What Happens When the News Is Gone?

In Jones County, North Carolina, and many other places around the country, local journalism has just about dried up.

By Charles Bethea – newyorker.

For a long time, the commissioners of Pollocksville, a town of three hundred or so people in the far eastern part of North Carolina, held their monthly public meetings in a century-old former train depot on Main Street, near the Trent River. In September, 2018, Hurricane Florence flooded the Trent; the water rose as high as ten feet downtown, severely damaging dozens of structures in Pollocksville. The train depot was nearly destroyed, along with town records that dated back to the nineteen-twenties.

The commissioners’ meetings are now held in a former pharmacy across the street from the Dollar General store. On a Tuesday evening in November, Pollocksville’s five town commissioners gathered there, sitting on a raised platform beneath fluorescent lights and an American flag, to which they and the seven residents who had come to the meeting—a typical number of attendees—pledged allegiance. Among the first orders of business was a proposed flood-damage ordinance, one of many responses to Florence that the board has considered in the past year. Jay Bender, who’s been the mayor of Pollocksville for nearly four decades, has a solid helmet of gray hair and a careful drawl. He asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.” Strayhorn’s low-lying home is often the first in town to flood during heavy storms; she had heard that there had been grants coming through to deal with flooding. (“That’s why I keep going to the meetings,” she told me later. “Seeing if there’s anything that comes up.”)

“That’s probably true,” Bender said. “But it was posted. It was advertised.”

“Posted where?” Strayhorn asked.

“In the newspaper,” Bender said, “and outside the office.”

Pollocksville is situated in Jones County, and most people would tell you that Jones County doesn’t have a newspaper. It used to have the Jones Post, a weekly founded in 1976. But that outlet has faded over a period of years, first becoming a regional insert delivered with other newspapers, and gradually ceasing to print much in the way of substantive local journalism. At this point, not even its publisher is quite willing to call it a paper. According to one estimate, the U.S. has lost one in four of its newspapers in the last fifteen years. The vast majority of those that have folded are weekly papers and other non-dailies. Around fifteen hundred American counties have just one paper, usually a weekly; another two hundred counties are without a newspaper altogether. These latter areas are what researchers call news deserts, and Jones County, one researcher told me, is a classic example. Bender had posted a notice about the ordinance. He had put it in the New Bern Sun Journal, which is based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it.

Alice Strayhorn stayed at the meeting for another ninety minutes, before leaving early. She spoke up just once more, to let the mayor know that his chair was at risk of toppling over. The ordinance passed a few minutes after she left, and the board moved on to other subjects: a sewer leak by the graveyard, the town’s Christmas lights, its “Welcome to Pollocksville” sign, a dead fox, and the fate of a long-abandoned 1999 Crown Victoria.

I caught up with Strayhorn outside. I wanted to know which newspaper she thought Bender had been referring to in his reply to her.

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, as rain began to fall. “I haven’t received any paper.” She told me that she’d already lost two cars to flooding and was worried that she’d lose her house.Alice Strayhorn outside her home in Pollocksville, North Carolina.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

I asked whether having a newspaper in town would make any difference to her.

“If I put the story in a paper, maybe the board would pay more attention to me,” she said. “I can’t even remember the last time we got a paper here. The news information is very scarce now. It’s not like it used to be. I don’t know what happened.”

Pollocksville is the oldest of three small towns in Jones County, which sits on five hundred square miles of flat land suited to growing cotton, tobacco, and soybeans. The county is shaped like a mounted boar’s head, facing west; Pollocksville sits in the middle of the neck. About ten thousand people live in the county, the same number that lived there a hundred years ago. Roughly sixty per cent of its residents are white, and roughly sixty per cent of its residents voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

In addition to the Sun Journal, a couple of other newspapers from neighboring counties trickle into Jones: the Kinston Free Press, from Lenoir County, and the Jacksonville Daily News, from Onslow County. But none of those papers has more than a couple hundred readers inside Jones County’s borders. All three are owned by the Gannett Company, which controls more than two hundred publications nationwide. Under Gannett’s watch, many have become “ghost papers,” emaciated versions of their former selves, hobbled by cost-cutting, barely able to cover their established beats.

