Less Ink, More Water: What Do We Do When There Are No Reporters but Big Decisions?

I love newspapers and news blogs. I love reporters. I used to be a reporter. I come from 150 years of men – and one grandmother, Cyrene Bakke Dear – who published local community newspapers from Jersey City to Sedalia, Mo.

In the '60s my mom and dad got a lot of late-night, threatening calls from the Klan in my hometown of Elizabeth City, NC for what my dad did through the Daily Advance. David Dear informed the community with courage. He was also an equal opportunity employer before the phrase existed and he got threats for that, too.

I miss reporters. We need reporters here in Orange County. And everywhere. But you know that.

What you may not know is that something really big just happened here, something that may grow in significance for our community for the rest of the century.

And you probably have not heard a thing about it.

 Last week the board of directors of OWASA, on which I have the privilege of serving, voted 5 to 3 to take the first steps in pursuing increased access to water from Jordan Lake under special circumstances. Some see this decision as just a technical “insurance policy” against a sustained drought or operational emergency, which is essentially how OWASA’s decision reads. State officials tell us that North Carolina has had some form of drought at times during seven of the past 10 years. We need to be as prepared as we can be, sure.

But others, including me, believe that readying greater access to Jordan Lake now may nudge this community closer to that slippery slope of unintended consequences in terms of enabling more and more growth, ending our community’s exemplary self-reliance on water, irretrievably changing the character of our community, and accessing water that has long been viewed of questionable quality, among other dangers. Yes, there will be restrictions. But what constitutes water emergencies in the future will have a great deal to do with growth and development, and if and how effectively we expand water conservation efforts. We don’t know what kinds of economic and business pressures there will be to open up that access to Jordan Lake over the next two decades. Business interests and the university pushed for OWASA to convert to the greater Level I access now, and they got it. You first have to have water to grow.

So, right or wrong, Jordan Lake, here we come.

And no one seems to know.

I realize some may reply to this post about the Jordan Lake issue itself. What concerns me more is the media vacuum in which the decision – long in the making – took place.

As far as I can tell, very few people in the community even knew this debate over increased access to water has been going on. Prior to the vote there was virtually no media coverage. There was virtually no public discussion about this, except recently by the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, which voted 5-2 against going to Level I.

I would have liked to have heard and read the views of people throughout the community on all sides. Same for many other issues, actually.

Instead, I have never noticed a reporter at an OWASA meeting since Carrboro appointed me to OWASA’s board six months ago. Usually, that’s probably fine. Not this time.

Something really big just happened, something that might set us back. Good or bad, very few in the community had any input or know about it.

When I wrote for the Chapel Hill News in the ‘90s I covered much less significant meetings. But that was when we had newspapers and editors and reporters, not to besmirch the few that remain.

Thanks to the volunteers at OP for doing all they can. Thanks to WCHL and WCOM, Indy Week, and others - love you too. People who have been trying to resurrect a version of the Carrboro Citizen, you are awesome. Local bloggers, tweeters, FB posters, even – kudos to you.

It's not enough. How are we going to explore complex local issues for everyone – right, left, up, down, whatever – to know about and have a say?

The answer, I think, is that we are not going to do so for the foreseeable future. Please tell me how I am wrong.

This is a problem that communities throughout America face, and it’s not new. My family left the newspaper business entirely when my brother’s position as publisher of a successful local chain newspaper was eliminated a few years ago.

So how do we inform and engage people across the political spectrum here?

I hope I am wrong about the possible impacts of OWASA’s decision. I hope I am wrong about the prospects for keeping the whole community informed and engaged.

What do you think?



Thank you so muchf or this, Steve. I share your concern both about slippery slope of drawing on Jordan Lake, and on the sad effects of the lack of public scrutiny of important decisions like this. There was a time when I hoped that professional journalism would evolve and survive in the digital age, but I'm increasingly just wondering what will come next to fill the gap.


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