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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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:
- WHAT NONPROFITS NEED TO KNOW: For CJR, Richard Tofel, who has served as president of ProPublica for eight and a half years, outlined some of the fundamental lessons he has learned about nonprofit journalism during his tenure. He outlines the amount of money necessary to start a nonprofit operation, suggests considerations for courting donors, advocates for tying metrics to mission, and offers other advice for building a successful board, balancing editorial priorities with those of donors, and handling earned revenue. “One of the things I have found so exciting about being in the news business, especially during the quarter century since the consumer internet began emerging, is how fast it has changed,” Tofel writes.
- IN CHICAGO, A DIVERSE LOCAL NEWS MARKET: “Are calls to save local journalism the same as saving local newspapers?” Deborah Douglas asked for The Guardian, considering Chicago’s local news landscape, which has a robust experimental news scene. Though the Pulitzer-winning Chicago Tribune was recently taken over and slashed by Alden Global Capital, the city has about two hundred print, online, and broadcast outlets that make a diverse local news ecosystem. “We need a lot more Chicagos around the country,” Josh Stearns, a program director at The Democracy Fund, told Douglas. “Yes, Alden has bought this longstanding newsroom, but newsrooms and communities all over the city are working together, honoring different approaches, testing and sharing what’s working.”
- UK PUBLICATION FILLS IN LOCAL COVERAGE: Nub News, a news platform in the UK that sets up original reporting in hyperlocal markets, employs just over thirty journalists and seeks to replace the loss of local news outlets by directing its resources toward communities without news coverage. The platform, which is available online and free to access, is currently unprofitable, but it hopes to break even by 2024, PressGazette reports. “Making local news pay in the digital space is a challenge still troubling the news industry,” Freddy Mayhew writes. “While Nub News may not offer the newsroom environment that is still a vital part of journalism training, among other things, it is one of the few local publishers to be hiring journalists in recent years.”
- CAPITAL GAZETTE FACES ANNIVERSARY, TRIAL, AND BUYOUTS: Yesterday, Jon Allsop noted the recent anniversary of the shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman killed five staffers three years ago. On Monday, the paper printed portraits of the victims on its front page; the city held a memorial service. This week, the gunman goes to trial. And last week, several Gazette staffers took buyouts from Alden Global Capital. “The confluence of the trial, the shooting anniversary, and the buyouts is a coincidence,” Allsop writes. “Once the trial is over, national attention will likely ebb away from the case again, but the economic threats to the paper will endure. So, of course, will the horrifying memories of three years ago.”
- IN CANADA, A SHIFTING PAYWALL: The Globe and Mail—Canada’s largest newspaper—has built a dynamic paywall, Sarah Scire reported for NiemanLab. The paper has no specific article limit; rather, its analytics present readers with paywalls dependent on potential for advertising revenue or subscriber revenue. The paywall “knows when to give up,” Sonali Verma, senior project manager, said. Since implementing this paywall, the publication has doubled email registrations and subscription conversions, in addition to increasing return visits.
- RETAINING SUBSCRIBERS FROM COVID BUMP: News industry leaders across the world said their greatest challenge and opportunity over the next few years is to retain the subscribers that they gained amid the pandemic, PressGazette reported. Spanish news website elDiario.es, for example, saw unique readership double, with a 60 percent increase in paying members.
- GOOGLE AND PUBLISHERS: Google has postponed its plan to remove support for third-party cookies until 2023. This time will allow news publishers to build their own first-party data strategy, if they’re paying attention, Joshua Benton writes for NiemanLab. Elsewhere, for the Los Angeles Times, Brian Contreras reported on the mysteries of Google’s Gmail inbox filter and its implications for newsletter publishers.
- VIRTUAL EVENTS CONTINUE: As the pandemic shifts in the US and journalists begin to return to newsrooms, some publishers are choosing to continue experimenting with virtual events, Hanaa’ Tameez reported for NiemanLab. Holding events online can make them more accessible to participants and to speakers. In some cases, chat functions can make interactions between speakers and audiences more fluid and easy as well.
- LOCAL PAPER SEEKS OWNER: In Julian, California, a family-owned paper whose publisher is battling cancer temporarily ceased publication for the first time in seventeen years. Now, the family is looking to sell the paper; so far, there are no takers, The San Diego Tribune reported.