For more than 98 years, The Pilot has been a local paper exclusively for Moore County. It has covered news and the innumerable comings and goings of every variety, whether on a weekly basis, twice or three days a week.
Unlike many community newspapers, The Pilot does not carry national and international news. We do occasionally run stories related to state politics from The Raleigh News & Observer, but only when they have a bearing on Moore County residents. But overall, The Pilot is as local a newspaper as they come. Stories are produced either by a professional staff writer or a member of the public.
That is not the case with many local newspapers, and a study recently published by Duke University researchers at the Sanford School of Public Policy highlights this crisis for communities far and wide.
Its title is a mouthful: “News Deserts, Journalism Divides and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News.” I have written previously of news deserts, communities that are underserved — or not served at all — by newspapers. In these communities, they rarely know what their town council or school board is up to. Residents in these communities aren’t informed of public health issues or what their local nonprofits are doing to improve local life.
News deserts themselves are not news. Nor is the woe of the overall newspaper industry, decimated by the new digital economy that has starved it of precious advertising revenue. Some newsrooms at major cities in this country have seen their reporting staffs cut 90 percent over the last several years. Overall revenue in the industry is half of what it was 10 years ago.
What has all this meant for local news, the bread and butter of every community newspaper? The news isn’t good.
Researchers analyzed 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days and across 100 randomly chosen communities. They found that:
n About 17 percent of the stories are “truly local,” by which they mean the story was about the specific municipality.
n Only 43 percent of the stories were originally produced. In other words, the majority were provided by syndicated services.
n Just 56 percent of the stories provided to a community addressed “a critical information need,” or stories about local government spending, education, politics or zoning decisions. In fact, even newspapers located in county seats — where you’d expect there to be plenty of government news — did not reflect higher percentages of local news delivered.
You do not have to go far from Moore County to see the impact. Many of the newspapers surrounding Moore County are either two or three sections, and they are full of stories produced by The Associated Press or other syndicated services about subjects that have nothing to do with their local communities.
The Pilot at its smallest is 28 pages over four sections. Normally, the paper is anywhere from 32-40 pages. And every single story you find in those four sections is about Moore County or directly impacts Moore County residents. Our columnists are virtually all local residents. Our sports pages cover the local high schools, community college and leisure pursuits of golf and equestrian events. The weekly business section features stories about local businesses and the people who run them.
Occasionally, I am still asked about us carrying national or international news. Someone even asked me to run Major League Baseball box scores, as if those would be even close to relevant in a twice-weekly paper.
No, that’s not The Pilot. What we are is relentlessly local. If we are not telling you the news of Moore County, we are not doing our jobs. So you will know about the school board, about the zoning decisions, about the high schools’ sports teams, the work of nonprofits and civic organizations.
This is a heartfelt message I ask your indulgence to share with someone you think needs to hear it: The Pilot tells Moore County’s story. These days, that is not something to take for granted.