HOW NEWSPAPERS CHANGE COMMUNITIES, AND HOW COMMUNITIES CHANGE WHEN THEY’RE GONE

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A TOWN LOSES ITS NEWSPAPER?

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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.

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