The Fourth Estate was as hale as it was hearty in 1991, the year Andrea Bruce left Pamlico County to study journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Newspapers—the kind that stain your hands with black ink—were still de rigueur. Even isolated communities like the ones in Pamlico were within circulation zones of thriving, hard-hitting dailies or weeklies. Some houses subscribed to the definitive source of state news, The News & Observer, headquartered 140 miles northwest in Raleigh. Others turned 50 miles north to The Washington Daily News in Beaufort County, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for its investigation of the city’s contaminated water supply. 

And then there was The Pamlico News in Bruce’s hometown of Oriental, which provided hyper-local coverage before “hyper-local” was a thing. 

Bruce became one of her generation’s most acclaimed photojournalists, chronicling the lives of war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan for National Geographic, The New York Times, and other gold-standard publications.

Now, the 49-year-old is living back in Oriental, hoping to give her preschool-age daughter the same slower-paced, outdoor-focused life she’d loved as a kid.

The Neuse River and the sprawling Pamlico Sound haven’t changed. The news landscape, however, is unidentifiable.

When she came home in 2018, the county had just two sources of local information: The Pamlico News, which employs one reporter-slash-photographer, and The County Compass, a free “shopper” that blends ads for dry cleaners, gyms, and restaurants with conservative commentary on regional politics and right-wing conspiracy theories on national issues. 

Down in the County, a weekly online newsletter, is Bruce’s answer.  Launched in September 2021, it’s a one-woman show, mixing news coverage and events listings with long-form features about interesting people. The newsletter is free and runs without ads, making it more of a passion project than income generator. 

Andrea Bruce in Vandemere, N.C., a small town still recovering from Hurricane Florence. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

What’s happening in Pamlico reflects the state of journalism in small-town America. Since 2004, more that 1,800 hometown newspapers have stopped publishing, according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which produced a series of reports on the subject. The closures leave behind “news deserts,” defined as communities with no more than one source of local news.

Half of American counties have just one newspaper; another 200 have none. As of 2022, 60 counties in N.C. are news deserts, and six have no source of local news at all. 

Other small publications have folded, and large chains have swallowed up midsize regional papers that once operated bureaus. That has created another scourge: “ghost newspapers,” local-in-name-only publications that do not provide meaningful day-to-day reporting.

Local newspapers gave readers the kind of stories that “can affect the quality of their everyday lives,” write UNC’s researchers. Their absence creates a void.

Nature abhors a vacuum. As Pamlico is learning, what fills it may not always be journalism. 

Separated from the rest of southeastern North Carolina by water on three sides, Pamlico County is the definition of isolated. With a population of 12,000, only 9 of the state’s 100 counties have fewer residents. The largest nearby city, New Bern in adjacent Craven County, has just over 31,000. 

Pamlico’s residents are overwhelmingly white (75 percent, according to the U.S. Census) and conservative. Roughly 65 percent of voters picked Donald Trump for president in 2020, more than the state average of 50 percent but not the highest among nearby counties. Median household income—$52,100 a year—is below the state average of $60,500, like many counties in the region.

What it lacks in people, the county makes up for in incorporated towns. There are nine, including Bayboro, the county seat and the largest municipality with a population of 1,161, and Oriental, an enclave of boaters where Bruce lives.

The front page of The Pamlico News might include a press release about Lighthouse Day at the Oriental History Museum or photos from the Rotary Club Poker Run. While the information can have tremendous local value, a steady diet of that kind of news alone doesn’t make for an educated public. In news deserts, residents must navigate byzantine government websites or, if they’re desperate, call their town halls to find answers to basic questions. It’s easier to remain uninformed.

The small town of Vandemere, N.C. in Pamlico County is still dealing with damage left by Hurricane Florence. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)
A Trump billboard near Oriental, N.C.
A weather-beaten sign in Vandemere, N.C.

Another danger, as UNC researchers note, is that leaders can grow accustomed to the lack of scrutiny. Even advocates for more local news—like Beth Bucksot, Pamlico County’s economic development director—see the upshot of operating in a vacuum.

“In some ways, I guess you could say lack of media coverage at times can be a benefit, because we don’t have people trying to divide (the community) as much,” she said.

Jeff Aydelette, owner and publisher of The County Compass, readily acknowledges that he isn’t a journalist. He says he’s more of a serial entrepreneur. One of his first big moneymakers was Selectrocution, a semi-computerized dating game he invented in 1975 and sold to bars across the country. 

Decades later when he moved to Pamlico, he headed East Coast distribution for a boating magazine. It folded after a year, but Aydelette saw the value of a widely distributed free publication.

The Compass, which Aydelette founded in 2009, isn’t journalism, he said. It’s really a “shopper,” a newspaper-shaped collection of advertisements with a few column inches set aside for information.

