LAF Panel Discusses State of Local News in Western North Carolina - TribPapers

LAF Panel Discusses State of Local News in Western North Carolina

Nancy Waldrop, President of LAF, opens the critical luncheon meeting at the ACC. Panelists who spoke L-R: Brian Lemitz, Jeff Pope, Scott McLeod, Peter Lewis & Karen Chavez. Photo courtesy of Paul King.

Asheville – The Leadership Asheville Forum invited a panel of leading journalists in this area to discuss many aspects of reporting the news, including: Karen Chávez, interim executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times; Peter Lewis, reporter and managing editor for the Asheville Watchdog; Scott McLeod, owner-publisher and editor of the Smoky Mountain News; Brian Nemitz, new director at WLOS-TV; and Jeff Pope, general manager of Blue Ridge Public Radio, spoke and replied to questions.

Nancy Waldrop, the president of LAF, welcomed those present and mentioned the upcoming critical luncheon meeting: “Are you Bear Wise? Living with WNC Black Bears” to be held on March 22nd.  The speaker will be Ashley Hobbs, a Black bear biologist with the NC Wildfire Resource Commission. Then Tim Collins, the moderator, spoke briefly. He mentioned the recent demise of printed newspapers, the increase of misinformation and disinformation, along with the loss of trust by the public in the news media since 2005.

Collins then presented Mentimeter questions for the in-room and remote audiences. These are questions asked to the audience that can then be answered on their cell phone. 

Question 1: Between 2005 and 2021, what has been the change in total newspaper employment in the USA? Possible answers: a) a 33% drop; b) a 47% drop; c) a 60% drop; d) a 73% drop? 60% and 73% were just about equal in receiving votes.

Question 2: What factor is the biggest driver of the decline in the success of local newspapers? Possible answers: a) consolidation in the newspaper industry; b) economic recession impacting advertisers; c) control of digital advertising by big players; d) lack of digital infrastructure; e) insufficient nonprofit support? Consolidation in the newspaper industry received the most votes.

Question 3) What is the biggest consequence from the loss of or reduction in local news coverage? Possible answers: a) decline in civic engagement and voter participation b) lack of accountability for local gov’t and business c) Political polarization and disinformation d) increased corruption, misuse of tax $$ e) less awareness of and commitment to democracy. All possible answers had votes by the audience.

The panel members answered the following questions:

Question 1: The media has been called the “Fourth Estate,” the “bulwark of liberty.” What is the current state of the Fourth Estate in Western North Carolina? What color would you assign the 4th Estate now: green (everything’s good), yellow (caution), or red (serious trouble)?

Karen Chavez of the Asheville-Citizen: I chose purple. We are not a news desert; we have a very robust news scene. We have a multi-faceted landscape of journalism here. The journalists are passionate. We will continue to print the paper, as many have requested. We are now a digital newspaper first, although we have a lot of avenues for producing and delivering news. Our digital is growing through the roof.

Peter Lewis of Asheville Watchdog:  Black and White.  I like to describe it as a proliferation of new startups in a rain forest. I think it is disturbing that people aren’t demanding better news for their communities. There are state laws that are unfavorable to hard-hitting journalists. We need to support all media. I guess “grey” would be my answer.

Scott McLeod of the Smoky Mountain News: I live out west. It’s a different landscape. We cover the four western counties. There are 11 newspapers west of here, all small, and TV and radio. It is very green in the coverage you get. Online, you have to “pay to play.” From a financial perspective as a business owner, it’s a challenge. Some are just hanging on by a string and not putting the resources back into them. So close to red.

Jeff Pope of Blue Ridge Public Radio: To me, you have green and yellow, not red. Civil society is falling apart, if red.  I think we’re in yellow. The business models are broken. Everybody is redefining what they are doing. We have 5 years to survive, so we don’t go into the red zone. We want to thrive, not just survive.

Brian Nemitz from WLOS-TV: Two sides of [sic] to this: the business side is yellow and struggling there, but if it comes to journalism, I think that Asheville Watchdog is one of the best things that has come in ages. I am so glad they are here. I don’t feel competitive. I can’t do every story that is out there.

Question 2: If you were speaking to readers and listeners who are concerned about the state of local journalism, what action could others do to make things better?

Karen Chavez of the Asheville-Citizen: Yes, there are absolutely things that you can do. Journalism is a community effort. Number one thing is support by subscribing. The Citizen-Times is a legacy of community people-centered, passionate journalists. That is something that is priceless. We have some of the best journalists in Western North Carolina. You get an enormous amount for your subscription. We are giving it away right now.
Peter Lewis of Asheville Watchdog: Let us know what needs to be done, also press your elected official, government and private businesses to be transparent. It is tough to get answers. Silence and secrecy are here. We made a deliberate decision to be a nonprofit. We didn’t want to compete with other media. Most of us are volunteers as a public service. We give our stories away for free.

Scott McLeod of the Smoky Mountain News: We all want readers, clicks, and subscriptions to survive. If you want to know what is going on at your hospital, be engaged in things that matters. There are a million other outlets to find out about the restaurants and the 5Ks, but to find out about important issues like the hospital, seek us out to be engaged.

Jeff Pope of Blue Ridge Public Radio: Have a balanced diet—subscribe everywhere. It is important. Support your local media and then get engaged in national issues that matter. What is going on with the Supreme Court right now with Section 230? Do you know about it? It is the biggest deal possible. No one has their hand around Big Tech (5th Estate) at all. It is important. Reach out to your elected officials. The people need to say “enough!

Brian Nemitz from WLOS-TV: Television is advertising based, so you guys don’t have to pay for anything. I think the important thing is to hold us accountable. Our job is to hold the people in power accountable, but we need to know what questions you have. Tell us what to do; be nice about it, but tell us. A society that works together makes us all better. Watch TV and tell us what you want.

Question 3: One of the questions asked from the floor was by Elizabeth Colton, an international journalist and Chair of Reporters Without Borders: What about the protection of journalists and the freedom of the press? Here in the United States, journalists also are being killed? What are your concerns?

Brian Nemitz from WLOS-TV: We are concerned. We have had to remove all branding from our vehicles. In New York City and elsewhere, we were being followed into the parking lots. We tinted our windows. We felt like we were and are moving targets. I do fear for my people’s safety.

Karen Chavez of the Asheville-Citizen: I think people don’t realize how dangerous our job is. The threats are real. We have gone into full lockdown downtown; we have had too many threats. This was not true before. I myself have had death threats. We are fierce about going after the lack of transparency that is in every one of our law enforcement agencies to go after public information. Please remember this when commenting on a story; think of the ramifications of your comment.