The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

THBT: Is Journalism Good for N.C.?

Tuesday’s stops on the Tar Heel Bus Tour had us looking at different ways that private industry is partnering with Carolina, but Wednesday provided examples of partnerships that UNC is creating with public agencies in efforts to improve the lives of North Carolinians.

The stops left me wondering: Are there (and should there be) similar partnerships available in the field of journalism, and what would they look like?

It seemed to me that the first question we need to ask is, is journalism good for North Carolina?

Our first stop was in Charlotte to learn more about the Pathways to Prosperity program that’s coming out of the Center for Community Capital and the second was the Walk Wise, Drive Smart program, which is a partnership between Hendersonville, N.C., the UNC Highway Safety Center and the Center for Aging and Health.

The Center for Community Capital says it conducts “research and analysis into the transformative power of capital to change the economic health of households and communities in the United States.” Since it’s inception in 1997 the Center has raised $10 million for its work.

Now, what if we replaced the word “capital” with journalism? Do we believe that journalism has the power to change the economic health of households and communities in the United States? How? Is it worth $1 million a year?

If I didn’t think the answers to the first and third questions weren’t both “yes” then I’d be filling out law school applications right now.

But can we prove that journalism has that power? Surely work has been done on the issue. Probably I’ve even forgotten some of it that I’ve already seen. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for evidence of this and I’ll post it here as I find it.

If we can demonstrate that journalism has that ability, what’s the best way to exercise that power? Is the private sector (which is laying off journalists left and right) doing a good enough job? Does the non-profit sector need to play a more important role? Should government intervene in some way?

Most journalists would rather write about a manhole opening ceremony than take money from the government. We’re trained to “follow the money,” because we fundamentally believe that money buys access and access facilitates influence. But both the project in Charlotte and the project in Hendersonville started with government money, from what I understand.

The aim of the project in Charlotte is to get 500 households involved in the Charlotte Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency program to begin using basic banking services. Mark McDaniel, a senior research association at the Center for Community Capital and the organizer of the project, said that the initial financial support really came from N.C. Banking Commissioner Joseph A. Smith. Smith gave state money to do focus groups and market research in preparation for the project’s launch. The local office of economic development then kicked in money for implementation of the project. He said the project also received support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Fifth Third Bancorp, which is going through a merger with Charlotte’s Frist Charter Corp. that requires the banks to demonstrate their corporate citizenship in order to receive federal approval. All told, McDaniel estimated that the 18 to 24 month project would cost between $175,000 and $200,000.

In Hendersonville, the project got its start with a federal grant aimed at developing and evaluating a senior walking project. Bill Hunter, a researcher with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and the director of Walk Wise, Drive Smart, said UNC chose to work in Hendersonville because it had an older population and because it was a place that was small enough that he hopes to be able to demonstrate some tangible results of his work.

So, there’s a state interest in getting poor people in to the banking mainstream. And there’s a state interest in getting older people to stay active. But is there a state interest in good journalism — journalism that helps citizens exercise their individual freedom to make more informed personal choices about:

  • personal spending decisions?
  • their health?
  • the safest place to house their families?
  • employment opportunities?
  • safe and nurturing daycare choices for their kids?
  • public and private transportation?
  • improving the education of themselves and their families?
  • investment and economic developing opportunities?

And is there a state interest in developing journalism that does a better job helping people avoid harm, both immediate harm and potential long-term dangers of the environment?

Absolutely, there is. Capitalism and democracy both demand a tool for the efficient and transparent exchange of goods, services and ideas. Journalism has historically provided that. This has historically been a lucrative private enterprise, but the economics of media are changing. The good news for North Carolina is that we will soon have Penny Abernathy as a new Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics in Chapel Hill.

Clearly, North Carolina and the Knight Foundation are looking for ways to keep journalism viable. Let’s remember that the reason we need journalism to remain viable is so that North Carolina — and especially the least privileged among us — can remain viable.

Written by Ryan Thornburg

May 19, 2008 at 9:57 am

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