Local Journalist Heroes: Lyndsey Gilpin
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Lyndsey Gilpin
City: Durham, NC
What do you want your readers to know about what goes into the coverage they’re relying on?
Journalists, like readers, are dealing with the anxiety and stress that comes with living through a global pandemic. At the same time, we’re trying to understand what’s happening—while things are constantly changing—and relay that information in a timely, accurate, thoughtful manner. We’re trying to look at immediate impacts in communities, as well as the long-term consequences of COVID-19. Packaging all that together in a way that makes sure people take it seriously, but doesn’t overwhelm them, is incredibly challenging.
What do you consider to be the biggest threats to a free and vibrant press in the midst of this crisis?
In any sort of crisis, those in economic and political power can take advantage of everyone’s attention being on public health, and start to roll back protections on civil and constitutional rights. The media industry is already struggling, and COVID-19 is letting even more air out of our life raft. Rampant misinformation, the administration spreading falsities about media and journalists, and the refusal of politicians, lawmakers, and corporate executives to answer questions all pose threats to a free and vibrant press.
“Local journalists, and the community members we rely on, are the ones who will be paying attention to things that are flying under the radar for bigger news outlets during a pandemic: the permits companies are trying to get approved for development, the virtual city council meetings that many people may miss, the longer-term impacts on public health, the economy, and policies.”
In what ways has local news played a vital role in response to the COVID-19 crisis?
Local news is always critical, but especially so during this crisis. Many local news institutions are trusted sources of information in a community—and oftentimes, the only source of information, especially if people lack access to the internet—that can get through to folks if they feel like the national conversation on COVID-19 is partisan. Like many big public health or environmental issues, the coronavirus can feel abstract to many people if they aren’t seeing the impacts in their community, so local news is vital to make sure they know immediate things: where cases are, how to get tested, how seriously their elected officials are taking the pandemic. But it’s also extremely important because local journalists, and the community members we rely on, are the ones who will be paying attention to things that are flying under the radar for bigger news outlets during a pandemic: the permits companies are trying to get approved for development, the virtual city council meetings that many people may miss, the longer-term impacts on public health, the economy, and policies. We’ve already seen this all over the U.S., and the next few weeks and months are only going to prove even more how much we need a vibrant and strong local news system.
How have the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing requirements changed your reporting and the way your newsroom operates more broadly?
Southerly journalists are doing reporting via phone, like many newsrooms. First and foremost, we want to make sure they stay safe while reporting, and stay mentally healthy through this whole process, which can be exhausting and scary.
We don’t cover breaking news, so the pandemic has presented a challenge and an opportunity to see how we can best fill gaps in covering it. For instance, we are looking at how communities already dealing with natural disaster recovery are handling the COVID-19 outbreak, and what they may face when hurricane season begins in a couple of months. One of our biggest goals is to connect the dots for people on environmental, economic, social, and political issues in the South—and a major public health story like the pandemic is a way to really illustrate how all these things are intertwined and reliant on each other.
Are there any stories or communities that you feel are underreported in regards to the COVID-19 crisis? Similarly, what non COVID-19 stories have you seen shelved or ignored because of the hyper-focus on the current crisis?
Data is showing that the rural South is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks and less prepared to handle them, and yet, this conversation seems only to flutter around on the internet for a few hours before it disappears again. The South is already facing tornadoes, flooding, and huge economic losses from declines in coal, the oil and gas industry, and in agriculture (because of excessive flooding and storm damage in previous years), which are all exacerbated by the pandemic. I think it’s important to recognize how these things build on each other, and that simplifying the narrative can be dangerous. Everything is changing so quickly, I don’t expect journalists to keep track of everything at once, but it is important that we recognize the communities that are being disproportionately harmed by this outbreak are already the places that have faced environmental hazards, struggling local economies, health disparities, and major policy rollbacks at the state and federal levels. It’s also important though, to note how resilient these places are—and those stories need to be told, too.
“There’s so much misinformation out there right now, and if we all did a little more to shed light on the news outlets we rely on, we might be able to drown that out and share reliable sources of information more widely.”
As many newsrooms turn the bulk of their focus to COVID-19, they will lose the capacity to do much of the vital watchdog, accountability, and solutions journalism they normally do. What is one story you fear will be eclipsed by this shift? Are there any stories you’ve been working on that you’ve had to shelve?
This is one of my biggest fears in the coming weeks and months, because we’re already starting to see things—especially policy rollbacks related to the environment and climate change—slip through the cracks. We’ve had to shelve a few stories about infrastructure and climate change, for instance, because of the pandemic, which is understandable. But infrastructure still crumbles, whether or not there’s a coronavirus outbreak. Storms still happen. Hospitals still close. Energy companies still try to sneak through rate increases or project proposals. These are the things we are watching now, and we’ll have to watch months from now as communities rebuild their economies.
What stories have you reported on that have given you the most hope?
I haven’t reported any lately, but there are several stories Southerly is publishing about the ways communities are coming together to protect one another during this pandemic. Things are incredibly difficult, but people in places that have long dealt with public health or other crises are resilient, and know what they need to make sure their neighbors survive this. Those stories give me hope about the future—that we can come together and act quickly if we want to.
What books, poems, podcasts, or other creative media have you been turning to for comfort or inspiration?
I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, which always help me when I need to reconnect to the beauty that is always there, no matter how hard things get. Last week, John Prine died of complications from COVID-19, and Bill Withers just before that. I am listening to these two a lot, and tributes to them as well. One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks are musicians playing online—whether it’s Margo Price for Tiny Desk, or a live concert with local musicians in Durham, where I live. That brings me joy.
“Journalists, like readers, are dealing with the anxiety and stress that comes with living through a global pandemic. At the same time, we’re trying to understand what’s happening—while things are constantly changing—and relay that information in a timely, accurate, thoughtful manner.”
What can your readers do to support their local journalists, besides subscribing?
Besides subscribing to local news outlets or donating to nonprofit news outlets, readers can sign up for (and share!) newsletters to stay updated on what’s happening in their area. Readers can also fill out and share forms that many news outlets have on their websites asking people to tell how COVID-19 is affecting their community; this helps us better understand what’s happening on the ground when we can’t be there. And, telling friends and family about the great journalism they’re reading and why they value it. There’s so much misinformation out there right now, and if we all did a little more to shed light on the news outlets we rely on, we might be able to drown that out and share reliable sources of information more widely.
Who else is doing excellent coverage?
I am so impressed by news organizations in the South who are so diligently reporting on this: Mississippi Today, Montgomery Advertiser, AL.com, WFPL, to name a few. Civil Eats is doing an excellent job of covering how the pandemic is impacting our food systems and the people who work in them. High Country News has excellent coverage and context for the pandemic, for those in the West.
About Lyndsey Gilpin
Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly. Born and raised in Kentucky but now based in Durham, NC, she is a reporter and editor who has covered climate change, energy, and environmental justice all over the U.S. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, VICE, The Daily Beast, CityLab, Undark, High Country News, FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, Hakai, The Atlantic, Grist, Outside, and InsideClimate News.
Examples of Coverage
- With Florida Keys economy at a standstill from COVID-19, fishing guides worry about how to make a living, by Michael Adno
- Still rebuilding after Hurricane Michael, the Florida Panhandle responds to COVID-19, by Sophie Kasakove
- ‘There’s going to be something better for him’: Former Blackjewel miners reflect on changes in coal country, by Sydney Boles
- At ‘ground zero’ of BP spill, Louisiana community confronts new oil and gas project, by Carly Berlin