Penny Abernathy, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, told me that, twenty years ago, a state’s largest newspaper could be counted on to cover its rural areas. At its peak, in the nineteen-nineties, the Raleigh News & Observer had some two hundred and fifty newsroom employees, and it won a Pulitzer, in 1996, for its coverage of the hog industry in rural North Carolina. Now it’s down to around sixty staffers. “That means there are no longer the people that were roaming around in the past, doing stories that bound that region together,” Abernathy said. News ecosystems have become especially arid in poorer places with older residents who have less formal education than the average American. “The South tends to have lost more papers, and have more counties without newspapers, than any other place,” she said.“If you’re my age, you really can’t make it around here,” a twentysomething resident of Jones County said.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New YorkerAn abandoned car outside Bell’s Corner.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

Pollocksville’s temporary town hall is at the southern end of Highway 17, the town’s main drag. The morning after the commissioners’ meeting, I went back there to talk to Mayor Bender. The Benders have lived in the area since the eighteenth century, when European settlers first came to the region and “built an agricultural economy centered around the ‘Southern Plantation,’ ” as the county’s Web site puts it. Bender attended Jones Central High School in the mid-sixties, a period of what he called “semi-integration.” He was in college by the time full integration arrived, in the fall of 1969, but his younger brother told him about the confrontations that ensued. “A private school opened here so white kids would have somewhere else to go,” he said. “And there was the start of what became a pretty good exodus by white kids into neighboring counties.” (A few years ago, a writer for the Kinston Free Press noted that, during this period—“the last high-water mark of the Klan in the area”—his paper “didn’t cover Klan events in Lenoir and Jones counties.”) At the time, Democrats controlled the state; Bender has been a registered Democrat since he was legally allowed to register for a party. I asked him if there were national issues that he felt strongly about. “I’d prefer to be seen above the fray,” he said. “I have strong leanings on certain things that each side says, but I don’t really want to talk about that.” I asked if he thought climate change had anything to do with the severity of Hurricane Florence. “You can talk about climate change all you want, but we had an unprecedented twenty-foot flood. I don’t know that there’s anybody out there that says that climate change caused or contributed to that.” He added, “I’m not going to say it.”

On the wall behind Bender at the temporary town hall was an aerial photograph of the damage done to the town by Florence, and we chatted for a while about storms and the news. Bender watches cable news and reads the New Bern Sun Journal on occasion, though with diminishing expectations. In Bender’s view, physical newspapers and books are doomed. “Other than a John Grisham,” he told me, “I haven’t bought a hardcover book in ages.” I brought up the moment the night before when he told Alice Strayhorn that a notice had run in the paper—one that few residents receive. “I’ve been doing this for thirty-eight years,” he said. “I don’t care what you do, there’s always going to be someone that shows up saying, ‘I didn’t know about this.’ Because people want to be spoon-fed. And I’ve also learned over the years that no matter how much you publicize, how much you print, how much you provide, most people—not all, but most—don’t read it.” One of his expressions, he told me, is “Most people don’t want to be confused with the facts.”

Bender liked the idea of having a local newspaper in Jones County again somehow. He was less keen on the prospect of investigative journalism. “I don’t know that I necessarily agree that it’s a newspaper’s job to be an investigative agency,” he said. “Now, if the reporter gets an anonymous tip, or someone calls in, ‘You all need to check out Jay Bender, who’s not doing this, that, and the other,’ then, O.K. But my feeling is, if someone is not doing anything right, why do you ask a newspaper to do it?” He went on, “You’re not going to throw somebody out. You have to wait for an election, unless you’re going to take them to court.”

He added, “I’m an open book, and my records are an open book. But I find it very frustrating—and, quite frankly, somewhat insulting—to spend my time or my staff’s time providing information to citizens or people or whatever, and, when push comes to shove and decisions have to be made or questions have to be raised, nobody knows what you’re talking about. Now, could a newspaper or a news entity help that? Perhaps, perhaps. I don’t know.”

The week before my first visit to Pollocksville, there had been an election. Three spots were open on the town board, and three people ran. One of them was Maria Robles, who moved to town a few years ago, when she took a job at Lenoir Community College, in Trenton, after two decades in the Air Force. “There’s nothing out there that says, ‘Hey, go out there and vote,’ ” Robles told me, describing her experience running for office. Once upon a time, that might have been the paper; eventually, it might be the Internet. But, while the county high school and a few local businesses have broadband, most Jones County residents have slow dial-up access or none at all. Not many people check the town’s Web site, which is updated infrequently anyway. But word of Robles’s candidacy got to Darrell Bell, who runs Bell’s Corner, an auto-repair shop on Main Street that he inherited from his father.

