After a turbulent two decades marked by ownership changes, newsroom cuts, and circulation slashes, The Herald-Sun, Durham’s only daily, has become a “ghost newspaper”: a publication that bears its original name but no longer creates its own content, instead publishing stories sourced from larger newspapers in its parent media conglomerate.
When local newspapers, particularly dailies, are shuttered or stripped of staff, routine political coverage and insightful commentary fall by the wayside. Power goes unchecked and community voices go unheard.
The handful of full-time reporters who currently cover Durham for The News & Observer and TV stations such as WRAL do good work. But Durham is a big city for just a few people to cover.
Here to help bridge the gap are a number of citizen and community journalism initiatives working to keep area residents informed while traditional reportage wanes and changes. (Full disclosure: all of the subjects interviewed in this story have shared pieces from the INDY, including recent work by this reporter.) For some, the initiatives also aim to amplify voices and experiences that have long been underrepresented in traditional newspapers.
In January, Brian Callaway launched one of the newest initiatives, a Substack email newsletter called Bull City Public Investigators (BCPI). Callaway, a former Durham city council candidate with a background in city planning, spent four years working as the coordinator of energy and sustainability for Durham Public Schools (DPS) before shifting to a career in sales.
Callaway says a desire to add context and source material to a public comment he’d given at a school board meeting sparked the idea for the Substack.
The board had voted unanimously to spend $8 million on outsourced project management services, which school system employees usually handle, as its first expenditure of the $423.5 million general obligation bond that Durham voters passed in November. The allotted three-minute comment period, Callaway says, had not provided him with enough time to shed light on the nuances around the board’s decision and chosen firm.
His 1,000-word post on the BCPI Substack remains, as far as the INDY can tell, the only coverage of the vote. A week later, when Callaway got wind that former school board member Matt Sears had resigned his seat and taken a position at the privately run DPS Foundation, he wrote about that, too.
This time, he tried to get formal news outlets to take the reins.
“I was tweeting at all the local journalists that I knew in hopes that they would cover it,” Callaway says. “I didn’t want to cover it. I’m not a journalist.”
When no one responded, he followed up with a more comprehensive BCPI piece on the resignation, which garnered thousands of views. A month and a half passed before any mainstream publications got around to covering it.
Not too long ago, Callaway says, The Herald-Sun had a reporter—Greg Childress, who now works at NC Newsline—at every school board meeting. In 2018, when school custodians whose services had long been outsourced to a contracting company were vying to be hired as DPS employees in order to receive benefits, Childress wrote a series of stories that caused “a sea change among electeds,” Callaway recalls, in how they thought about the employment status of contract workers. The board shifted custodians to DPS employees soon after the reports published.
When Childress was laid off later that year, “there was a distinct void of coverage,” Callaway says.
BCPI, then, became an attempt to fill that void. The Substack’s coverage primarily centers around topics in Callaway’s wheelhouse: DPS and land use. Callaway is “not trying to be a substitute for news,” he says, and views BCPI as more of a “response” than a long-term solution to Durham’s dearth of local reporting.
For now, though, when he sees issues going uncovered, he says he feels obligated to do his part in publicizing them.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why is there not a story about this? Where can I read about this?’” Callaway says.
Justin Laidlaw, a Durham native who provides local multimedia coverage on a platform he created called Buddy Ruski, recently broadened his reportage in response to a similar sentiment from a community member.
In July 2022, Laidlaw noticed a Twitter user post about a perceived gap in INDY Week’s coverage: routine articles on Durham city council meetings.
“I was like, ‘I could try that; I don’t have any particular expertise, but I could give it a shot,’” Laidlaw says.
Up until that point, Buddy Ruski’s content, which includes newsletters, blogs, and podcasts, had mostly revolved around Bull City culture and infrastructure. In September 2021, for instance, he published a blog post about Durham outdoor dining initiative The Streetery, examining the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic had caused the city to rethink long-standing systems tied to nonessential vehicle traffic.
Laidlaw, who studied journalism at NC Central University and spent six years covering arts and culture for the now-defunct Durham media website Clarion Content, launched Buddy Ruski in 2020 with the initial aim of building his portfolio.
“I didn’t have a ton of things on my résumé to compete with folks coming out of [journalism] school who interned at places like NPR or PBS,” Laidlaw says. “It was one of those situations where you don’t have the experience, so you can’t get the jobs, but you can’t get the jobs, so you can’t get the experience. I started to think, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna have to build this experience on my own.’”
Since then, Buddy Ruski has evolved into a project that works to serve the community by both platforming untold stories and making complex topics easy to understand.
After seeing the Twitter user’s plea for more routine city council coverage, he launched a newsletter called By the Horns that provides comprehensive reports on nearly every city council meeting. The newsletters, which Laidlaw pens after attending meetings in person, typically include a bulleted summary, a deep dive on one or two notable topics, and a “Civics 101” section to help readers understand terms and processes involved in city government.
Laidlaw is learning alongside his readers, which results in reports that are more accessible to the average person. At the most recent city council meeting, for instance, speakers were throwing around the phrase “council of state,” which Laidlaw had never heard before. He noted it as something to define in his newsletter.
“I could imagine somebody watching the meeting and just freezing when they heard that, or having it go right over their head,” he says.
Laidlaw doesn’t know exactly what Buddy Ruski will look like in the long term, but he envisions collaborations with other area journalists. Their skills give him hope for a solid future for the Fourth Estate, he says.
