Since 2016, the Ocracoke Observer has received more than 50 awards from the North Carolina Press Association, including a first-place prize for breaking news coverage for our reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
Among the seven honors that we just received, our first place for editorials is particularly rewarding.
Those editorials, available for viewing online at www.ocracokeobserver.com, are “Ocracoke loses some good people” (March 2022), “Let’s fully fund education” (September 2022), and “Beware of misinformation” (October 2022).
Newspaper editorials have a long history in journalism and democracy. Separate from the business of collecting the facts of news stories, editorials offer the means for newspapers to express their collective opinions and provide analyses of important issues.
Back in 2014, Brownie Futrell, former publisher of the Washington Daily News, served as an informal advisor to us, Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich, the new owners of the Ocracoke Observer.
Over coffee, Futrell emphasized four important points for a newspaper to be successful.
One, he said, that students often miss when he lectures, is that the newspaper must make money. “No Mon’ No Fun.”
This is especially true these days and small community newspapers fold or are bought out by corporations that downplay or even eliminate local news and provide canned news and emphasize advertisements.
The second point is that reporting should be accurate and provide as full of context as possible. Reporters’ opinions are never part of a news story.
Time was, back in Mark Twain’s day in the 1860s, that newspapers could and would print wholly made up stories. That was in a wild time before libel lawsuits forced newspapers to get their facts straight. Editorials and opinion pieces can be scathing or soft, but, and this is Futrell’s third point, editorials should be clearly marked as such thus creating a firewall between opinion the disinterested reporting of news events.
This is a challenge for small community newspapers like ours where the staff must both report and write opinion pieces.
With the Ocracoke Observer, the editorial is invariably the last to be written. Subjects of the editorials reflect on issues important to the Ocracoke community.
Living on a remote island with access primarily by a state-funded ferry system is a source of important concern, both with news reporting and writing editorials.
Health care is another. An ambulance ride to a hospital to treat health issues beyond the capabilities of the health center and the paramedics of Hyde County EMS can take several hours, or in critical circumstances, patients must be flown out — a medevac — by helicopter to a hospital that can provide the critical care needed.
Then there is the “living on the edge” aspect of island life, depicting a nuanced phrase where mandatory evacuations occur almost every year as numerically categorized storms barrel toward the island.
We want our editorials to provide perspectives that go beyond the opinions most often noted.
But for editorials to be recognized, it is important that news reporting be accurate and cover at least two sides, and that is a source of pride for us.
As for the fourth point Brownie emphasized: Whenever possible, a newspaper should uplift the community.
And there is no firewall between that and an editorial when the circumstances warrant.