Our Chatham is a project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Reese News Lab in the School of Media and Journalism. It is through the School’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which was created with a grant from the Knight Foundation with additional funding from the UNC Office of the Provost.
Our mission is to fill the unmet information needs of the people who live, work and play in Chatham County, North Carolina.
In the process of fulfilling our mission, we are creating for local news publishers a demonstration of how audience engagement and analytics can lead to a financially sustainable model for their organizations.
The project is led by Ryan Thornburg, an associate professor in the School of Media & Journalism and the director of Reese News Lab. It began in Reese News Lab as a student-run media product development project in the Spring of 2017. Our Chatham launched an email newsletter in July 2018 and answered it first reader question in September 2018.
We believe that functioning democracy requires the participation of well-informed citizens that represent the entire range of perspective in communities. We believe that this begins with an open and transparent government and also with special citizen watchdogs who monitor the activities of powerful people and organizations and report significant activities to the general public. We aim to get the right information to the right people at the right time they need it to help make personal decisions and effectively participate in public life.
We aim to provide context to our news reports, explain how prominent public and private institutions operate and why things are the way they are. We believe the best way to do this is through a conversation with our audience that gives them a role in developing story ideas and sharing information with their friends and neighbors.
Done well, journalism can be a powerful force in a community. We believe that the best way to earn the trust of Chatham County residents is to be transparent ourselves. As part of our public service mission to community news publishers, we will write regularly about the operational aspects of starting and running a local news organization. In our journalism, we strive to be transparent in our story selection and in our reporting methods. When our reporting draws conclusions it should be easy for you to see how it arrived at those conclusions.
We also believe that journalism is most valuable when it is free to pursue its reporting with independence. We aim to be financially independent with diverse funding from Chatham County sources by the summer of 2020. We will follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics as well as the Ethics & Practices policies of the Institute for Nonprofit News.
The people of Chatham County have diverse information needs and no single organization can meet all of them. We strive to augment and compliment existing information sources in the county that range from for-profit media organizations to non-profit advocacy groups, neighborhood e-mail lists and government agencies themselves. We aim to work with existing organizations to avoid duplication of effort. We strive to create original reporting that can’t be found anywhere else, and to link to everything else. Whenever possible we will publish our text, images, videos, data and computer code under licenses that allow others to re-print and re-purpose our work with attribution. We believe that collaboration will lead to maximum impact of our work both in Chatham County and in other communities with unmet information needs.
The definition of Chatham County’s unmet information needs is inherently dynamic. In 2017, our students found through research, interviews and observations that county residents said:
- The main topic of interest is growth and development, which includes concerns about loss of scenic beauty, the availability of clean air & water, the cost of living, and increase in traffic.
- Interest in development is prompted by what people see that is visually happening as they drive by a construction site. They want to know “What’s happening there?”
- They want coverage of public meetings that is published sooner than a week after the meeting. They want next morning or live coverage if possible.
- They want a progressive perspective on the county, to counter what many see as a nostalgic and socially conservative perspective in incumbent information sources in the county.
The overarching theme in Chatham County appears to be change — social, economic, environmental, political, cultural — and the tensions that come with it.
We will continue talking with Chatham County residents about how we can better fill their unmet information needs about their local communities. Our product will change quickly, and those changes will be informed by our observations of audience behavior. We aim to identify and actively solicit ideas from the county’s most influential and curious residents from all walks of life. And through our own independent reporting we aim to contribute our own ideas about how we can serve the community. At the end of the day, we will be driven by a desire to anticipate and fill the information needs that Chatham County residents find most valuable.
— Ryan Thornburg
October 3, 2018