A group of Border Belt-area residents and UNC Pembroke students told journalists Thursday evening that reliable news is hard to come by.
Organizers say the forum helped them understand how people get their news, what the barriers are, and what types of stories people want.
“To extend better service to communities, news organizations first need to spend time listening to people, understanding their habits, and learning how they get news,” said Shannan Bowen, executive director of the NC Local News Workshop. “These sessions also help news organizations introduce or re-introduce themselves and build a stronger relationship with communities, particularly underserved communities.”
About 35 people attended the event, held at the UNC Pembroke Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub in downtown Pembroke. People came mostly from Robeson and Scotland counties.
Attendees broke into groups of five to six to discuss the state of local news and how to improve it.
There was a recurring theme: people want more news that affects their lives and their communities. Attendees said they get their news from a variety of sources.
Finding local news can be difficult, many said. Scotland County resident Beachum McDougald said the county doesn’t have access to a television station except for PBS North Carolina. Others rely on a TV station in Florence, S.C.
“What we heard in that room is people complaining that they don’t have access to local TV news,” Bowen said. “I was pleased that the crowd seemed to reflect the diversity of the area. You had people from different generations talking to one another, people from different races. That’s the power of having a forum like this one.”
Journalists also got to hear what types of stories people want, including more positive news and stories that suggest solutions to problems.
“Wanting positive news or stories of joy actually comes up quite a bit at listening sessions,” Bowen said. “People, especially communities of color, have told us that journalists are only covering the negative and that there are rarely stories about festivals or moments of joy about their culture and life.
“That’s not to say that people don’t want hard news,” Bowen added, “but stories of joy or ones that focus on solutions are examples of opportunities for news organizations.”
Several UNC Pembroke journalism majors, journalism faculty, plus staff of the UNC Pembroke newspaper The Pine Needle participated.
The forum also featured short presentations from representatives of local and statewide organizations.
Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina office of Broadband and Digital Equity, told the audience that Robeson and Scotland are two of 69 North Carolina counties that recently won Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants to install broadband internet service in underserved areas. As part of the GREAT grant eligibility requirements, all internet service providers must participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which gives eligible low-income households a $30 per month discount on high-speed internet service or to provide access to a comparable low-cost program.
Melody Kramer of Carolina Demography, one of the sponsors of the event, explained how the organization compiles public data highlighting trends that can affect policy. She noted, for instance, that North Carolina grew by 10%, or more than 1 million people, from 2010 to 2020. The four Border Belt counties , however – Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland – lost 16%, 13%, 13% and 6% of their populations respectively. North Carolina is also becoming increasingly urbanized, she noted.
Brenda Teal of Partners in Ministry of Laurinburg said the nonprofit organization is focused on youth, providing meals, after-school programs and STEM education, a food bank, home repairs and mentoring programs.
Tasha Oxendine, communications liaison with the Lumbee Tribe, said most of its 64,000 members want to remain in the area, but that it’s difficult because of issues like violence, housing, and education. “A lot of our people are suffering,” she said. The tribe actively works to fix these issues, such as providing affordable housing, she said.
Dr. Kennard DuBose talked about the SPARC program, which is based at UNC Pembroke. SPARC is an acronym Southeastern Prevention and Addiction Recovery Resource Center and is part of Robeson County’s initiative to tackle drug misuse and addiction.
Four local and statewide organizations sponsored the listening session: the NC Local News Workshop, Carolina Public Press, which is one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the state, Carolina Demography, and the Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit news site serving the four Border Belt counties. The groups used grants from the Google News Initiative and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to fund this forum and others. Border Belt Independent editor Sarah Nagem, BBI reporter Ivey Schofield, The Robesonian editor David Kennard and publisher Denise Ward also participated in the forum.