and tell people, “No, no, you have to give me access to that. Don’t make me quote a statute.” And that is hard for a mom or a parent, and I’ve told them so much stuff behind the scenes. I’m like, “You know that you have access to this. You go get it.”

You mentioned an app, but I’m wondering if you have a Davidson Local wish list.

We’d like to do some print at some point, and we’ve said that from the start. But right now, you know, events are really our jam, and it kind of takes some space and time to work that out. But it’s good to get people and to get the connections and relationships. I think that’ll be the next step for us. Not a daily thing, but just something in print, because we do know that’s important. And I feel like, at the end of the day, I’m still a print girl. I still love the beautiful photos in my hand, on the coffee table. So maybe that’s like a magazine or whatever. Who knows? I have no idea.

What have you learned in the past year?

That people really, when you say you’re going to be unbiased, will choose one for you. That’s so wild. And we’re so used to consuming biased content. They will pick a side for you. I mean, I’ll look at something and I’m like, “Whoa, that’s one of the most unbiased things I’ve seen.” And you look at the comments on Facebook — which I’ve stopped doing — you look at the comments on Facebook, and everyone’s still picking their side. And you’ve got to back up from that. It’s so hard. That is so hard. And, you know, I’ve reported on things that I didn’t agree with, or I didn’t agree with the leadership of something, and even people who know me and know my politics have questioned why we even report on it. And that’s been really hurtful. Because I think we can’t do that to each other…

Even from journalists it has been disappointing, the judgment from other journalists. You have no idea what I’m working on. It’s hard. It’s hard. 

So if you could tell other journalists one thing, what would it be?

I would say to rely on why you are writing this story. Again, you know, it’s not about me, it’s about the people on the other side, and what do they need to know? Because I feel like a lot of us have just gotten into ourselves and our whole story. 

One of the most pressing and prominent issues in our community was my mom’s COVID outbreak at the nursing home she’s in, in Lexington. And not a single media outlet even caring that they had an outbreak… 

You know, I just think about, whenever I go into a conversation: What do people need to know? 

The filters we’re having … If you look on Facebook, Instagram, at people’s images and their pictures and all that, we get filters, right? Journalism should not be filtered like that. We shouldn’t have six filters to choose from. Swipe left on all the filters. And then you get the journalism. 

Just tell people the story. Trust that people can hear the truth.