Aydelette never intended for it to be anything else. He offers an unofficial slogan that reflects the Compass’s purpose: “We want to be the best dollar that a small business will ever spend on its marketing and advertising.” 

Jeff Aydelette, owner and publisher of The County Compass, also delivers the paper to news stands. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

“I want to be known as a newspaper, but there’s no way I’m going to print every piece of news that we ought to print,” said Aydelette, a gregarious septuagenarian who describes his politics as “to the right of Jesse Helms” and keeps a framed picture of Trump on his office wall.

“I want to print just enough news so that people will pick it up, read it, and the advertisers will get a response,” he said.

His formula has been successful financially, making the Compass notable among print publications. The 32-page edition published December 15 of last year, for example, contains eight full-page ads, plus 14 pages completely filled with smaller ads or classifieds. Only three pages are ad-free. The ratio of ads to news hasn’t changed much over the years, except for a brief period when Aydelette said he had to print a second section just to squeeze in some news.

Occasionally, the Compass could pass for a traditional newspaper, at least judging by the cover. The January 19 edition, for example, contains two articles on Page 1: a feature on a prolific writer of romantic suspense novels who lives in the county and a report on the prison sentence of a former museum official in Carteret County on child pornography charges.

Aydelette himself attends and writes about meetings of the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners—he’s missed just a handful in the last 13 years. He’s often the only reporter present, as he was a few years ago when the board discussed plans to raise property taxes. “I printed it,” he said, “and they ended up having a special meeting on it. We packed the courtroom and they rolled back the property tax hike. I was quite proud.”

But on most weeks, “news” is a relative term. The December 15 issue’s front page included a contributed piece about the GOP’s Election Day sweep of the Craven County Board of Education. On October 27, he published a front-page photo of the state GOP leader presenting a check to the county branch of the Republican Party. On July 7, he reprinted an article from the conservative news site Breitbart about a former Jewish boarding school in Greensboro that was allegedly housing the unaccompanied immigrant children waiting to be reunited with their families. “Look Out! Here They Come,” the headline at the top of the front page read.

Jeff Aydelette, right, owner of The County Compass, runs in his friend Bill Moore while delivering papers. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

He reserves most news space, however, for national politics. Each week, “TRUMP Report Card” offers a full-page round-up about the former president and his enemies. The Dec. 15 edition included a full page of tweets from former Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, to whom Elon Musk granted access to internal Twitter documents that reflect poorly on the Biden administration. 

He often fills the front page with pieces from national figures in the ultra-right movement promoting conspiracy theories: that the “bubble field” in the Baltic Sea proves the Nord Stream pipeline was sabotaged. That “Big Tech” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conspired to censor complaints about COVID-19 vaccines. That digital banking exists so “Big Brother” can track individual spending and erode civil liberties.

The Compass’s business model is becoming more commonplace as the quantity and quality of traditional local journalism declines, the UNC researchers say. But Aydelette believes he’s providing a public service by running articles from national alternative publications that progressives revile. The Compass’s coverage, both local and national, reflects his worldview that “an informed, intelligent electorate is our best defense against tyranny.” 

He said it’s also good for business: “Small business owners are usually conservative, and they’re our bread and butter. They like to be in a publication that espouses what they believe in.” 

Aydelette delivers the the Compass. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

The Compass’s fanbase may be passionate, but so are its detractors. In July 2019, 70 protesters picketed the paper’s headquarters, a bright yellow bungalow on Bayboro’s main drag. A few weeks earlier, the “TRUMP Report Card” included a photo of a noose. “If we want to make America great again,” the caption above it read, “we have to make evil people fear punishment again.” 

Members of the Pamlico Progressives and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were outraged, arguing that Aydelette intended to intimidate Black residents with a thinly veiled reference to lynching. “I saw this in the paper and I thought it was ludicrous and racist and real out of touch with America,” said Douglas Pearsall, president of the Pamlico County branch of the NAACP. 

The noose photo was the final straw for Lili Bacon, a native of Oriental who returned home about 10 years ago. She and her husband had long objected to the Compass’s politics, and only bought ads a few times after they opened The New Village Brewery & Taproom. But after the controversy, they stopped letting Aydelette bring a stack of papers to their business each week.

“We told him, ‘Look, we really like you guys. But we don’t feel comfortable continuing to have this (publication) in our taproom,’” she said. 

For his part, Aydelette immediately issued a front-page apology about the noose. Because the article didn’t discuss race, he said he mistakenly believed it was nothing more than a strong image to grab readers’ attention.

He also offered everyone at the protest free ads for six months.

Which brings us to Bruce and Down in the County.

After years of reporting from war zones, Bruce won a 2016 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University to study the link between news and democracy. The result was “Our Democracy,” which explored what democracy means to people through photos, articles, and visits to schools and colleges.