“I went to Bell’s Corner to have my car worked on, and Darrell was, like, ‘Hey, I heard that you’re running.’ And I’m, like, ‘I haven’t even told my husband or my parents—and my parents live right down the road.’ And he goes, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll talk to people.’ ” Twenty-five people voted; all but one voted for Robles. Now, she said, “If I want information out, I send it to Bell’s Corner. I also send it to the Filling Station”—a food pantry and a center for gossip—“and my contact at the post office, Dwayne. But that’s only for Pollocksville. If I needed to get information to Maysville”—a larger town elsewhere in Jones County—“I don’t know how yet.”

“She’s gonna learn a lot,” Nancy Barbee told me, when I relayed the story. Barbee is also on the town board. Her maiden name is Bender, and she’s probably a distant relation of the mayor, she said. She grew up in Pollocksville, and taught in Jones County public schools for three decades. When we met, she wore red reading glasses tucked into short dirty-blonde hair, and jewelry from India, a country she first visited on behalf of the Rotary Club, which she has worked with for years. Barbee had agreed to drive me around Jones County, to visit, as she put it, “some local hangouts where we get our news.” Bell’s Corner was the first spot on our itinerary.“It’s harder for public officials to ignore things when they’re in the news,” Nancy Barbee, a town commissioner in Pollocksville, said.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

Pollocksville was “a booming little place” in the fifties and sixties, when Barbee was growing up, she said. “Times change,” she added, driving through the barely beating heart of town. It’s still an agricultural area, but farming there is not as lucrative as it used to be. I asked Barbee to name the county’s biggest business. She thought for a minute. “Well, it used to be the school-supply company, but it closed down. There is a marine—what was it called? Like, a metal place that was sort of stuck back in the middle of nowhere.” Even Mayor Bender’s family business, a grocery store, had moved to a neighboring county.

When Florence hit, Barbee said, members of the media came from elsewhere to cover the storm. “We had CBS, NBC, BBC, all those major channels.” This helped with the initial recovery. “It certainly let people know all over the country and all over the world, ‘My God, look what happened here in this small little town,’ ” Barbee said, adding, “It’s harder for public officials to ignore things when they’re in the news.” Now, she went on, “we don’t have news reporting on a regular basis here to tell the ongoing story of the recovery, or to hold elected officials in check, or anything else.” Barbee praised the mayor for procuring grants to rebuild after Florence, but she had concerns about his use of some of these funds. “He took sixty-seven thousand dollars to clean that building out,” she said, referring to the old town hall, “without any board approval.” The mayor’s office was also in the former train depot. “That really perturbed us. A thousand dollars is one thing. But sixty-seven thousand is another. We may have used it for something different.” She added, “I’m not saying he’s doing anything illegal. But he tells you part of the story—the part he wants us to know.”

At Bell’s Corner, Darrell Bell, a man in his sixties with a mustache and a mischievous smile, sat behind a cluttered desk, feeding a piece of bread to an area dog. I took a seat under a mounted deer and a sign that read “IT IS WHAT IT IS.” Bell told me that he’d begun working there in 1973, fixing cars, selling junk food, and providing information. “We have quite a few folks gathered around here,” he told me. “They’ll be ganging up here shortly. You can’t get in here sometimes. Customers, acquaintances, yadda yadda. Some of the board hangs out in here. The mayor. Town employees. They meet here. Everything is unofficial. Just local folks.”

Bell started telling stories about the old days. His father used to sell “liquor by the drink in the back room, illegally,” he said. “The sheriff would come by—he’d give him a drink. Then the sheriff would continue on to Trenton,” the county seat. “That’s just the way it was. Everybody was O.K. with it. You can’t do that now.” During Hurricane Florence, Bell said, he gave away all his snacks, drinks, and useful supplies. “Even to a neighbor lady who don’t like me for some reason,” he said.

One of Barbee’s fellow town commissioners, Mike Duffy, walked in, and was followed shortly by another, Ellis Banks. Three-fifths of the town board was now present.

“I can get the mayor here if you want him,” Bell said. “He come here the last couple of days, scolded Mike a little bit.”Darrell Bell and his wife outside Bell’s Corner, an auto shop where some Pollocksville residents go to get their news.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

Duffy and Barbee chatted about the previous night’s meeting, then Duffy got up to leave. (“Darrell, I’ll bring you a dollar later,” he said, for the diet soda he’d had.) I brought up the subject of newspapers with Bell and a local man, named Jimmy, who’d stopped in.

