Business of News

In rural North Carolina, an investigative center supports local print news

June 30, 2021

For years, Les High—publisher of The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina—has been concerned about the state of local journalism in his part of the state. “You look at high-poverty, rural areas like ours,” on the state’s Southeast border, “and newspapers just don’t have the capacity to do the type of investigative and in-depth reporting that we need to do and people deserve,” High said. To address the gap in enterprise coverage and support the local newspapers that remain in his four-county region, High founded the Border Belt Reporting Center, an investigative nonprofit. The center aims to finance hyper-local investigations and in-depth reporting, and provide it to local outlets for free. Stories will also run on the nonprofit’s website. “We’ve drawn a very clear line,” High says. “We’re not competitors; we’re partners.”

The four counties covered are not quite news deserts: Bladen County has one newspaper, as does Scotland county; Columbus County has two. Robeson County has one local newspaper in addition to The Pine Needle, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina Pembroke. To High’s mind, it’s critical that the county’s newspapers succeed, and he wants the Border Belt Reporting Center to be part of that success.

The reporting center’s approach is driven in part by the demographics of the region. Across the four counties, around a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. They each rank near the bottom in statewide health outcomes. In Robeson County, 48 percent of children are living in poverty. In three of the four counties, the percentage of residents with internet access is at or below 60 percent. Across the four counties, an average of only 18 percent of households are using the internet at the FCC’s stated basic broadband speed. “Broadband is really expensive,” High says. “For those who can get it, broadband is probably the best way to access [our coverage] because it’s free. But at the same time, we can reach print by providing stories to the newspapers.”s

At present, the reporting center, which launched in March, has one full-time editor and a reporter who splits her time between the reporting center and The News Reporter; the center also depends on the work of freelancers and plans to continue expanding their team. They also plan to conduct listening sessions within these communities to rebuild trust, particularly among racial minority residents, for whom trust in local news is especially low.

The Border Belt Reporting Center’s model is built for a particular community with its specific needs, but High and his team hope that if they’re successful, communities with similar challenges might be able to replicate their model. In a world where a significant portion of nonprofit funding goes to communities where wealth is already concentrated, the Border Belt Reporting Center has gathered support to supplement pre-existing reporting in four high-poverty, rural communities. Not only do they hope to provide local community members with more accountability reporting; they want to keep local papers alive, because they know that access to local print newspapers is especially valuable in low-income communities.

“We’re looking at specific areas that have a lot of needs,” High says. “This way, we can really focus on those needs.”

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites