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What Happens When the News Is Gone?

In Jones County, North Carolina, and many other places around the country, local journalism has just about dried up.

For a long time, the commissioners of Pollocksville, a town of three hundred or so people in the far eastern part of North Carolina, held their monthly public meetings in a century-old former train depot on Main Street, near the Trent River. In September, 2018, Hurricane Florence flooded the Trent; the water rose as high as ten feet downtown, severely damaging dozens of structures in Pollocksville. The train depot was nearly destroyed, along with town records that dated back to the nineteen-twenties.

The commissioners’ meetings are now held in a former pharmacy across the street from the Dollar General store. On a Tuesday evening in November, Pollocksville’s five town commissioners gathered there, sitting on a raised platform beneath fluorescent lights and an American flag, to which they and the seven residents who had come to the meeting—a typical number of attendees—pledged allegiance. Among the first orders of business was a proposed flood-damage ordinance, one of many responses to Florence that the board has considered in the past year. Jay Bender, who’s been the mayor of Pollocksville for nearly four decades, has a solid helmet of gray hair and a careful drawl. He asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.” Strayhorn’s low-lying home is often the first in town to flood during heavy storms; she had heard that there had been grants coming through to deal with flooding. (“That’s why I keep going to the meetings,” she told me later. “Seeing if there’s anything that comes up.”

“That’s probably true,” Bender said. “But it was posted. It was advertised.”

“Posted where?” Strayhorn asked.

“In the newspaper,” Bender said, “and outside the office.”

Pollocksville is situated in Jones County, and most people would tell you that Jones County doesn’t have a newspaper. It used to have the Jones Post, a weekly founded in 1976. But that outlet has faded over a period of years, first becoming a regional insert delivered with other newspapers, and gradually ceasing to print much in the way of substantive local journalism. At this point, not even its publisher is quite willing to call it a paper. According to one estimate, the U.S. has lost one in four of its newspapers in the last fifteen years. The vast majority of those that have folded are weekly papers and other non-dailies. Around fifteen hundred American counties have just one paper, usually a weekly; another two hundred counties are without a newspaper altogether. These latter areas are what researchers call news deserts, and Jones County, one researcher told me, is a classic example. Bender had posted a notice about the ordinance. He had put it in the New Bern Sun Journal, which is based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it.

Alice Strayhorn stayed at the meeting for another ninety minutes, before leaving early. She spoke up just once more, to let the mayor know that his chair was at risk of toppling over. The ordinance passed a few minutes after she left, and the board moved on to other subjects: a sewer leak by the graveyard, the town’s Christmas lights, its “Welcome to Pollocksville” sign, a dead fox, and the fate of a long-abandoned 1999 Crown Victoria.

I caught up with Strayhorn outside. I wanted to know which newspaper she thought Bender had been referring to in his reply to her.

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, as rain began to fall. “I haven’t received any paper.” She told me that she’d already lost two cars to flooding and was worried that she’d lose her house.

Alice Strayhorn.
Alice Strayhorn outside her home in Pollocksville, North Carolina.Photograph by Kennedi Carter for The New Yorker

I asked whether having a newspaper in town would make any difference to her.

“If I put the story in a paper, maybe the board would pay more attention to me,” she said. “I can’t even remember the last time we got a paper here. The news information is very scarce now. It’s not like it used to be. I don’t know what happened.”

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