The City of Kinston ordered a mandatory evacuation for residents living near the Neuse River Monday beginning at 2 p.m. as the river and others across Eastern North Carolina are expected to crest at record levels not seen in the region since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Some residents began evacuating over the weekend, spurred to action by rumors that the mandatory evacuation was already in effect. Facebook posts claimed the National Guard was knocking on people’s doors to get them out of flood zones even while the rain was still coming down.
Most of the confusion, it appears, stemmed from a single media report from Wayne County, where the Goldsboro Daily News was reporting on flood conditions in its listening area. (GDN is the Curtis Media Group news division of its Eastern North Carolina cluster of radio stations.)
“Kinston is expected to have an unprecedented flood between now and Friday. There is a mandatory evacuation in process,” the report read on Sunday.
An editor’s note said Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy said the evacuation was not active, but concluded “because we have received conflicting reports, please monitor information continuously and check with Kinston officials for confirmation.”
While local officials suggested everyone stay home, “Wayne County’s Free Local News” was telling readers a mandatory evacuation was in place Sunday. Even when Kinston’s top official said the evacuation was not in effect, reporter Carol Bowden decided to call it “conflicting reports” and told readers to confirm her report with the very officials whose statement she didn’t consider sound.
Meanwhile, local officials reminded everyone to “follow local media” for the latest, so of course there was a ton of confusion over the weekend, especially since the Goldsboro paper of record has a “zero free articles” paywall.
So what of the “local media” in Kinston?
The Kinston Free Press, a Gatehouse Media company, lost its managing editor just before Hurricane Matthew arrived, its editor over the summer and is still trying to replace its legislative reporter, who left even before Gatehouse announced newsroom buyouts last month.
Like every newsroom in the country, there are award-winning, hard-working individuals on staff doing multiple jobs (even the publisher is doing the job of three), but the newspaper as a whole was woefully unprepared to cover Hurricane Matthew.
They weren’t alone, though, as Gov. Pat McCrory admitted Sunday that “we may have underestimated this,” as reports came in from across the East suggesting that rivers would flood at Floyd-like levels.
Only the press can hold him accountable for his transfer of $500,000 from the Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund into his own budget for legal defense of House Bill 2, but all of the newspapers in affected areas are post-buyout.
Update 12:30 p.m. Oct. 11, 2016: John Hood, a former newspaper reporter and president of the John William Pope Foundation, said while the legislature authorized the transfer, it never happened.
Update 5:30 p.m. Oct. 11, 2016: McCrory said in a Raleigh press conference that the state has $18 Million available for disaster relief that should last through February 2017. Federal government will foot 75 percent of relief efforts. “We feel we have sufficient funds to make it through this time period,” he said, but didn’t rule out the possibility of calling a special session to allow the General Assembly to allocate more funds.
There’s been no news on the buyout in the Free Press, which joined Gatehouse in January 2015 as part of New Media Investment Group’s $280 million acquisition of Halifax Media, but why would there be? The Star News of Wilmington (Gatehouse’s N.C. jewel before it acquired the Fayetteville Observer) reported on its own acquisition up until Gatehouse announced layoffs.
After The Star News lost three editors, a part-time newsroom assistant and a vacant reporting position dedicated to enterprise and local government journalism, coverage of Gatehouse became rosier. Reporters in Wilmington learned to talk up consolidations and layoffs as innovative new directions for journalism, like their colleagues at the Free Press who cast the creation of a single regional publisher position to oversee them and two other papers as a “restructuring … aimed at positioning those properties to increase audience, expand advertising and promote new digital services in the region.”
Gatehouse has said readers of its Eastern North Carolina newspapers will benefit from editorials and perspectives from other properties, which is another way of saying that local voices won’t be on the opinion pages.
There is no way to know what’s next for the Free Press and its sister papers in New Bern and Jacksonville, but it doesn’t look like Gatehouse holds much of a premium for local, long-serving professional journalists and that’s bad news for Eastern North Carolina, which has the highest rates of diabetes, syphilis, obesity and inland flooding in the state.
I don’t think it’s necessary to explain how important a strong press is when dealing with evacuations. Kinston went from a curfew Friday night to suggestions to stay indoors on Sunday, and one media outlet’s poor reporting could have cost lives.
Let’s hope Gatehouse invests into its Eastern North Carolina properties before the next tropical storm.