How Southerly is making environmental journalism a vital community service
On a warm and clear Monday evening in late March, about 20 cars gathered in the parking lot of a church in Northampton County, N.C., for a socially distanced meeting of the local NAACP chapter. The president and other chairpeople praised successful local food drives, thanked beloved members, and spoke out about potential voting rights issues. Health department representatives discussed COVID-19 rates and the importance of getting the vaccine.
A few minutes in, as the sun started to set and the sky turned purple, the president offered me the microphone to talk about information access in the county, which has no newspaper. In my hands, I held a stack of the “Northeastern NC Newsletter” —a project that was the culmination of weeks of conversations with residents, leaders of Facebook groups, NAACP members, and a regional library director — to cover local pertinent resources and stories for five counties in the northeastern part of the state. As I spoke, a few people honked, many nodded, and they all took at least one extra copy of the newsletter to share with their families, friends, and church members.
Both in print and online, the monthly newsletter is being distributed in Halifax, Northampton, Bertie, Hertford, and Gates counties through the Northampton County NAACP, the Albemarle Regional Library system, churches, and online via active local Facebook groups and pages. Eventually, the goal is to pay community members to run it — or have enough ads to cover costs — so Southerly can step back from production some, but help fact check and support the work. In the next couple issues, we’re planning to cover a lot of COVID-19 news, but we will expand to focus on relevant — and underreported—environmental and public health issues, including renewable energy, biomass, pollution, mental health, and rising utility costs.
We’re doing something similar hundreds of miles away, in southwest Louisiana: A printed booklet around hurricane recovery and mental health resources, in response to an impactful series of stories Southerly did on Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020. It will be distributed through mental health clinics and other shelters. In addition, we have long-term partnerships planned for 2021 in both states that focus on community-led reporting, including one to report on the intersection of environmental justice and economic mobility in Latinx communities in rural North Carolina with Enlace Latino NC, a Spanish-language outlet.
All of these are experiments to create more responsible and thoughtful journalism, and they are increasingly necessary and urgent. Like many other entrepreneurs, journalists, and organizers in this space, I’ve spent years trying to figure out where our work fits in the media ecosystem, how Southerly can help fill gaps and complement other organizations. Since the JSK Community Impact Fellowship began last fall, I’ve had the time and space — and perhaps most importantly, financial freedom — to pause, listen, and think more intentionally about how to do that.
I’ve learned from the brilliant folks in my cohort, who are building new models of journalism in the places they live, and dismantling inequitable structures in the process. Candice Fortman at Outlier: “We are a blank canvas on which to build our model: a new way for newsrooms to build relationships with communities and not on the backs of communities.” Kate Maxwell at Mendocino Voice, who is working to “treat news as a public utility, to be operated for the common good.” Brit Harley at Newark News & Story Collaborative: “We will train and support residents in storytelling, media making and other creative art forms.”
I’ve learned from folks in rural North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kentucky about what they need to create stronger, healthier, and more informed communities. Without consistent, accurate information, there is no foundation for trust. Without repairing relationships with media, there is no space to change power dynamics. We’re up against the public relations machine of the chemical and fossil fuel industries, politicians, and other well-funded interests spreading disinformation. The most egregious is through conservative, alt-right media and fake news, but inaccurate information is spread every day via press releases regurgitated on local television newscasts and in op-eds for community papers. Even in progressive spaces, journalism isn’t always seen as what it is: An integral building block of any place. A necessary public service.
People — especially those in rural, low-wealth, and BIPOC communities — want to see themselves represented accurately and read beautiful storytelling. They also need access to basic information that is often difficult to find, especially without reliable internet access. Before we write 3,000 word pieces that folks often don’t have time to read, we have to answer their questions: How do renters contact FEMA if they haven’t received their rental assistance money after a hurricane? Where can people access mental health services after dealing with the pandemic and repeated extreme weather? Where can we they get free or affordable food to feed their families? How many jobs are solar companies bringing, really? Why are so many neighbors dying of cancer? How can they test what’s in their drinking water?
Reporting on rural Southerners’ relationship to their natural and built environments cannot alone dismantle power structures — but it is a step toward putting power back in their hands. Research shows that with less coverage or accountability, people are more at risk: The misrepresentation of topics like pollution or climate change can cause harm by leaving people in the dark. Powerful interests — fossil fuel companies, chemical companies, utilities, and the lax regulators and politicians they influence — are unaccountable to the public.
As a regional publication covering ecology, justice, and culture, we do our best work through partnerships with local news outlets. Southerly is uniquely positioned to be a platform that bridges gaps in a region bearing the brunt of climate change and environmental injustices because of our expertise on these topics, and our ability to connect the dots between different parts of the South. We also know that whatever stories we’re publishing have to reach and be informed by the people they’re about — something legacy publications, public radio stations, and new digital digital startups are struggling with.
To make our own organization sustainable while creating a more just, thoughtful media ecosystem, we have to reprioritize. Southerly is restructuring some, focusing on Gulf Coast, the Delta, Appalachia, and the Atlantic Coast states. We’ll be digging into specific communities instead of publishing freelance pieces so frequently. Nearly all of our stories will have a community outreach component. Our partnerships with local, regional, and national news organizations will be more strategic and will require more effort on the front-end to ensure we’re serving the communities we’re covering.
Building a nonprofit outlet from the ground up — especially one that covers such a rural, poor, segregated region — is challenging. We must constantly make the case for journalism as an irreplaceable and vital community service to donors, progressive organizations and politicians, and community members who are skeptical because they’ve been burned before or fed misinformation.
We’re making a long-term bet on Southerners who know the place they live best. Eventually, our goal is to hire full-time reporters and full-time organizers to create print resources, handle text-based services, and fact check community reporting about environmental and public health topics. Another hire, an event organizer, would focus on workshops and media literacy training to bring in new voices, and a partnerships manager would handle the logistics of local media relationships. We can’t do this at scale just yet — we need operational funding to fund full-time positions, of which Southerly has none — but we’re already doing the work on a shoestring budget.
If you’re a funder interested in something like this in your region, you can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). And if you’re a local or national newsroom leader in one of the states we cover who wants more nuanced and thoughtful coverage of climate change, energy, public health, and the environment, please reach out.
As the South changes — environmentally, economically, politically, demographically — we are using journalism to make it a more informed, equitable, healthy, and beautiful place to live. Southerly has always been committed to reporting and reaching underserved communities, to bridging divides between rural and urban areas, to connecting dots between different parts of the South. This takes it a step further and scales it in a way that’s realistic for rural and underserved people and places: We produce journalism and storytelling about the world around us, and want to make sure our stories not only reach people, but help them take action and make decisions.
It’s not exactly how we started out a couple years ago — but the media and natural ecosystems aren’t at all the same, either.