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How a nonprofit magazine and a community newspaper worked together to cover the opioid crisis in rural North Carolina

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The News Reporter, a local paper covering Whiteville and Columbus County, N.C., and Scalawag, a nonprofit magazine that serves under-represented Southerners, teamed up to produce a series (on the breakdown of mental health services and the opioid epidemic in rural North Carolina) that neither could have done as effectively on their own.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from Les High, editor of The News Reporter in Whiteville, N.C., and Evan Walker-Wells, publisher of Scalawag magazine.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Walker-Wells: For Scalawag, we were interested in partnering with a local outlet in a part of the South where we wanted to expand coverage. In that, we were interested in learning what kind of in-depth reporting Scalawag could provide to be of use to local outlets while being compelling and interesting to our readership.

High: For the News Reporter, there was a desire to publish in-depth reporting with a solutions focus on a major issue in the community, which is the breakdown of mental health services in rural North Carolina counties and associated opioid addiction. Columbus County is typical of many rural Southern counties whose best and brightest leave for more opportunities. Family-owned retail has gone away. The loss of tobacco and textiles, the backbone of the economy, decimated the economy. A general feeling of hopelessness has led to an increase in mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Many people have turned to opioids to escape.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

High: Discussions at Knight-Lenfest, notably about Table Stakes No. 6 on collaboration, were the springboard for this story. The News Reporter’s coach, Charlie Baum, helped us understand that readers today want more than just institutional stories. We’ve always known that, but it’s harder today with all hands on deck to cover our beats. What’s so beneficial about Knight-Lenfest is that it makes you focus on your mission and gives you the tools to accomplish it. In this case, it was collaboration with another publication.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

Walker-Wells: The News Reporter picked the story and led the sourcing; Scalawag found the reporter and provided editing throughout the series. Through frequent conversations, we were able to develop a plan for the series that met both our needs and was easy to manage.

High: Partnering with Scalawag was a natural fit. It has access to a number of outstanding freelance writers and we have the institutional knowledge and contacts to make this work. The collaboration was a win for both publications. We were able to split the cost of the writer and Scalawag and The News Reporter got an outstanding series.

Walker-Wells: Writer Sammy Feldblum spent 10 days in Columbus County interviewing a number of sources, attending a local opioid conference and doing field work, such as riding with a deputy during a Friday-night shift. The series ended up with six parts, the last of which offered potential solutions.

Q: What worked?

Walker-Wells: Clear communication and a very hard-working reporter meant that we had the most important building blocks in place. Fundamentally, this meant that the series was well reported, well written, and compelling.

High: Having a reporter come from outside Columbus County was a big benefit. Feldblum came in with no preconceived notions and was able to look at different angles that our reporters might have missed because they’re always lived here. Putting a fresh set of eyes on the project was a major factor in its success.

Q: What didn’t work?

Walker-Wells: I wish we’d had a full project approach to the visuals of the series. We should have hired a photographer to work with the reporter—or been clear that the reporter was expected to do photography himself throughout.

High: We’ve all seen pieces like this one where the photography or videography closed the deal on the emotional impact of the story. Feldblum’s story was great, but we missed out by not putting powerful images in the minds of our audience that would have given it even more impact.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

Walker-Wells: I think despite some really effective planning, the actual reporting and publishing came on us very quickly, which revealed the planning gaps around visuals and Scalawag’s communications plan for the series.

High: People really responded to this series. In small communities, you often find that people are more private and tight-lipped about controversial topics. Our sources were very forthcoming and actually sought us out to tell their stories. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows someone who has been destroyed by a lack of mental health care here or an addiction to opioids. This story touched a lot of families.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

Walker-Wells: More deliberate planning on consistent design and images. We planned the back-end reporting process super well; I felt we didn’t have enough on Scalawag’s front-end together.

High: It became obvious to Evan and me that this project could have easily involved other media in our Knight-Lenfest group. UNC Public Television and WFAE, National Public Radio Charlotte, would have brought an entirely different dynamic to the story through video and audio interviews. I really believe collaboration of different media has to be a part of the future of journalism, especially in rural areas where resources are scarce and there is a legitimate danger of “news deserts.”

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

High: Look at bringing in outside writers to give an issue a different perspective but have local reporters work hand-in-glove with the writer by setting up interviews and providing direction, don’t forget about the visual components, and look to partner with other types of media.

Walker-Wells: Focusing on communication and clear, shared goals is the most important thing. The rest of the project design can be done best with sharp checklists—which is not to underestimate their importance!

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

Walker-Wells: Scalawag’s found this is a really successful model to take forward into other partnerships, particularly with outlets in rural communities, but also with other, small media organizations.

High: The News Reporter will do this again. Stories like these are why we come to work every day, but costs and time will limit how much we can do. Collaborations make it possible. We should also note that one of North Carolina’s largest philanthropies contacted The News Reporter about how it can help. An employee there saw the story at Scalawag. There’s a very good chance that many people will be helped because of this story.