“Obituaries,” Bell said. “That’s the first thing I look at.”

Jimmy nodded. “Keeping up with who’s died.”

Bell wasn’t sure there was much more to say on the subject. “Do you believe everything you read?” he asked. “What’s the truth? Who wrote it? Where’d they get their information from? It’d be better if I knew the person.”

Bell and Jimmy mused about the few run-ins they’d had with major media. “I was on Fox News during the hurricane,” Bell said. He added, “If you’re in Miami, Florida, and you see someone from Pollocksville, North Carolina—they don’t really know us or really what’s going on. But it’s good to know that’s happening, I reckon.”

Jimmy, like Bender and Bell and Barbee and both of the other board members, is white. Later, I asked Alice Strayhorn, who’s African-American, whether she got any news from chatting with people at Bell’s Corner. She told me it was a mostly white crowd there. “I just get my car done and be on my way,” she said.

Barbee and I got in her car and drove a quarter-mile down the road to the Filling Station, which occupies the old Jenkins Gas building. It’s a charitable operation started by members of Pollocksville Presbyterian. The chair of its executive board is a peppy woman named Mary Ann Bender LeRay, who, when we stopped by, had gathered with a half-dozen staff and volunteers in a back room filled with food items being readied for distribution. “This has been a watering hole in the past couple years,” LeRay told me, “especially after the hurricane—since we didn’t get flooded. So, of course, you’ll be talking and sharing here.”

Ronnie Huffman, the site manager, who is in his seventies, told me, “The story of the rebuilding of this town—which may never be rebuilt back like it was—that’s a lot of what we talk about here.” The group nodded in unison.

As we left, Barbee said, “That’s about the best news source we got.”

It hasn’t always been this way in the United States, or in eastern North Carolina. In the nineteen-forties, Jones County had a newspaper of its own, the Jones Journal, which came out on Thursdays, and was later replaced by the Jones County Journal. Its slogan, “A Better County Through Improved Farm Practices,” gives a sense of its concerns. A typical front-page headline, from 1954: “Fertilizer Supply Adequate; Farmers Urged to Buy Early.” It wasn’t all farming news: there were feel-good pieces (“Spaniel Saves Family of Six,” 1954) and the odd crime story (“Double Murder Claims Jones Native and British Born Wife,” 1956). It was, as even a quick sift through the archives reveals, written for a white audience (“Happersville Negress Kills Mate on Sunday,” 1956).

Back then, Barbee told me, she saw one reporter often. “He came to my mother’s house every Saturday,” she said, “and my mother and grandmother would give him the local news.” They discussed “who had passed away, who was getting married, what was going on with the Daughters of the American Revolution or at church.” Barbee “loved him dearly,” she said, “because he always brought me peanuts or candy.” She called this system “country news.”

The Jones County Journal folded in the early seventies. In 1976, a man named Reuben Moore, who’d created the Pender Post in neighboring Pender County, founded the Jones Post, with the slogan “Bringing Country Journalism Back to the Country.” By “country,” he meant the rural places, Lois Simpson, an early staffer at the paper, told me. I met Simpson, now seventy-one, at her home, where she subsists as a farmer and a writer with her husband, who, in the other room, watched a national broadcast from ABC News as we talked. Pushing aside stacks of old newspapers, V.H.S. tapes, and a lazing dog, Simpson sat down on a fraying couch. “I don’t live like other people,” she said, laughing.

The Jones Post ranged from eight to sixteen pages and ran every Thursday. The front page offered county news; the second page was for obituaries; the third showed local news; the fourth and fifth had church news, Bible verses, and a Biblical cartoon; the sixth offered recipes; the seventh printed classified ads; and the remaining pages had editorials, TV listings, and more local news. It was produced by a skeleton staff in an old high-school building in Trenton, Simpson told me. For a time, she was the editor. “I got paid two dollars an hour for forty hours when I worked about a hundred twenty, and my husband had to do all the photography in the darkroom-bathroom, and sometimes my in-laws had to drive the paper to places and my kids frequently worked for nothing,” she said. “But that’s what it takes to get a paper going.”

