The Real News

A few minutes with Pam Sander of the StarNews

By Dana Sachs

Pam Sander

Job: Executive Editor, Wilmington StarNews

First moved to Wilmington:
1986. Then left. Then came back again

Favorite spots:

A barstool at Southern Thai Restaurant,
with a glass of wine and her iPad

Going down the Intracoastal Waterway to Holden Beach

Back porch. Night. Big cup of decaf

Why should people read local news?

In North Carolina we have tiny communities — much smaller than Wilmington — that are on the verge of becoming what we call “a news desert.” In these communities, if you don’t have a newspaper, there’s no watchdog reporting. There’s no recording of history. One hundred years from now, what will people be taught about lessons learned, or who did what when? Just the idea of a newspaper helps some people do the right thing.

Do your readers understand the importance of local media?

Yes. I tell young journalists that we are trying to build a bridge across this thing called the Internet during a hurricane, and we’re having to buy the parts as we go. And so it’s hard. That said, we have more readers, combining digital and print, than we’ve ever had.

Is there a financial model for this?

Not a great one, actually. The business model from old days doesn’t work. [We have to be] increasingly responsive to our audiences. Every real newspaper has digital subscriptions now. You find me one that doesn’t have a pay-wall and I’ll give you one that’s about to go out of business. The digital subscription is where your online revenue is the surest thing.

But people don’t want to pay, right?

Right. And, sadly, there are other local news organizations that tell everybody that we charge and they’ll give it to you for free. What a disservice that is doing to our industry. And you get what you pay for. I subscribe to The New York Times and The Washington Post and I feel it my honor to have a digital subscription because that’s what it means to support journalism.

What about “fake news” and the lack of education about media literacy?

You are always going to have people who want to believe whatever [aligns with] their beliefs, but I do think people are being a little more cognizant these days: “Oh, this website that has “Russia’ in its name. Is this believable?”

These days, The StarNews is owned by GateHouse Media, and the production staff is in Texas. How does that affect what you do here in Wilmington?

There’s downsides. There’s things you give up. GateHouse is not perfect, but they are a newspaper company and they are working really hard to get us to a point where we can be a viable industry for a thousand years.

I see people here getting so frustrated about traffic, development and the environment. How are you covering these issues?

Sherry Jones, our managing editor in Wilmington, has totally embraced the concept of “Do Journalism with Impact.” The point is, it’s really easy when you are covering a beat — you cover something and you move on. But traffic, development, salaries, education — these [issues] fall through the cracks when you focus on day-to-day. So we’re kicking that back up and involving more reporters. Because it is really not one beat. It’s every facet of life here.

What about the coverage of racism and diversity?

We’ve been covering racism in the schools, not just crime and cop news. And Northside is a great example. For more than a year now we have reported on that growth’s effect [and potential effect] on current residents. We’ve held two forums focusing on predominantly black communities. And we’re writing stories about great work and great lives in those communities, from profiles of business owners to people watching out for their neighborhoods and others who are investing.

Are you trying to increase diversity in your newsroom?

Oh, my God, yes. We want that, but how do we get it? Black kids who grow up here and have the ability, they leave for college and they don’t come back

What local issues keep you awake at night?

I love this community, but we do a lot of expansion and building projects without regard to . . . navigation. You’ve got to be thoughtful. And I’m not against Mayfaire. Bring me a P.F. Chang’s! But we’ve got to do better at not moving forward based on where the money’s coming from. Let them build 50 stories up, but how is it affecting traffic?

Why do planners keep saying yes?

We had that lull of real estate depression. They’re so excited that someone’s building again: “Yay! Another neighborhood!” I think it was Blake Shelton — I love The Voice — who said, “When you become a star, you don’t know it until it’s way past when it’s happened.” I think [development in Wilmington]kind of works like that. Suddenly, you look around and go, “Oh, my God, there’s five new apartment communities within a 2-mile radius and no traffic plans.”

So, if overdevelopment keeps you awake at night, what helps you sleep?

This community is such a cool mix of what’s good about living. We have huge retirement communities, but at the same time we have a downtown where at 2 a.m. there are police patrolling on horseback because there are so many young people coming out of the bars. Then you add the beach on top of that. That’s what makes me sleep well at night.

The StarNews has gotten attention recently for reporting on water quality issues, particularly in regard to the Chemours plant’s release of the toxic chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River. How did that story come about?

One of our former reporters, Vaughn Hagerty, told me about it. An N.C. State professor did a study a few years before, but academics do things and unless there’s somebody that says, “Hey, we need to get this out to the public,” they do their research and only report their findings to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Then, the CFPUA look at it and say, “Well, we’ll let the state handle that because that’s their thing. If they say it’s OK, then it’s OK.” Well, it really wasn’t OK.

Why wasn’t it OK?

If it looks like a pig and smells like a pig, it might be a pig. [Chemours] said — and I’m summarizing here — ‘Oh, there’s been limited testing, but we feel good about it!’ [GenX] looked a lot like the [toxic chemical]C8, but they were saying that they’d created a better version. They were lying. And what was it doing in the Cape Fear River? It’s really a disgrace that the state can’t just say, “You’re shut down.” Shut them down. They have lied repeatedly.

Why have your reporters been so dogged about this issue?

I’m convinced that if we don’t keep pushing, nothing will change. This is why we do what we do — making sure that the checks and balances are there. It is taxing on us. It’s boring sometimes. But this is why we are journalists.

Do you drink the water in Wilmington?

I don’t.

Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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