PC, Post and Courier team up to combat news ‘deserts’ throughout S.C.
Much like the sands of the Sahara, the way people consume news and information has shifted and continues to shift in the ever-changing climate of the modern Information Age.
Gone are the days when folks picked up their rolled-up daily newspapers in the driveway for a leisurely read over breakfast or plunked down a quarter to find out what was happening in their small towns.
Gone, too, is the accountability aimed at public officials in areas of the state – news deserts – where once-thriving weekly and bi-weekly newspapers are struggling or have died.
Still, there is hope, thanks to a Presbyterian College professor, three PC students, and an award-winning journalist who have teamed up to discover a creative solution to a growing problem. An answer they call the Oasis Project.
Before Dr. Kendra Hamilton became an English professor at PC, she was a journalist getting her feet wet at the Greenville News-Piedmont with another young writer named Tony Bartelme. Fast-forward to 2021 when Bartelme – now the senior projects reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier and a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist – asked Hamilton to speak at the ceremony for his John Chancellor Award for Journalism Excellence.
The reconnected pair discussed their shared pasts and the future of journalism in their state. Despite the grim prognosis, Bartelme and Hamilton pledged to work together on a plan to restore local journalism to its rightful role as chronicler and watchdog.
Bartelme said he learned more about the plight of the remaining smalltown news outlets while working on the Post and Courier’s Uncovered series, which teamed the daily with approximately 17 community news organizations throughout the state.
“We did more than 50 stories – each one shining a light on something that would have remained hidden,” he said. “So, we’d become even more sensitive to the needs of our partners as we watched them try to balance their normal coverage with the investigative work. We also saw how vital they were to their communities, and we began asking ourselves: ‘Is there anything else we can do?'”
Hamilton and Bartelme recognize the danger to communities without a solid journalistic presence.
“No one covering town council,” Bartelme said. “No one covering schools. No obituaries. No sports reporting. A news desert is a place without real scrutiny, which is a recipe for corruption. Taking another step, you’re also seeing areas where local news organizations have been so eviscerated by budget cuts that they just a skeleton staff. These so-called ‘ghost papers’ just can’t do what a well-staffed newspaper can do, and all this creates more news deserts.”
The issue became more personal for Hamilton after she met and befriended Jim and Judith Brown at the Laurens County Advertiser.
“I know the struggles they have been going through to keep that paper running,” she said. “It’s been a family business for a long time but none of their kids want to go into it, so, that paper’s fate is hanging in the balance and so is the fate of the Clinton Chronicle, which is not owned locally.”
It is a significant challenge to discover the next generation of local journalists and create innovative business models to sustain their work. But, as with any worthwhile journalistic venture, the Oasis Project begins with research.
Hamilton enlisted three PC students – Lauren Andrews, Sharecka Byrd, and Gabriella Evans – who got the ball rolling this summer via the Summer Fellows program and paid internships with the Post and Courier.
The trio began by touring newspapers in Laurens and surrounding counties and meeting with editors and reporters to gauge their interest and feedback on their project. They also discovered the challenges and hurdles these journalists face as the once-fertile business model they once thrived in breaks down in real-time.
Andrews said some news outlets bristle at the term “news desert,” but most believe it describes the news “terrain” accurately.
“I think most of them acknowledge the urgency of the situation,” she said. “They understand it’s not a demeaning term – it’s just what the situation is. They’ve been super helpful when we’ve interviewed them and, overall, supportive of the project.”
During a drive through some rural towns in the area, Byrd said she noticed another clear challenge newspapers face – the economic devastation throughout many small communities.
“No wonder there aren’t many reporters, because there aren’t many people in some of those towns,” she said. “We are a rural state, so it’s kind of hard. That’s one of the things I realized going through these towns. It’s very rural.”
Nonetheless, said Evans, local journalism is necessary for a well-informed society.
“I think it matters and should be addressed,” she said. “Of course, people have the internet and can get information but all different places. But a lot of things we’ve heard and I can attest to when you live in a small town, you’re going to want the news from a person who understands the politics and everything going on in that community. When they’re not there, a lot of people lose that touch. Not only that, it’s a local business. This is someone’s livelihood and how they put food on the table for their families and how they pay their bills. If we’re all just trying to shift to an easier and more comfortable way of gathering information, we’re putting those people out of business.”
That’s why part of the research, Hamilton said, will focus on economic barriers and investigating viable business models.
Andrews said it is essential; however, journalists remain focused on informing the public over profit.
“I feel like people don’t understand the role of journalism once it leaves the local realm,” she said. “We read this report that talked about newspapers merging into mega chains where you lose so much of what you had when it was a smaller newspaper. Veteran journalists are laid off to save money and younger journalists have no one to mentor them. The civic duty of journalism is kind of lost because the companies are more worried about revenue than giving the community what it needs.”
The students are developing a survey this summer they hope to transmit to journalists statewide to gather even more information and feedback they hope will eventually lead to news oases instead of deserts.
Hamilton said she hopes, too, that Presbyterian College itself will become a spring of its own for news outlets by inspiring students to serve communities as members of the press.
“I really think the Oasis Project could be a game changer for student media at PC,” she said.
Hamilton added that it could also be a game changer for local papers if they meet PC students who make journalism and community service their passion and calling – and have the entrepreneurial ambition to make it happen.
Maybe PC’s first Oasis Project participants?
Byrd said journalism was once a childhood dream that changed over time – but admits her dream may have been restored at PC through her work on the college’s student newspaper, The BlueStocking.
“Journalism is a very important aspect of a democracy,” she said.
Andrews is more certain of her future as a writer. She called being the editor of her high school newspaper – her first leadership experience – one of the best things she has ever done. And while journalism’s shaky future has people in her orbit questioning her potential career choice, Andrews said that is why she believes so strongly in the Oasis Project.
“It’s what I want to do,” she said. “It’s what I really care about. I understand the importance of news – it’s the voice of the people. It’s the knowledge for the people. I feel like it’s a duty. You’re really doing something for other people.”