Simpson would report from county-commissioner and county-administrator meetings. “They were doing a lot of stuff they shouldn’t be doing,” she told me. Her reporting was responsible for one commissioner and one school superintendent leaving their posts, she said, “and about three or four boards of education being moved on and three or four commissioners being moved on.” She smiled. “If they got up there and said something completely dumb and you put that in the article, then, next election time, they went out the door.” She added, “I did a lot of tail-burning, which I’m probably sorry for, because I’ve paid all these years for those stories.”

A few miles outside Pollocksville, at a ranch-style brick home that sat behind more Christmas decorations than I’d ever seen in a single yard, I met another of the paper’s early staffers, Sondra Ipock Riggs, now seventy-six. As we spoke, a radio played Christmas songs and a crime show was on the TV. “I’m a go-getter,” Riggs said, recalling her reporting days. “I fuss, cuss, and if they don’t do right I’ll raise hell.” She added, “I don’t kiss tails—I kick asses.” A pistol lay on the table beside her easy chair; she’s kept it close since her husband died, a few years ago. “If you’re a news reporter and you’re printing the news, you’re a troublemaker around here,” she said. “They called me the blonde-headed vigilante bitch because I turned in the barge.” In 1987, a garbage barge that had originated in New York was poised to dump three thousand tons of trash in Jones County, until Riggs and others began reporting on it. “That was the biggest news to ever come out of Jones County,” she said. Dan Rather called it “the most-watched load of garbage in the memory of man.” Riggs said, “When I got on the barge, it was cans with toxic material, maggots running off it. You just don’t know. I raised mortal hell.”

In the late eighties, Simpson and Riggs collaborated on a story that led to their firing, they told me. “The final straw came when we did a story on a county commissioner who had done all kinds of underhanded stuff,” Simpson said. Neither could recall exactly what this stuff was; the commissioner in question died in 2013. Simpson told me that he was one of the paper’s important advertisers, and that when Moore saw the story he “threw a fit.” (Moore died in 1988.)

After leaving the Jones Post, Riggs became a county commissioner—she’s served on the board for the last twenty-five years. Simpson ran for local office, too, though she didn’t win. She has worked as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s office, a farmer, a housecleaner, a fruit-stand operator, a G.E.D. and E.S.L. teacher, and has tried to write novels. Locals still occasionally bring her stories that they hope she’ll tell, she said. “Some years ago, they brought a landfill half a mile outside of Maysville and put it on top of unmarked slave graves,” she told me. “It’s awful. I blame me for not getting it done. I would have burnt some ass. But I stay preoccupied a lot of times chasing money to pay the light bill.”

She rummaged through a nearby stack of papers and handed me a copy of the Jones Post from the summer of 2018, one of the last editions she’d seen. The first page said it cost fifty cents. A front-page story about the school dress code ran under the byline “Jones County Schools.” Simpson shook her head. “Most stories have nothing to do with Jones County,” she said.

Simpson told me that she was skeptical of a lot of what she sees now. “Not everything that’s printed is true,” she said, and TV wasn’t much use, either. “You’ve got people who sit down and suck the whole mess up and never dig into what is true. They just swallow it.” Riggs told me, “I watch the weather, mainly. I take the Sun Journal, but it doesn’t tell you much about Jones County. I’m thinking about quitting it. What you gonna do when they don’t print about your county? We have five hundred square miles. We got officials here think they can get away with things. Not advertising jobs, picking who they want.” She went on, “It’s very important for me, honey, to know the news of the county, the state, and the country you live in. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a country, baby.”Pollocksville’s town hall was a refurbished train station, originally built in 1893. It was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Florence.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

The Jones Post still exists, technically. Its publisher is a Gannett executive named Mike Distelhorst. “It’s more of a courtesy, in terms of providing some content to that group of people,” he said, referring to the residents of Jones County, “not what I’d consider a traditional newspaper.” Distelhorst is based in Wilmington, about seventy miles away. When I reached him, on the phone, he couldn’t tell me the weekly page count of the Jones Post, or provide distribution data, or give me the names of any of the paper’s past employees. He did know that it currently has no dedicated staff. He told me to talk to Chris Segal, who edits the three Gannett papers in neighboring counties.

The Jones Post, Segal told me, is run out of the Kinston Free Press newsroom. In Segal’s view, the towns in Jones County don’t have local concerns as much as proxy concerns—people in Pollocksville, for instance, “really are New Bern people at the end of the day,” he said. The Jones Post occasionally has “unique content,” he noted, such as jury-duty lists. “The nonprofits will contribute some things, too,” he said, referring to press releases reframed as stories. I asked Segal if the paper could serve as a civic watchdog, covering crime and corruption. “Our reporters are keeping an eye on those things,” he said. He added, “We called the Sheriff last week. He still hasn’t scheduled an interview with us, because he’s so busy.”

