Activist’s Death Takes Toll on Newspapers

If Chapel Hill had a patron saint of town-gown relations, it might have been Rebecca Clark. The 93-year-old woman was not only a leader in the area’s black community, but the mother of the late Doug Clark, who entertained generations of frat parties with his band, The Hot Nuts.

Ms. Clark died on Saturday. But the Triangle’s newspapers should ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

But it also tolls for online community sites if papers begin to kick the bucket.

The News & Observer broke the story, which piqued my curiosity about an apparently fascinating woman I didn’t know. I Tweeted that I wanted to know more about her. And Ruby Sinriech Tweeted right back that a thread of comments had been posted on the front page of her site,

And, sure enough, eight people — including a former town council member, the news director at the local radio station and the editor of the up-and-coming Carrboro Citizen — posted memories there.

Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of reader memories on local media sites:

News & Observer – Chapel Hill News editor Mark Schultz made a plea for memories on his blog. The N&O got one.

The Herald-Sun – A story, but no comments.

WCHL – A story, but no ability to comment on stories. Which explains why Joe Schwartz went to to leave his.

Chapel Hill News – A story, but no ability to comment on stories.

Carrboro Citizen – The ability to comment… but no story. Although editor Kirk Ross also posted on

I can’t rightly explain what’s happening here. Structurally, there’s not much difference between the comments on OrangePolitics and the other sites. OrangePolitics is the only site that allows anonymous comments, but those are held for moderation. The registration processes for all the sites are about the same, although the MSM sites pry for a bit more personal contact information. All sites post the comments of registered users immediately (including my single-vowel post on the N&O that I can’t seem to remove.) So it’s not a technical/structural issue.

Clearly the leaders of local media “get it.” Three leaders of local news organizations were online adding and/or seeking comment. So it’s not a philosophical issue.

So what is it? Why did the story get reported in one place, but discussed in another? Is it that is almost totally user-generated — that conversation is woven in to that community’s information gathering process?

What would the community have lost without the newspaper reports? Finding a vacuum, would the news have broken elsewhere and still elicited comments online?

Also, it’s not as if the newspaper stories didn’t include community memories of Ms. Clark — the N&O had two sources and the Herald-Sun had five, including two of the state’s most prominent politicians. But, oddly, none of the voices on were included in the news stories and none of the voices in the news stories were found on

Is this part of some new media symbiosis that brings new voices to the table while retaining the old? That merges a reporter’s initiative with a community’s contributions?

I’m not convinced. I think that kind of symbiosis would require more interaction between the two. And right now they don’t touch or acknowledge each other in any meaningful way. It is, to steal from some of my newly acquired parenting jargon, “co-playing.”

But, honestly, I’m stumped here. And I’m supposed to be giving a lecture on this kind of thing in a few weeks… I hope Dan Gillmor’s right…y’all want to help me out here?

P.S. — Oh yeah. One of the best pieces of online journalism I’ve seen recently came from Andrew Dunn, the University editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He posted it to…

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2 thoughts on “Activist’s Death Takes Toll on Newspapers”

  1. Great post with great questions.

    I think it is the difference in the audiences and where they feel safe to post heartfelt memories.

    The OrangePolitics site, as a user-generated site has a different atmosphere where participants and commenters seem like, well, friends. It’s safe to leave a thought, and its likely someone will respond to you.

    The larger media sites have more mass and with mass comes a variety of participants. Some don’t want to comment on anything; some comment on anything in every way imaginable and some want to comment but don’t want to enter the jungle of meanness that comment threads can often be. You can leave a thought and, often times, be totally ignored by other commenters or the original writer.

    The larger media sites also carry the baggage of their newsprint forebears that, I suspect, discourage people from interacting.

  2. As for The Citizen, I knew we were going to do the story in a big way in a day or two and we were already making calls when I posted my thoughts. I thought that the OP conversation was a good place for us all to talk and I didn’t feel a need to compete with that. Didn’t seem respectful.
    Here’s the stuff we did:

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