How Newspapers Change Communities, and How Communities Change When They’re Gone

What happens when a town loses its newspaper? Staff writer Nicole McNeill traces the rise and fall of the Chapel Hill News, which served the community surrounding The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for nearly 100 years. The paper and its legendary editor, immortalized in the “Shoe” cartoon above, won numerous awards as the paper diligently covered the impact of the civil rights movement on the college town. In its absence, several community groups and publications have attempted to fill the void. Most recently, the student-run Daily Tar Heel has launched an electronic newsletter for residents.

Chapel Hill is a vibrant community of 60,000 residents. It has a highly regarded public school system and is home to the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina. It draws performers, artists and thinkers from all over the world. But as of January 2019, the town had no local newspaper.

Like hundreds of newspapers across the country, the 95-year-old prize-winning paper, The Chapel Hill News, slowly faded into irrelevance long before it was officially closed. At the height of the paper’s editorial prominence in the 1970s, when it was called The Chapel Hill Newspaper, it published, on average, of 22 pages of highly focused local news coverage published six days per week.

"The Chapel Hill News was a real local newspaper," said Thomas Ricketts, a 50-year resident of Chapel Hill and former reader of The News. He said that it covered parties and town events, but also looked over the shoulder of the university, had an eye on the administration of city services and kept Town Council members on their toes. By the late 2000s, however, the coverage was so limited that Ricketts had stopped reading it.

In an attempt to fill this void, the Daily Tar Heel in February 2019 launched a new initiative. Called the OC Report, it is a community newsletter that links back to a section and landing page on the Daily Tar Heel site. If there’s market demand, the paper plans to expand the newsletter to a two-page per week town news section inside the Daily Tar Heel print edition.

“We're hoping to build something that residents can feel a part of. We're not just providing them with information; our goal is to welcome them into our process and promote that feeling of ownership, but in a more modern, interactive format,” said Erica Perel, general manager of the Daily Tar Heel. “They'll be able to submit questions and story ideas through texting, emails and in-person gatherings, and they'll be able to submit community op-eds.”

Chapel Hill Weekly founder Louis Graves (seated) and writer Joe Jones in the newspaper’s office, 1951. Courtesy of the Louis and Mildred Graves Papers, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

This newsletter harkens back to the Chapel Hill News’ local focus, a core value of The Chapel Hill News’ original owners and a way to build reader loyalty. It was founded as the Chapel Hill Weekly in 1923 by Louis Graves, UNC’s first journalism professor. Chapel Hill business owner Orville Campbell, a UNC alumnus and former editor of The Daily Tar Heel, bought the Weekly in 1954 and held it until his death in 1989. The paper flourished under Campbell, who changed its name to The Chapel Hill Newspaper in 1972, when its publication was increased to six days per week. At the beginning of the 1990s, the paper was briefly owned by Ottaway Newspapers, a subsidiary of Dow Jones (then owner of The Wall Street Journal), but was sold again in 1993 to the nearby News & Observer of Raleigh. In 1995, McClatchy purchased The News & Observer.

Over the next two decades, The Chapel Hill News started carrying less local and more regional and national news from the McClatchy network of newspapers, while many of the paper’s other functions, including ad sales and print production, were moved out of town. During this time, McClatchy also took on billions in debt to fund newspaper acquisitions, including the purchase of the Knight Ridder chain in 2006.

By 2017, McClatchy had added to its holdings in the North Carolina capital region (called the “Triangle”) nine suburban weeklies in addition to The Chapel Hill News, plus the daily Herald-Sun of Durham. However, The News & Observer was often treated as the primary newspaper for Chapel Hill. For example, after the 2008 election, The Chapel Hill News carried a single local story – describing residents’ reactions to the election of President Barack Obama. Readers were then directed to The News & Observer for additional election coverage.

The Great Recession hollowed out newspaper ad sales and forced debt-laden McClatchy to take drastic action to right its balance sheet. The company used the close proximity of its Triangle newspapers to cut dozens of newsroom jobs. Though The News still claimed to have a local focus, by mid-2017 the two remaining News reporters and single editor were reassigned to Durham’s Herald-Sun – purchased by McClatchy in December 2016 – and the paper was both written and produced outside Chapel Hill. In January 2018, the paper was officially closed and replaced with an advertising supplement, focused on dining and entertainment options.

Small Town, Big Changes

The loss of The Chapel Hill News is all the more tragic because, by all accounts, the paper did everything right. Its prominent owner and publisher, Orville Campbell, and its legendary editor, James Shumaker, won awards for nearly every aspect of the paper in the 1960s and 1970s. Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly started his professional career at the then-named Chapel Hill Weekly while he was still a student at UNC. He modeled the editor in his comic strip “Shoe” on the gruff, cigar-smoking Shumaker. The Shoe cartoon grew to become one of the most popular American comic strips ever, with millions of readers and syndication in nearly 1,000 newspapers across the country.

Early "Shoe" cartoon by UNC and Chapel Hill Weekly alum Jeff MacNelly. The cigar-smoking bird on the right, portraying the editor, is based on Chapel Hill News Editor James Shumaker. Courtesy of King Features Syndicate, a unit of Hearst Publishing

Early "Shoe" cartoon by UNC and Chapel Hill Weekly alum Jeff MacNelly. The cigar-smoking bird on the right, portraying the editor, is based on Chapel Hill News Editor James Shumaker. Courtesy of King Features Syndicate, a unit of Hearst Publishing

Perhaps Shumaker’s greatest legacy is how he positioned the newspaper during a time when student protests first erupted around the civil rights movement. In 1960, Chapel Hill was still a predominantly white town with “several Southern attitudes that ran deep,” said Sarah Geer, a life-long Chapel Hill resident and current president of the Chapel Hill Historical Society. “Chapel Hill was a small town, and the things that were happening here were big.”

The newspaper engaged in a daily struggle with itself over its values, its role and identity, and how best to hold a space for the vital, painful transformation from segregation to integration. Some protests were covered extensively, with large front-page placement and accompanying photos. Other events, such as retaliation attacks committed by white supremacists, were minimized or omitted.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard N. Lee said that the attitudes reflected in the paper “flip-flopped,” but that they evolved along with those in the town in general. Lee served three terms between 1969 and 1975. He was one of the first African-American mayors of any U.S. city and the first to govern a predominantly white Southern city. During Lee’s first mayoral campaign in 1969, the paper largely ignored him, he said, though he was a heavy advertiser. However, by his second re-election campaign in 1973, Lee had won over Campbell and the paper with his innovative social programs, including Chapel Hill’s free public bus system. As a result, the news coverage of both his performance as mayor and his re-election campaign was largely positive.

“The Chapel Hill News made more attempts at recognizing and reconciling its own flaws than other Southern papers at the time,” said Geer.

The Financial Conundrum

A paper is healthiest, financially, when the column inches devoted to ads outnumber those devoted to editorial content. Up until the early 2000s, the paper published at least a full page of ads for each page of editorial content. However, by 2004, the paper consistently published fewer ad than editorial pages -- an average of 18 pages of ads to 22 editorial pages, though the Sunday paper did include a 28-page real estate section composed mostly of ads and sponsored content.

McClatchy reduced the number of pages in the then-semiweekly Chapel Hill News so that ads would still make up about half the paper’s 8-12 pages. When this failed to resolve the paper’s ad revenue imbalance, McClatchy closed it, along with the nine other suburban weeklies, and in their place launched Triangle Today, a four-page dining and entertainment publication that is fully composed of ads and content sponsored by local businesses.

As financial prospects for the Chapel Hill paper diminished, so did the news. In the early 1960s, the Chapel Hill News, published as a broadsheet, had an average of 11 news stories on the front page, most addressing residents’ critical information needs. By 2008, the paper had been redesigned as a tabloid.  Its front page carried just three to four stories, only one of which addressed a critical information need. Inside the paper, regional, state and national articles and feature stories had displaced most local news.

The Chapel Hill News survived longer than it would have as part of a chain because it shared resources within the McClatchy network of newspapers in the area, said Sara Glines, the president and publisher of The News & Observer since 2016. Until they were closed, she also served as publisher of The News & Observer's 10 suburban weeklies. For the last two years of its life, Glines said, The Chapel Hill News was on a financially unsustainable trajectory.

The Chapel Hill News was ultimately doomed because it could not generate enough ad revenue from local businesses, Glines said. Though well-heeled Chapel Hill subscribers demanded she return it to its former levels of robustness, Glines said, “There was no real local advertising support to bring [it] back, and the cost to produce [it] was just continuing to escalate.” Local advertisers want to reach residents in their late 20s and 30s who are more likely to be starting families and buying cars and houses, while Chapel Hill News readers are predominantly in their 50s or older. Glines said she still receives requests from Chapel Hill residents to revive The News, but “there is no economic model to support it.”

The Cost of Losing a Local Paper

During Shumaker’s editorial stewardship, The Chapel Hill News was a mirror of the town. At the height of its prominence, “about 85 percent of people could discuss with you exactly what was going on in town because of The Chapel Hill News,” said 50-year resident Stacy Wynn.

Even after both Shumaker and Campbell departed the paper, The Chapel Hill News strove to reflect a clear picture of town life. The News once did a series of front-page stories on a beloved elementary school rabbit that needed surgery, said Linda Haac, a 40-year resident of the area who wrote a column on town life for The News between 1995 and 2005. “It was the kind of story that no outside or corporate owner would have believed was important enough for the front cover, but the community was really invested in it.”

Additionally, Haac said, “People saw themselves in the paper. They saw their lives in the paper.” The News not only held local leaders accountable and brought residents’ attention to important issues, but it also highlighted area restaurants and art exhibits, promoted books written by local authors and celebrated town entrepreneurs. “It captured what it was like to live here,” she said.

Many residents have a ready list when asked what had been lost when The Chapel Hill News closed. Top of the list is “breaking news,” especially about the town’s elected and appointed leaders. Without a local newspaper, “we’re going to have an uninformed electorate,” said 50-year resident Debbie Finn. “That’s a very serious problem.” Objective voter information is hard to find, and information about town agencies and services is now distributed at the prerogative of town officials, she said. Though The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun cover big issues that affect Chapel Hill, the town isn’t their focus, which means residents “don’t know what they don’t know,” Ricketts said.

The absence of The News has also impaired the civic health of the town. “Newspapers don’t solve problems, but they make problems solvable,” said Donald Shaw, an emeritus professor of the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. For example, The Chapel Hill News published years of targeted news coverage and editorials about drought conditions, which pressured town leaders to make policy reforms and revamp the water supply system.

However, the worst casualty might be a sense of social cohesion and identity. After decades of research into the role newspapers play in society, Shaw has concluded, “Communication is community.” Elizabeth Fixler, who moved to town more than a decade ago, said the paper was “an invaluable link between residents.” Without it, she added, “I’m very concerned with the level of communication among residents or lack thereof.”

Haac agreed, saying that after The Chapel Hill News closed, the town became “fragmented.” While residents had always disagreed with one another, the newspaper created a space for differences and disagreements to coexist civilly, Ricketts said. “It gave a sense of community to the place.”

A Fourth Generation Journalist Continues the Family Tradition

Margaret High grew up in the newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina. She’s the fourth generation in a newspaper family. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all had a hand in leading the paper that has served the 50,000 residents of rural Columbus county in eastern North Carolina since 1896. High, a UNC journalism student, is determined to carry on her family’s legacy through innovation and reinvention when she graduates this spring.

There’s something entrancing about watching a 1974 Goss Community Press in action. The oatmeal-colored newsprint leaps from one roller to the next, adding to its bouquet of colors on the page with each turn. Pressmen in their blue-on-blue, ink-stained uniforms dart from unit to unit, delicately turning knobs to control speed, ink and alignment. It takes multiple stages of imprinting before the final paper spills out of the press, perfectly stacked and proudly bearing The News Reporter’s name.

The printing press is both my childhood and the embodiment of my family history. I’m the fourth edition pouring out of the press, the fourth generation of a newspaper family. My great-grandfather, Leslie Thompson, was first and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953. His son-in-law, Jim High, now 85, was next and still has an office complete with his Underwood typewriter standing at the ready. The third is my father, Leslie High, the paper’s editor who started working at 13 years old as a photographer.

I never thought I would get swept up in the fast-moving press, but years of exposure led me to the family tradition. When I was about a foot shorter, I would sit on the chipped, ink-stained concrete floors watching the whisking rolls before running to the pre-print room. There I would proudly stand beside 30- to- 40-year employees as we worked in silence, manually inserting colorful advertising circulars from Food Lion, CVS and Belk. At the end of the day, my dad would walk into the back and take photographs with me in the middle, surrounded by my newspaper family and the number of inserts I had completed, scribbled with 6-year-old penmanship on a sheet of paper.

One of those photos is permanently taped in my dad’s office.

Margaret, center, surrounded by 30- to 40-year employees. Many are still working at The News Reporter today.

It hangs near a framed black-and-white photograph of my father as a child, holding a shovel he had used to break ground in 1966 for the new office on Columbus Street as my great-grandfather and grandfather stood next to him, watching with amusement.

The pride on my grandfather’s face in the picture is as distinct as the smell of newsprint in The News Reporter. He risked everything he owned to break ground on a new office and purchase a printing press in our small town.

My father, Les High (center), breaks ground for The News Reporter where it currently resides on West Columbus Street. My grandfather, Jim High, watches directly behind my father.

My grandfather had seen firsthand how important good community journalism is. He knew and loved my late grandmother’s resolve to show no fear when the paper was under attack by Klansmen in the 1950s.

When Leslie Thompson decided to run reporter Willard Cole’s articles detailing Ku Klux Klan activity across Columbus County, he knew his family would be in danger. The Whiteville police chief was a Klansman. The police chief in another town in our county, Fair Bluff, was the Grand Dragon. The KKK was one of those small-town secrets, something Whiteville’s population of 4,500 kept under wraps. These men were cowards, though, thugs who threatened harm against anyone who opposed them while hidden behind a mask and robe.

The Klan burned crosses in my great-grandfather’s front yard and they threw bricks through the window of the newspaper office. My grandmother, Carolyn Thompson, needed a police escort to school during the tense times. This was odd, because even though the Whiteville police chief was a Klansman, he was also my great-grandfather’s secret protector. The Whiteville police chief would notify my great-grandfather of planned attacks on the paper. When robberies were discussed, my family would get extra protection for the office. If brick throwing was going to happen, the police chief gave us warnings.

Despite the threats of violence, the advertising boycotts and the subscription cancellations, my great-grandfather ran the damning stories anyway. The articles resulted in an FBI investigation and the subsequent arrest of many Klansmen. It was the apex of exceptional journalism: the truth at all costs. The Pulitzer committee agreed.

These stories filled my childhood but I never gave any weight to them. They were simply fun tales that I thought about while waxing newspaper copy and sticking the long tiles onto the layout sheets. Or little tidbits my dad would tell me when we developed film in the dark room. The ink slowly seeped into my veins over time.

My great-grandfather’s stubbornness has survived four generations, and as a proud descendant, I wanted to rebel. My classmates knew of my family and always told me I would be a journalist, too. Their cajoling drove me crazy; no one tells me what to do. Besides, my family survived the Great Recession, but I knew print was crumbling. We were in dangerous waters because of Whiteville’s aging population.

Print was dying and the legacy of my family with it. I planned on adapting by entering a different profession: maybe global studies or psychology? A liberal arts education was supposed to decide for me. The University of North Carolina did. It was journalism. With chagrin, I took introduction to news writing and fell in love. I was given the opportunity to write creative stories but used the truth instead of my imagination. Turns out the ink from the printing press actually stuck.

But newspapers didn’t magically stop disappearing, and news deserts didn’t stop their consuming creep across the nation. My father knows this, and so does the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. As I learned writing tools, three floors above me in in the journalism school sat my father and other members of The News Reporter staff: my mother, my aunt and a member from the advertising team. They took part in Knight-Lenfest conferences with UNC that took comprehensive approaches to saving journalism.

Despite a Pulitzer Prize and being a major employer in our community, The News Reporter hasn’t turned a profit in two years. It will lose money again this year. Our rural community is shrinking, life-long subscribers are dying, and young people aren’t filling the void.

But our four generations know how important a paper is for a rural community. Last year, we published an eight-part series investigating the opioid crisis in our county, which led to a better understanding and action against a plague that is killing both young and old. This fall, as Hurricane Florence flooded the swamplands and left a town in our county irreparable, our reporters posted urgent Facebook Live reports from the only place in the county that had power and the internet – the lobby of the local hospital.

With no electricity at The News Reporter for a week, my family drove through floodwaters to print the paper at The Fayetteville Observer an hour away. When the power finally came back on the night before the next press day, the staff cranked up the press at 12:45 in the morning, continuing a proud tradition of The News Reporter never missing an issue.

The stubborn gene in my father refuses to let our paper fail. Our community has benefitted from more than 120 years of The News Reporter. Journalism is the backbone of democracy, even in out-of-the-way places like Whiteville. The condition of the newspaper business dictates the conversations I have with my father. Every day we end up talking about strategies to diversify income, drive subscriptions and find ways to retain loyal, life-long employees.

Yet, alongside four generations of stubbornness are four generations of innovation. The fear is tinged with excitement. There’s a challenge we face in order to survive and the solution is unprecedented. I imagine that’s how my great-grandfather felt. The fear of printing a community-altering story tinged with excitement about shaking the fabric. Money didn’t matter when a great good was at stake.

Take away the office and chairs, the constantly ringing telephones and light hum of the press running. Take away the entire building. The News Reporter has pursued accountability and compelling storytelling for three generations. I intend to carry them for the fourth.

It’s an Invictus spirit that runs from Leslie Thompson to me. We’re rebellious, we’re independent, we’re unshaken. The future might not have the Goss Community Press. It might be a legal pad and internet access, but my family will continue our public service of truthtelling.

My family’s association with the press is immutable. It’s a lineage that runs like the whirling of print through the press and hits hard like the aluminum plates imprinting pictures, and it commands attention like bold headlines.

Margaret High grew up in the newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina. She’s the fourth generation in a newspaper family. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all had a hand in leading the paper that has served the 50,000 residents of rural Columbus county in eastern... -->