“Just knowing that the talent is here makes me think that eventually things will tilt in the right direction,” Laidlaw says, “and we’ll be able to rebuild journalistic institutions in a new 21st-century way.”
When Paxton Media Group acquired The Herald-Sun in 2004, it laid off 80 of the paper’s 350 staffers.
Some Herald-Sun staffers who survived the acquisition were asked to take pay cuts the following year, including Rev. Carl Kenney, a columnist who quit in response to the proposed salary reduction—and who has mixed feelings about the role he served during his eight years at the paper.
The Herald-Sun, he says, had given him the opportunity to do something that no one else was doing: write about the Black community from the perspective of a Black reporter.
While Kenney says he appreciated the platform, he also felt pigeonholed by the paper’s leadership, who all but required him to discuss race in his columns as he had footholds in a community that white reporters didn’t, he says. Other columnists had more flexibility.
“In many ways, what I was being asked to do was be the gatekeeper for Black community stories,” says Kenney, who currently works as an adjunct professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism. “I was having to write these stories about Black life and open it up for the white world to see: ‘Here we are, see the Black people, see the Black people.’”
When “the devil came and purchased the newspaper,” Kenney says, he wanted to create a way to continue the work he’d been doing at The Herald-Sun but with a broader lens.
In 2007, Kenney—who also has a master of divinity degree and previously served as the pastor of church congregations in Durham and Missouri—launched Rev-elution, a blog with the stated mission of “engaging readers into a meaningful discussion related to matters that impact faith and society.”
During the first years of Rev-elution, Kenney wrote about Durham happenings but also engaged in national conversations around race, religion, sexuality, and gender, reflecting on things like Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s insistence that Jesus and Santa Claus are white.
But in 2016, when Kenney returned to Durham after a three-year stint as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri, he felt a need to shift his blog writing. During his time in Missouri, he’d been “writing in the heat of the death of Michael Brown,” he says, which changed some of his theory of reporting.
“I was incensed by what I saw coming from the INDY,” Kenney says. “I was incensed by what I saw coming from what remained of the merging of The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. It was really whitewashed. It was reporting that was coming from a very biased lens.”
After that, Rev-elution became more centered around the Black community in Durham. The blog’s recent posts, for instance, include coverage and commentary on Kevin Primus’s run for school board; a Q&A with Walter Jackson shortly before he was elected as chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People; and a brief background on Soul City ahead of a related discussion at the Durham History Museum.
Soon, though, Rev-elution may go on hiatus. In June, Kenney is shifting gears to helm the reboot of The Durham VOICE, a community newspaper that covered Northeast Central Durham before pausing circulation shortly after the onset of the pandemic. The Durham VOICE was founded in 2009 with the aim of helping reduce crime after the murder of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson by “encouraging a vital civic life and developing a positive sense of place” among young people in the region of coverage, per the paper’s website.
Student journalists from local colleges will continue to write for The Durham VOICE, Kenney says, though the revamped version of the paper will expand its coverage across Durham and incorporate multimedia coverage.
While traditional reporters are required to abide by ethics codes and impartiality standards, citizen journalism initiatives like BCPI and Buddy Ruski are not, which raises some questions: If their content is intended to function as local news, should they adhere to the same principles with which conventional publications comply? Should Callaway and Laidlaw, say, avoid doing advocacy work around an issue that their coverage presents through a seemingly objective lens?
Callaway—who, until now, has published BCPI anonymously—says he strives for impartiality and supports the information in his articles with hyperlinked citations. But as an “engaged public citizen” who sometimes petitions for policy changes, he’s still figuring out where the line is, he says.
Laidlaw describes his approach as “still evolving” but rooted in transparency. In a March edition of By the Horns, for instance, he included a disclaimer acknowledging his role as a volunteer board member with Bike Durham, as representatives from the organization spoke during the budget meeting referenced in the newsletter.
For Kenney, whose blog takes a form closer to an opinion column than a news report, impartiality is less of a concern, though he notes that the principle has historically been wielded in a way that squelches key perspectives.
“The lines that have been created around impartiality are sort of used to dismiss the role of the Black press as an agent for reform,” Kenney says. “It’s a detention that we face as Black reporters, that we enter into the spaces where there’s a requirement that we shed ourselves of who we are for the sake of being an unbiased voice for people.”
Kenney views the rise of citizen and community journalism initiatives as a sign that local media is heading in a good direction—one that more closely aligns with the way journalism was originally intended to function.
“The reason we have a constitution that protects the press is this idea from [political philosopher] John Stuart Mill … that we flood the marketplace with ideas, and democracy gives people the chance to decide which one of these absurd ideas is the one they want to lean on,” Kenney says.
One person working to aggregate Durham’s marketplace of ideas is Kenneth Webb, who in 2019 founded what could be seen as another citizen journalism initiative in Durham: a Facebook page called Bull City Political Nerd.
Webb, a web development contractor, says he created the page to channel his personal interest in politics into something that could help keep community members informed. He generates and shares an enormous amount of local news content each week, typically posting links to articles with a few sentences of summary and occasionally writing his own blurbs on items that haven’t received coverage.
The page, which has nearly 2,000 followers, raises awareness and fosters productive discussion around important local issues, Webb says.
While social media, and the internet as a whole, have wreaked havoc on the business models of traditional local publications, Kenney says there’s a benefit to technology “forcing a way of rethinking” our media institutions.
“I don’t feed into the idea that local journalism is a dying thing,” he says. “I think that it’s actually adapting to the change.”
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Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.