From Mount Airy, NC to NYC: An opinion writer’s perspective on leaving NC local news

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Editor

Journalist Sara Pequeño is lining up a new chapter, a “radical experiment in fun.” After spending 25 years in North Carolina, most of it in rural Mount Airy, Pequeño is ready for something completely different and is headed to New York at the end of July.

“I think there’s this feeling of okay, I could keep doing everything that I’ve done in North Carolina and just keep doing that for the rest of my life but that’s not really what I envisioned for myself. So if I had to give a thesis statement on why I’m leaving I think that would probably be it.”

Pequeño, a 2019 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, worked for both INDY Week and McClatchy’s North Carolina Opinion Team. In between packing and figuring out the best way to transport her cats, Pequeño found some time to chat with NC Local about her experiences in North Carolina and what’s next. 

CK: You covered such a range of topics for the News & Observer, from abortion restrictions to political and public attacks on the LGBTQ community to profiling John Waters and touring the Original Selfie Museum. What was your approach to coverage?

SP: I always just gravitate towards what I’m interested in so I think for me there was never necessarily a rhyme or reason with what I was trying to pitch or put out there. For example with the Original Selfie Museum story, I think I got a press release about it and was noodling on it because I think selfie museums are so fascinating. And no one had done an art criticism piece on it. That was one where I looked online, no one is really talking about this, why don’t I talk about it? That’s one that’s so interesting because that story isn’t necessarily inherently political but then you look at the people who own the Selfie Museum in Raleigh, they’re Ukrainian and they had Ukrainian refugee children staying with them and that kind of interesting dynamic that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a traditional arts story.

The way that daily news is going, a lot of them have killed their art sections so there was also this kind of need, we still need people to cover when art and business combine and there’s not really anyone covering it in the way that it deserves. 

With John Waters, I was just like how cool would it be if I got this interview and it was kind of a challenge to myself. Then my article ended up being shared on Fox News which was delightful. It’s fun to brag that I ended up getting John Waters on Fox News. That’s like my career highlight I would say. But that one really came about because I live in Durham, I’m passionate about Durham and I saw that he was coming to the Carolina Theatre. I was like “I want to talk to this guy!” I think a lot of my best stuff comes from me just going “Wouldn’t it be cool if I talk to this person?”

And then on the other side of that, I think that a lot of the stuff I wrote came from a necessity. A lot of the stuff I’ve been focusing on in the last six months was focused specifically on queer rights and queer issues because of the way that everything is happening in North Carolina right now politically. Writing about abortion, I mean that’s a no-brainer. We obviously saw how everything played out in abortion rights in North Carolina and as someone that is still young enough to get pregnant and young enough to also not have enough money to have a kid, it does kind of become that reality of okay, I guess I’m the one that has to talk about it.

Do you think your departure will leave a gap in coverage and perspective?

I remember every horrible thing that adults in my hometown ever said about gay people. I remember horrible things that kids used to say about Latinos. I don’t feel it is a stretch to say that losing me does create a gap in coverage. Just the fact of me sharing my life as a queer person, with a Spanish last name, an easily identifiable Spanish last name, growing up in rural North Carolina. I do feel like I had some sort of responsibility to kind of be a voice and so it does kind of become this whole “You don’t have the one Latina from the sticks writing on your pages anymore.”

I do feel like I was kind of hired to be like a wonder kid and explain how growing up in a place like Mount Airy creates people like me. I feel like I realized very early on that that’s not what I wanted long term. 

You’ve had experience with corporate media and an alternative weekly. What could all types and sizes of news organizations do to better retain young people? 

I think if you want to retain young journalists, you have to give them a lot more creative freedom than a lot of news organizations are willing to give students and young people. I think that’s one of the things that I realized later in my time at the N&O was how much I missed being at INDY Week and how much I missed the kind of environment of working in a smaller newsroom and working with bad pay, to be honest, but working with bad pay under the understanding that what you’re doing is just as important if not more important than the stuff that the daily newspapers are putting out. 