Segal’s predecessor was a man named Bryan Hanks, who worked at the Gaston Gazette and the Shelby Star before becoming editor of the Free Press, in 2002. (“He’s No. 1,” Riggs told me, of Hanks, calling him “the most honest news reporter, and fair, that I’ve ever seen in my life.”) When I arrived at Hanks’s comfortable brick home, in Kinston, he was setting up a mike in his living room, to record a weekly sports-radio podcast—“a loving ripoff of Bill Simmons,” he said. Hanks grew up in the northwestern part of the state. He’s large and loud, and very fond of the word “dude.” When he began editing papers in eastern North Carolina, he said, “I went as far as to research how many stoplights there were. Well, I got in my damn head that there was only one stoplight in Jones County. And I wrote this whole column about that. You would not believe all the angry calls. ‘You’re calling us a one-stoplight county, and there’s actually two!’ People still call me the one-stoplight guy.” During his run as editor of the Jones Post, the paper won two North Carolina Press Association awards, in the column and spot-news categories. It often ran twelve pages, including at least “one fresh story” on a local sports team, school event, or political function, plus the stories from neighboring papers. “It was kind of a feel-good paper, dude,” he said. But the newspaper business was in free fall. The staff of the Free Press shrunk from twenty-three to six, and then two. (There are also a few part-timers now, Segal told me.) They struggled to cover Kinston, let alone Jones County. Hanks quit in 2016.

After leaving the Free Press, Hanks collaborated with B. J. Murphy, a thirtysomething social-media entrepreneur, on an Internet-based experiment in local news. The Neuse News—the name comes from a river that joins the Trent at New Bern—is online-only and ad-supported, and covers three counties, including Jones. Its slogan is “Hyper-Local News with No Pop-Ups, No AP News and No Online Subscription Fees. No Kidding!” It has around four thousand daily e-mail subscribers in the tri-county area, Murphy said. He has two full-time employees—who also work for Magic Mile Media, Murphy’s social-media consultancy—and a handful of contracted writers, videographers, and photographers. In October, 2018, after Hurricane Florence, the Neuse News helped to organize a forum for candidates running for the Jones County board of education and the county’s board of commissioners. (A post with videos from that event is the most recent piece on the site related to Jones County.) Murphy is a former Republican politician—when he was twenty-nine, he became Kinston’s youngest-ever mayor—and the site has a detectable conservative slant, as he does. Still, when an opinion piece criticizing Donald Trump sparked angry comments from readers, he published a blog post on his own site defending the need to listen to different perspectives, more or less. “I just think more people need Jesus and need to stop worrying about the national political scene,” he wrote. “There are more important issues.”Pollocksville was “a booming little place” in the fifties and sixties, one lifelong resident said. “Times change,” she added.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New YorkerA cabbage farm in Pollocksville.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

Citing disagreements with Murphy, lack of pay, and concerns about the operation’s long-term viability, Hanks left the Neuse News last year. “If they don’t go to a subscription base, which would defeat the purpose, it’s going under,” he told me. Murphy said, “We’re not in profit mode by any stretch of the imagination,” and he emphasized that the site couldn’t match the scale of a newspaper: “We don’t have enough resources to do all the storytelling in Lenoir County, let alone Jones and Greene.” He applied for a grant through the Facebook Journalism Project “to get a camera and lighting to do more video programming,” he said; Facebook established the grants after building a feature that aggregated local news (because Facebook’s users “wanted to see more local news and community information on Facebook”) and discovering that one in three of its users in the U.S. lived in places that didn’t have enough local journalism to sustain the feature. Last year, Magic Mile Media helped launch Jones County Chat, a weekly Webcast that was created with support from county commissioners and Lenoir County Community College—in order to counter “a lot of rumors,” the county manager told me. But few people I met in Pollocksville had watched it. “I reckon you’ve gotta have the Internet access and the computers,” a clerk of courts in Trenton told me.

