Kenneth Johnson is old-fashioned. He likes to sit on his porch, and he likes to read the newspaper.
But Johnson, who lives on Moorefields Road outside of Hillsborough, said he is scaling back on his hobby because he feels the county’s media is biased and doesn’t appeal to the rural community.
“They forget about the rural areas because in the country we’re very conservative, and they don’t know how to cover it,” he said.
As the county reconsiders a potential quarter-cent sales tax increase, officials are trying to determine what went wrong in November, when the referendum failed 51 percent to 49 percent.
Some said the county failed to inform the rural community — where the referendum largely failed — about what the revenue from the increase would have funded.
“There’s not a newspaper that regularly reaches those people,” vice chairman of the county commissioners Steve Yuhasz said in November. “There’s not a radio station the equivalent of WCHL. The Internet access is much more sketchy in the rural parts of the county.”
To correct this, Yuhasz said commissioners will focus on increasing voter awareness, especially in rural areas.
But some residents say the coverage areas of local media outlets aren’t to blame for the tax’s failure.
“You can get any county paper at the country stores,” said Bonnie Hauser, president of Orange County Voice, an organization that promotes rural issues.
“If the sales tax didn’t pass it was because people didn’t want to get taxed,” Hauser said.
She said the rural community is well informed on local politics, although media coverage of the county’s rural areas is fragmented.
She said newspapers focus on the Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill urban areas, but none focus on the rural locations.
Mark Schultz, editor-in-chief of The Chapel Hill News, said the newspaper covers rural issues that still appeal to urban audiences.
“We ran a lot of stories about the sales tax,” he said. “We have done a very good job at covering that part of the county.”
But Schultz agrees his newspaper is not targeting rural audiences and said it had to stop delivering to country stores to cut costs.
The newspaper also had to reduce its staff from eight full-time journalists to two full-time reporters and six freelance journalists.
“We really have our hands full keeping up with what happens in the area we cover,” Schultz said.
Other representatives from local media outlets, including The Daily Tar Heel and The News of Orange County, said they provided fair coverage about the proposed sales tax during election season.
The News of Orange County focuses on news from the northern part of the county and the rural areas. Keith Coleman, its general manager, said the newspaper ran both stories and advertisements about the sales tax.
Commissioner Barry Jacobs said spending money on advertising issues, like the tax increase, is not the best way to reach rural voters.
“It is difficult for people to feel connected to the community,” Jacobs said. “It is even harder for us to offer services if people don’t know about them.”
He said increasing government transparency and relying on media coverage instead of advertising were better tactics.
Yuhasz said if the board decides to put the sales tax on this year’s election ballot, it will have to try alternative ways to reach all voters.
“We are looking forward to a discussion between commissioners and the people,” he said.
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