When she arrived back in North Carolina, the four-time White House News Photographers Association photographer of the year quickly realized that one of the engines of democracy—local journalism—was on life support in her home county.

A group of kids ride through town at dusk in Oriental, N.C. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

The Pamlico News does an admirable job, she said, but lacks the resources to do much more than print press releases and photograph community events. ( is another local effort to cover the town.) She reserves most of her criticism for the Compass, which she wishes would “state the facts and not make everything an editorial.”

“Because it’s free, everyone in this county reads it, even if they disagree with it,” she said. “I don’t mind it existing. But there’s nothing to balance it.” 

Once she realized the scarcity of local news, Bruce felt duty-called to put her journalism skills to use. Soon she was covering school board meetings and photographing conditions at the county jail. 

Sometimes she covers government meetings for Down in the County, but Bruce has primarily carved out a niche as a storyteller. Most issues include a long-form feature on locals she feels haven’t been heard, like store clerks and librarians, teachers and loggers. 

Andrea Bruce talks with Carla Byrnes while Bear the dog looks on. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

When ordinary people don’t see themselves reflected in their hometown papers, she said, they begin to think of themselves as “less than.” 

“There’s a weird perception that people in big cities matter and people in rural America don’t,” she said. “The lack of local journalism is part of that perception.”

She publishes most weeks, and tries to balance features with reader services like events calendars and nonprofit listings. Among her favorites is “The Forks of the Creek Hunting Club’s Last Hunt,” a look at a 13-year-old hunter on the last day of the season, and “History and Folklore in Arapahoe,” about a farmer who claims to be the county historian. 

Andrea Bruce speaks with a subject on the phone. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

“Most of the people in this county don’t have their history written down in any public sphere,” particularly for communities of color, she said. “It’s like a chance to write the history of the county, person by person.”

Her goal is to neither focus on politics nor shy away from controversy. Last March, routine coverage of a school board meeting led her to discover that minority teachers are leaving the profession in droves, both locally and nationally. Former Pamlico County Schools teacher Charlon Long, who is Black, spoke at the meeting and accused the district of discrimination. “If you don’t believe me,” Long told them, “just listen to the names of the minority employees that you have lost within the past two years.”

“The school board just was like, ‘OK, thank you for your comments. Next,’” said Bruce. 

If not for Bruce and the New Bern Sun Journal’s coverage, the discussion “wouldn’t have really been noticed beyond the small group of people who cared about it,” she said. 

Down in the County is slowly building a following. Bruce said 5,000 people subscribe to the newsletter, most of them county residents. Bacon is one of them, noting that Bruce has brought “more nuanced reporting” to the region.

Bucksot, the county economic development director, said she especially appreciates Bruce’s focus on positive news, which she believes promotes a more accurate image of the county. Bruce “works for truth without trying to destroy people,” Bucksot said.

It’s unclear whether Down in the County can make a successful transition from a personal crusade to flourishing publication. Bruce kicked off 2023 with an unsuccessful plea to her subscribers for donations, which she would have used to train and deploy local freelancers. She’s planning to explore grants for nonprofit journalism.

Andrea Bruce takes a photograph in Vandemere, N.C. (Travis Dove for The Assembly)

Given Pamlico’s political demographics, Bruce must walk a fine line between truth-telling and keeping the peace with her neighbors, said Bacon. 

“Some people are just misinformed, or worse, disinformed,” Bacon said. “They’re distracted by some of the hyperbole that’s out there, especially on social media. Even though she’s trying to bridge that gap, Andrea’s in a difficult position being as local as she is. It’s a small community where certain issues are really hot-button.” 

To Bruce, a successful publication complements rather than rivals existing news coverage. “Instead of fighting,” she said, “I want to see if building bridges works.” 

There is, after all, just so much she has time to do. In addition to raising a young daughter, Bruce still works her day jobs—freelance photographer (which has included taking assignments for The Assembly) and co-owner and member of the photo agency NOOR.

In 2023, she’s planning to devote more space in Down in the County for the histories of the area’s indigenous tribes, some of which have been all but forgotten. The January 9 newsletter featured an historical overview of the “complex history” of Native Americans in Pamlico, noting that she found just 15 books in the Pamlico and Craven county libraries on the subject.

And she’ll fight the notion many seem to have that journalists are “crooked and wrong and biased.” 

“People have lost faith in the media,” she said. “It takes local journalists to reintroduce people to really what the media is, to really what journalists are supposed to be.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note and to clarify the Taibbi-Musk connection.

Margaret Moffett, a native of Wilkes County, is a ghostwriter and freelancer based in Greensboro. During her 23 years at the News & Record, she won 13 state and national honors, including a first-place award from the Society for Features Journalism. She has also worked as an adjunct in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.