united states project

The case for Voxsplaining the local news

My adventures in understanding North Carolina's privilege license tax
June 6, 2014

CHARLESTON, SC – Last week, North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, signed a new piece of tax legislation that, among other things, eliminates the authority of the state’s cities and towns to collect what’s known as the “privilege license tax” beginning next year. The move, a victory for GOP lawmakers, marked the end of a week of controversy in the legislature’s short summer session.

Fair warning: to explain why this was a controversial issue, I’m going to have to get into a bit of tax policy. But this article isn’t really about taxes—it’s about the case for Voxsplaining state and local news.

Voxsplainer, for the uninitiated, is an explainer in the style of Vox.com, the new site launched by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, Matt Yglesias & co. that aims to help readers “understand the news.” Vox’s techniques and its sensibility have their admirers and their detractors. But one of Vox’s goals—offering comprehensive, engaging online summaries of issues in the news so that curious people who don’t know the backstory and aren’t experts can figure out what the heck is happening and why—fits right in with the challenges I encountered as a reader with the privilege tax story in North Carolina.

Everything you need to know about the privilege license tax. Or not.

So, the privilege tax: it’s a levy that cities and towns across North Carolina impose on businesses that operate within their borders, using a variety of formulas to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually for municipal budgets statewide. By all accounts, it’s an inconsistently applied tax. Some businesses pay a little, some pay a lot, and a given business can pay widely different taxes in different municipalities. Big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, for instance, can pay up to $20,000 in some municipalities; a local mom and pop might pay 1 percent of that; other types of businesses may be exempt altogether. You can see why big retailers, and the anti-tax politicians who gained power when Republicans swept into the state capital after 2012, don’t like it. At the same time, few people defend the levy as ideal tax policy—but plenty of people worry about the effect on local government services with the privilege tax revenue now set to disappear, and doubting state lawmakers’ pledges that the budget hole will be filled somehow.

I didn’t know any of that on Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, when, after a few days during which I’d been a little more interested in beach sand than Tar Heel tax policy, I first picked up news of the proposed change from Bloomberg. (At the time, state lawmakers were proposing to cap the tax at $100 per business, not eliminate it outright.) I was struck, though, by how the article framed the move as part of continuing efforts by Republican lawmakers in the statehouse to shape policy in Democratic-run cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. That was one of the major political storylines  in the state last year, so there was a sense of, “Here they go again.”

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But when I turned to local coverage in a handful of North Carolina papers to learn more and follow how this played out, it kind of gave me a headache. For instance, a piece in The Charlotte Observer seemed to expect a lot of institutional knowledge about the issue from readers, jumping into the back-and-forth over what the impact on local budgets would be and dropping in somewhat random facts like how many cities impose the tax without ever exactly explaining what the tax is, how it works, why people oppose it, and how cities came to rely on it as a revenue source in the first place. I didn’t really get that from an early Associated Press report either.

Later AP coverage was more helpful, and there were some other good efforts around the state. An article in the Raleigh News & Observer, published as lawmakers were debating the proposal, did a good job pointing out how the tax levy varies from town to town, and the role it plays in municipal finances. In the  Asheville Citizen-Times, I found perhaps the most comprehensive story on the tax proposal—heavy on the local implications and fairness concerns between small and big businesses, but also with some background on how GOP lawmakers had been seeking an opportunity to reform the tax system, and even details on the formula Asheville uses to tax retailers.

But by now I’d done a lot of reading, and I still had questions that hadn’t been answered. In fact, I had new questions that had come up while I’d surveyed the coverage. How unusual is this tax? What had happened in other places where it had been capped or repealed? How did economists think the tax shaped local economic activity? What had happened when the tax was “inadvertently repealed” in 2013? What share of municipal budgets did these revenues account for, and if it’s a small percentage (which it is) how do I make sense of how much it matters? And how did such an unwieldy tax come about in the first place?

And while I usually prefer my news in a more narrative style, in this particular case I just wanted somebody to explain the issue to me like I was a fourth grader. Maybe with some charts and graphs thrown in for good measure.

