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A citizen journalist in Alabama steps in to serve a news desert

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Money problems have forced many news organizations to shrink or shut down, and that means limited or no local coverage - no reporters to document the decisions made by local city and county leaders. Cori Yonge of Alabama Public Radio introduces us to one citizen journalist who's been filling the void.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everyone cares so passionately about the environment. It's just making sure that you can optimize all the trade-offs.

CORI YONGE, BYLINE: Late on a Friday in the public library auditorium, members of the Fairhope, Ala., Environmental Advisory Board are meeting with the city's mayor and building officials.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Their little patches of marsh benefit them, but they also benefit the water quality for the whole bay.

YONGE: Fairhope is perched on the edge of Mobile Bay, near sensitive coastal habitat. That means environmental issues weigh heavily in building decisions. Still, there are no news reporters here, but sitting in the audience, dressed in faded jeans and taking notes, is...

JAMES WATKINS: James Watkins, citizen journalist, I guess.

YONGE: Watkins is the self-taught, unpaid reporter behind the blog The Fairhope Times. He's been keeping it up for 15 years.

WATKINS: I decided I didn't know enough about what was going on locally, in local government, so I decided to start going to all the meetings to find out. And then people started asking me what was going on.

YONGE: He's witnessed the loss of local reporters over the years. The area's largest paper is now a regional and digital only. So each week, Watkins combs through city and county public notices, choosing which meetings to cover.

WATKINS: Some of them are quite important. You know, the airport authority - they spend millions of dollars a year. They get grants from the federal government. They get 300,000 a year from the city taxpayers.

YONGE: Watkins' diligence to covering city and county governance comes at a time when the U.S. is losing newspapers at a rate of more than two a week. That's according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The report predicts the country will lose a third of its newspapers by 2025, forcing many to turn to a social media app like Facebook or Nextdoor in search of local information.

CHRIS ROBERTS: It doesn't typically provide news, if you define news as objective and more than one source - those kind of things that would make something news.

YONGE: That's Chris Roberts, who teaches media integrity at the University of Alabama. He says an objective citizen journalist like Watkins can fill a critical need in a news desert.

ROBERTS: The point is to have somebody there because it matters for democracy. It matters for your pocketbook as a taxpayer. It matters for your community.

YONGE: Watkins' presence at city council meetings does make a difference, says Fairhope Mayor Sherry Sullivan, who is suffering from laryngitis.

SHERRY SULLIVAN: I think him being at all those meetings and reporting some information that we may or may not have wanted to share immediately with the public - it keeps us honest and keeps us transparent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I put three coats of this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes, that's good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's good?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

YONGE: At the Kiln Studio and Gallery in Fairhope, I find Carolyn Mayo giving pottery advice and hand-building a bowl. Mayo says she's a news junkie at heart. She trusts the Fairhope Times for its objectivity.

CAROLYN MAYO: It feels very - maybe agnostic is the right word. It feels agnostic, where it's a throwback to just the facts, ma'am.

YONGE: For now, readers can expect Watkins to continue covering several meetings a week and nosing around local government.

WATKINS: I'm interested in the stuff they don't want out, to be honest. That's where the press is supposed to play the watchdog role.

YONGE: But at 69, Watkins says he'll take that watchdog role one day at a time.

For NPR News, I'm Cori Yonge in Fairhope, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cori Yonge