A few years ago, when Nancy Barbee first became a town commissioner, she wanted to create “a newsletter that tells people about local news, events, and what’s happening on the board,” how it was funding projects like the rebuilding of the flooded town hall. When she realized that she didn’t have the resources, she started a Facebook page, posting “news blasts” about church homecomings, volunteering opportunities, and Christmas preparations on Main Street. It didn’t last. “I was made to take that Facebook page down,” she told me. “The mayor had this misconception that the town-board minutes would go out on Facebook and everyone would see them. I said, ‘Well, it’s all public record. What’s the big deal?’ They were afraid of public comments about how terrible the board was.” Bender had a different story. “The town attorney told me it wasn’t a good idea,” he said. I asked why. “Who is going to monitor or moderate a Facebook page? I don’t have time. My clerk doesn’t have time.”

“Straight talk, dude,” Bryan Hanks said, sitting in his living room. “It’s scary. Because government officials, they know. You like to think they’re good people, especially in a community as small as Jones County, where everybody knows everybody. But if you don’t have media that’s going to hold them accountable for their actions—or, heck, even just report what they’re doing—how are the citizens going to know? They don’t know.”

About a month after Alice Strayhorn raised her hand at the town-board meeting, I went to see her at her home, a few blocks from where we’d first met. We sat in her tidy living room, on a leather couch, where light from a stained-glass lamp shone on her hands. She held a small switch, pulled from a nearby sapling, which she uses to keep her grandchildren in line. I wanted to know more about what Strayhorn thought of Pollocksville and politics and the press. “I’m a Democrat,” she told me. “I like democracy. I don’t have friends who like Trump. But people don’t really discuss politics or religion.”

I asked her about race relations in the town, which is a little whiter than the county as a whole. She said that when Barack Obama ran for President, some Obama signs, mostly in the yards of black residents, were torn down. “Stole out of our yards,” she said. “You’d put it up and it’d be gone the next morning. It was the Republicans,” she added. “One or two got caught.” Strayhorn said she was attending town meetings then, too, but she never mentioned the issue. “I’m by myself there,” she said. (“It may have happened,” Bender said, of the sign incident. “I just don’t remember it.” As for race relations in Pollocksville, he said, “I would say it’s fine. It’s certainly not perfect anywhere.”)

Strayhorn said that she wished she got more news about jobs, flooding mitigation, and new playgrounds. “Also,” she said, “getting Trump out of office.” She watches CNN, but “it isn’t much help,” she said. (Her husband tries to watch Fox News, she added, “to see what they say.”) During Hurricane Florence, the most reliable way for her to learn about what had happened to Pollocksville, and her neighborhood, was the Facebook page of “some local guy,” a black resident of Pollocksville, “who stayed and walked the streets, through the waters, and posted pictures of everything.”An outlet in Alice Strayhorn’s beauty parlor, where the panels were warped by the flooding during Hurricane Florence.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New YorkerAlice Strayhorn’s grandchildren, at their grandmother’s house in Pollocksville.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

We stepped out of her house, and Strayhorn took me to her beauty parlor, at the far end of Main Street, in a former gas station. “It’s just a shaggy old shop, but it makes me my living,” she said. “I have only one white customer. I used to have a few, but they came at night, so the neighbors wouldn’t see them here.” It was one of a few public places in Pollocksville, she said, where black folks in town could comfortably share the news.

A lot of that news is not good, and none of it is widely told. A black man in his late twenties told me, “People have gone. Houses are being torn down, left to crumble. If you’re my age, you really can’t make it around here. You have to move to Charlotte or out of state.” Pointing to a volunteer firefighter station, across a field from a historically black neighborhood called Garnett Heights, on the edge of town, he told me, “Cops sit over there.” He went on, “I’m gonna keep it real with you, we call that the Klan meeting, because you never know. It still lurks.” A U.N.C. report on the legacy of segregation in Jones County noted that Pollocksville never formally annexed Garnett Heights, and so residents of the neighborhood cannot vote in municipal elections.

The man in his twenties, whose family lives in Garnett Heights, asked that I not share his name, so that he could speak freely. He works at a factory in a neighboring county. Summing up life in the area, he said, “Once you cross into eastern North Carolina, it’s just more prejudice and lower wages. Who’s telling that story?”