I could almost see the Vox piece in my mind: “Everything you need to know about North Carolina’s privilege tax debate,” starting with “What is a privilege tax,” “What cities use them,” “How did the tax system come about,” “How would the change affect local economies,” “The case for the tax,” “The case against the tax,” and a map of which states use them or have repealed them. (Maybe I have a wild imagination.)

But I don’t live in the state, and, feeling somewhat self-conscious in my adventures in North Carolina privilege tax news consumption, I ran my assessment by John Robinson. He’s the former editor of the Greensboro News & Record who now teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina and runs a blog about his state’s media. Robinson told me he laughed out loud when he read part of an e-mail in which I wondered if perhaps I was just being a little obtuse, and maybe there was some institutional knowledge of the issue among local readers.

North Carolina, he wrote back sardonically, “is filled with smart, engaged citizens who know about the doings of municipal privilege taxes. Not only that, newspapers are a great investment with a bright future.”

I laughed out loud right back.  

Then I called Christopher McLaughlin, who teaches at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill and specializes in the privilege tax, which he called one of the most confusing, arcane taxes in the state. (His imagination might be even more wild than mine.) McLaughlin said he hadn’t seen much depth or background in the coverage. “I’m not certain too many readers really know what the heck the tax is,” he told me. “So it’d be nice for someone to spend some time [explaining] what the tax is and how it might vary from city to city. I think that would be helpful to the average reader.”

Newswriting for the web

Finally, I reached out to a couple North Carolina reporters who’d covered the issue to get their take. Both told me they weren’t that familiar with Vox’s approach—maybe an illustration of the gap between working newspaper journalists around the country and the digital-media crowd—but agreed that an explainer or more context-heavy approach could be a good fit for this story… if there were time to do it, and enough reader interest to warrant it.

John Frank, who had one of the bylines on the N&O story and also surveys state coverage each morning for an excellent news roundup on his paper’s website, told me he hadn’t yet seen a piece really explaining the history of the tax; the speed with which the measure moved from debate to becoming law—just a few days, during a short session when other stories were also developing—may have contributed to the focus on narrower pieces about the impact on municipal budgets.

More big-picture stories “would be great to write—though I wonder what the appetite is among readers,” he said via email. “The good news: there’s still time. Ahead of next session—when they will tackle this tax issue again—I think you’ll see more attention on it.”

Jon Ostendorff, who wrote the Citizen-Times piece, checked out Vox.com after I reached out to him and said he thought the site’s approach would fit well for an issue like the privilege tax, which has a documentable history that would be instructive to readers.  

“The challenge is weighing the impact of new laws on government, business and people versus spending more time fleshing out the history of laws or how they are handled in other states,” he says. “Sometimes we do a deep dive into the history of an issue and explain that to readers. Our recent coverage of the water agreement issue is a great example though maybe not in the exact Vox style.”

Ostendorff chose to focus on how the North Carolina tax change would benefit big-box retailers and hurts city budgets, but “there’s probably an interesting story about all the lobbying and legislative deals that went into it,” he said. “The problem is coming up with the time to do it.”

It’s true that some of what I wanted to read—the history; the legislative backstory and deal-making—might require a serious extra reporting lift. Other questions I had—like how experts believe the tax affects economic activity, not just municipal budgets—would be easier to tackle, but would still have meant some extra phone calls. And while I was really interested, I’m not willing to bet my paycheck that hordes of Tar Heel State residents are.

But newsrooms across the state were already devoting resources to this story (as they should have been). And I would have been grateful for a piece that presented the information differently, even if it didn’t address everything I wanted to know. The appeal of a Voxsplainer is not so much that it promises to be the authoritative coverage of an issue as that it understands what’s frustrating about hunting through news stories for answers to your questions—and it promises to keep you updated and help you find authoritative coverage, wherever and whenever it’s done. Which might just be another way of saying that it’s newswriting for the web.

Writing specifically for the web can be a challenge when you’re also writing articles for print, of course. But I hope one of North Carolina’s newspapers—or maybe WRAL, which along with the leading papers is among the top political news sources in the state—might do some experimenting. I’m looking forward to deeper dives into the privilege tax the next time this issue comes up. But I’d hate to have to read all this coverage again.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.