When I think about how people can retain talent, there’s so much that could be said about not just writing off the young talent as young talent and actually letting them contribute ideas to the newsroom. When your ideas are always getting brushed off, that’s bad for retaining talent and I think long-term, it’s bad for actually getting young people interested in news. 

How do you think NC news organizations are doing in their DEI efforts?

Diversity, equity and inclusion — they’re all buzzwords, right? But at the end of the day what are we talking about when we’re talking about that? We’re talking about recruiting people that don’t look like our editors. We’re looking for people that don’t look like our editors to really tell the story of this community. 

When we talk about retaining younger talent, I think there should be a lot more focus on how do we retain young talent of color, how do we retain young queer talent.

Young people, young people of color, young queer people don’t want to just be at your publication because you offer them twice the salary. You want to have friends and actually enjoy the news ecosystem that you’re willing to be a part of. Also, how are we telling stories? Are we allowing people to write not just crime stories every single day but are we allowing our younger writers to explore avenues that they are interested in and have passion projects?

I think of DEI as a verb, I don’t think of it as a noun. There’s so much more that we could be doing but a lot of it comes down to respect. 

What are a couple of your favorite pieces that you’ve done in North Carolina? 

I wouldn’t say this is a favorite one just because of the subject matter, but I won an award for my coverage of Nikole Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project. Writing that story was really impactful to me because a lot of the work that I like to do most is focused on history. Writing about Hannah-Jones’s experience trying to get tenure at UNC was the exact same experience that Sonja Haynes Stone went through essentially when she was trying to become a full tenure professor at UNC, which she never was able to do. Writing that story was really impactful because of the sheer understanding of what’s happening at my alma mater and being able to document that history and remind people of how history repeats itself and how far we still have to go when it comes to racial equity.

And writing about Madison Cawthorn. I went to McDowell County and talked to some Republicans over there and that was pre a lot of the craziness with him and the comments he made about Republican legislators. 

I’m more proud though of the body of work that I completed and if you think about it more like an anthology of my time in North Carolina, I’m really proud of the stuff I was writing. I mean obviously I’m really proud of interviewing John Waters, but I’m also really proud of the story that I wrote after the Colorado Springs shooting at the nightclub and writing about how people are finding spaces of joy and spaces of queer joy specifically in North Carolina in the midst of everything that’s happening. I think that’s one of those stories that I’m very proud of having written. 

So where should we look for your byline in the coming months? 

I’m starting to pitch places, I pitched Cosmo and I pitched The Guardian too, but I’m still waiting to hear back on things which is how it goes with freelancing of course. I know it’s going to take a little bit of time. Once I’m more settled in New York I definitely want to write national. I’m looking at becoming a contributing columnist at other editorial boards as well just because I have that experience, at the same time I’m really interested in getting involved in the community journalism scene up in New York and getting involved in something a little bit more like the INDY so I’m really excited to like get involved in Brooklyn and get involved in the Brooklyn writing scene. I’ve been thinking about doing an MFA program since I was in college so a lot of what I want to be doing now is kind of in preparation for applying to some of the more prestigious creative writing programs, so that’s kind of the plan well.

I really just have wanted to experience something different than North Carolina for as long as I’ve been alive or at least when I was a teenager. Even though I wasn’t thinking New York specifically, I was thinking I want a way out of this state. The way that the state’s gone the last 10 years, since I was thinking that in my bedroom in Mount Airy North Carolina, has really solidified that belief. I just realized that I want to have a little fun. I had so much of my early 20s stolen from the pandemic and from being in this career field, I feel like I deserve to have a little bit of fun for the first time in a long time. So when we get to why I’m moving that’s why, because it seems fun, it just seems fun and I’m young and I want to try and be young and have fun in another state, so we’ll see.

NC Local News Workshop