Sitting with Bryan Hanks, in Kinston, I asked him what it would cost, annually, to produce a real, twelve-page weekly paper in Jones County. After some back-of-the-envelope calculating, he settled on three hundred thousand dollars. “But that doesn’t cover a building,” he said. Who’d pay for that? “I can’t think of anybody on top of my head,” he said. Penny Abernathy, the U.N.C. professor, told me that when it comes to journalism in poorer areas, like Jones County, “I do not see a for-profit model, at least for now.” One hope is that nonprofits will step in. But, so far, Abernathy said, foundations have provided only a fraction of the money that news organizations used to have—and most of that money has gone to “the big national-level organizations,” not “into really what we call local news.” It’s possible that the solution will depend on public funding, she said. New Jersey recently committed a portion of an unexpected windfall to a nonprofit that aims to strengthen local news. State representatives in Massachusetts proposed a commission to study the matter and then to recommend legislation.

In addition to covering “the routine government meetings like the town council,” Abernathy said, local newspapers “have also kind of bound the community together in a variety of ways. So, if you have a business there, they got customers through the door. And, at the same time, they kind of took the national headlines and showed you how it was very much related to the community where you live.” Dan Ryan, a town commissioner in Maysville, told me that the region didn’t understand itself as well as it should in the absence of local reporting. “The census is coming up,” he pointed out. “How many people have we lost since Florence that aren’t ever coming back? Will we still have ten thousand in the county? Are we down to nine thousand? Reporting along those lines hasn’t happened, along with the ongoing recovery effort—who’s doing what, grants that had been received, money that’s been distributed, who’s been helped. It just gets left to be told through the rumor mill.”

A few weeks after leaving Pollocksville, I called Mayor Bender to tell him that I’d received a tip. Did he really spend sixty-seven thousand dollars of town money, I asked, without the approval of the town board, on rebuilding the town hall where he’d kept an office for decades? He said that he had. “We signed architectural contracts to move the town hall to another lot. We’ll close in the next week or two on the purchase.” This money had to be put toward that specific project, he told me. Anyone who was confused by that “lacks education on the use of public funds,” he said.Jay Bender, the mayor of Pollocksville for most of the past four decades, outside the town’s temporary town hall, a former pharmacy.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

I asked if he could provide proof that the aid was tied to the renovation of the town hall. “Charles,” he said, “this has kind of gone way off the edge from what you said you wanted to talk to me about.” When I had first contacted Bender, in November, I had told him I was writing a piece about news deserts, and what happens when an area goes without substantive reporting. “I kind of feel like I’m being a majorly interviewed person here,” he said. I reminded him that he’d told me previously that if a journalist got a tip about Jay Bender it would be reasonable for that journalist to look into it.

“I think the minutes and all my reports would reflect that I’ve made no secret of wanting to preserve the town hall,” he said. “No secret at all.” He added, “I have been confronted by a couple of board members who said that I was not being objective. And I have firmly admitted, publicly and privately, that I wanted to see that project succeed.” Bender, returning to an argument he’d made in our first conversation, told me, “Individuals have a personal responsibility to get the facts.” I asked how a poor Pollocksville resident driving to another county to work a twelve-hour day in a factory, then returning home to young children, could realistically be expected to get facts about the financing of a project like the town hall. “Let’s don’t pick on the town hall,” he said.

As we got toward the end of our conversation, Bender acknowledged that a newspaper could be useful to explain how and why public funds are used for certain projects. And I acknowledged that it was unusual for a reporter from a national magazine to call up the mayor of a town of three hundred people and ask about the paperwork for sixty-seven thousand dollars in public money. Later, Bender sent minutes from town meetings when the subject of the town hall’s preservation was addressed. The notes were mostly brief. Another town commissioner, Sherry Henderson, said, “The proper channels should have been followed,” but pointed out that, at the time these decisions were being made, “We were concerned with survival.” It wasn’t clear whether the town was even going to come back from Hurricane Florence; in some ways, it’s still not clear. The mayor, she suggested, was just trying to get things done.

It didn’t seem like a dire scandal, but it did seem like the kind of thing that a local reporter might ask about, and might write about, if there were an outlet for such a story. Maybe some tail-burning would have been involved. But no one in Pollocksville had a professional responsibility to ask annoying questions about the things that matter only to the citizens of that town, and to no one else, and to print the answers. I was writing a story that was mostly for other people, who didn’t live here. And a lot of people in Pollocksville wouldn’t necessarily trust what I published—they were only inclined to believe stories from people who’d spent more than a few days in their county, and more than a few months trying to understand it. They had told me so.

On the phone with the mayor, I sensed the awkwardness of our situation. Somebody else was supposed to be asking these questions.

“I do feel like you’re picking on me a little bit,” Bender said. “I’m not used to this.”

This article was syndicated from newyorker.com

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