The Last Word: Turning out the lights
By Tony Chavonne
In April, Fayetteville residents were surprised to read in Raleigh’s newspaper, The News & Observer, that secret negotiations had been underway for months between our city and a private equity management company for the transfer of management rights of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission.
The article also revealed that local elected government officials had signed nondisclosure agreements, whereby they agreed not to share the information with the city residents. The N&O requested records from Fayetteville city officials but were told in March that no records existed.
Seven days later, The Fayetteville Observer finally reported something about the issue for the first time, not as a news story but rather an opinion column.
The same month, the city council approved spending an additional $591,000 in taxpayer funds for Segra Stadium, raising the total cost for the stadium to $41.3 million. The Fayetteville Observer reported that city officials declined to provide an itemized list of how the funds would be used. No additional details were provided to taxpayers.
These are just some examples of what happens to a community when it loses its vibrant newspaper.
The Fayetteville Observer, founded in 1816, is North Carolina’s oldest newspaper. For over 90 years it was owned by the family of the late Ashton Wilson Lilly and recognized as an award-winning publication and an active contributor to the quality of life in our community.
The sale of The Fayetteville Observer in 2016 to Gatehouse Media began a decline that has resulted in a significant reduction in the reporting of local news in our community.
When a hedge fund investor acquires a local newspaper, it often follows a common cost reduction strategy. We watched as veteran reporters were laid off or severed then replaced by inexperienced general assignment reporters with little knowledge about the local community. Routine government meetings, like the county commissioners and the school board, are no longer covered, leaving citizens with little information about where their tax dollars are spent.
With today’s early press deadlines, it is often two days before news stories appear in print editions. News coverage has begun to focus on noncontroversial topics – lifestyle features and the like. The headline on the front page of a recent issue of The Fayetteville Observer declared: “Bojangles adds fried chicken sandwich.” Really?
The Fayetteville Observer’s paid distribution has fallen from a high of 85,000 to 14,000, according to the September 2020 Publishers Statement. Only 15 or so journalists remain from a news staff that once totaled over 75. The ones who remain are giving it their best efforts but are unfairly challenged to cover a community of over 300,000 people with limited resources and direction.
Most importantly, a vibrant newspaper provides a check on those in power by informing the public about their actions. Without an aggressive press, government installs barriers to transparency. Officials sign nondisclosure agreements with hedge fund investors. They refuse to provide information to taxpayers on how they are spending their money. They require formal Freedom of Information inquiries before sharing basic information with citizens.
The declining capacity of our newspaper to cover local news not only renders the newspaper less valuable to its readers, but also results in a newspaper that is less valuable to a community. Communities like ours are becoming “news deserts,” with limited access to credible reporting that supports democracy at the basic levels.
We are seeing what happens when owning a newspaper is viewed as an investment, rather than as the protector of an important community asset. For the first time in over 200 years, our hope for an informed populace has been placed in the hands of newspaper owners with little knowledge of our community and with more interest on cutting costs than delivering service.
The newspaper building on Whitfield Street was recently put up for sale. With the paper’s diminished news staff and investor mentality, the light of information is already being extinguished in our community.
A legendary Fayetteville Observer reporter, the late Pat Reese, in describing the importance of the free press, once said, “We’re not selling shoes here.”
I wonder what he would think about Bojangles’ exciting “news”?