“Can Nonprofit Newsrooms Save the South?” Panel Explores the Future of Southern Journalism and Overcoming Stigmas


Written by Jordan Isbell

The future of journalism and its lingering stigmas was the main talking point of the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics panel event on Tuesday, Sept. 26, in the Overby Center Auditorium. 

Moderated by Overby Fellow Marquita Smith, Ph.D., the event featured panelists Marlon K. Walker, managing editor of the Marshall Project, and Richard Watts, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Community News at the University of Vermont.

The panel began by discussing the current crisis of local news and how polarization and stigmas misrepresent journalism and news, forming a disconnect between media outlets and the public.

Watts emphasized that local news outlets are essential for the public, as they are primary resources for citizens to communicate and engage with each other. 

“Without local news, people in the community don’t know what’s going on,” Watts said. “They’re less likely to engage in their communities. They’re more likely to turn to ideological competing news bubbles, and we know as researchers that’s contributing to increased polarization in this country and basically undermining democracy.”

To help combat this issue, Watts and Walker believe the solution may lie in nonprofit organizations that push the priority of public service and ensuring civic information is readily available to the public.

Walker, managing editor of the nonprofit Marshall Project organization, detailed how maintaining sustainability creates several opportunities to provide news coverage to the public.

“We found that people are willing to invest in the work that we’re going to be doing, and that’s exciting,” Walker said.

Several journalism and IMC students attended the event, aware of their importance of preserving and continuing the future of southern journalism.

The panelists also acknowledged their importance and offered advice on staying reliable and using their social media platforms to their benefits.

“I would say don’t be hasty,” Walker said. “It’s not just from students, but it’s from early career, it’s from mid-career who felt pressured to get (the latest story) first. Make sure that you’re taking your time and giving it right, and you’re establishing yourself and building that credibility. But also get the rest of it; the rest are really what make this the experience of a lifetime.”

Watts also encouraged the students to amplify their stories and not remain reliant on issuing out the facts.

“We really do hope that you will help amplify the story,” Watts said. “Bring these other skills that you have, so that the story doesn’t just sit. Think about it as not personality, but as a way to promote the story and get it out there. You’ve done this great work of producing it, so being able to think comprehensively and have a good idea of where you have, here, the student marketing and journalism, you can walk out of here with all of us.”

For Marlon Walker, his hometown background, as well as being a Black male, motivates him to serve as a representation of a southern journalist.

“The first thing I represent is my skin color, especially in where I am now,” Walker said. “For investigative journalists, a lot of us don’t get the opportunity in the country. For me, this is kind of my way of making the space and a runway for folks who are interested, bringing them in, building them up, and making sure that there’s a pipeline.”

Click here to watch the full program