Les High

New nonprofit reporting center will examine issues in four rural counties

Border Belt Reporting Center, Les High
Les High is the founder and interim editor of the Border Belt Reporting Center.

A new nonprofit journalism center will soon begin publishing in-depth stories on issues facing Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties.

The Border Belt Reporting Center will use a three-year, $495,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to create an online publication, the Border Belt Independent.

Les High, longtime editor and publisher of The News Reporter in Whiteville, is the founder and interim editor. 

“The Border Belt Reporting Center will publish in-depth and investigative stories in the region that are badly needed in a time when there so many mistruths,” High said. “Many of these stories will be published in collaboration with the five newspapers in the region. Reporters at small newspapers typically don’t have time to pursue investigative stories. We’ll help provide that capacity.”

High said the center will focus primarily on the challenges faced by rural North Carolina counties, such as education, poverty, health, mental health, issues that adversely affect children, race and the economy.

“We’ll provide context and analysis of these issues and highlight the influencers who seek to bring about change,” High said. “When we publish stories that examine these challenges, we’ll also try to find solutions.”

Stories will be published online at the Border Belt Independent, in an email newsletter and across social media platforms. Many will also be printed in local newspapers and distributed to statewide media outlets. The Border Belt Independent site, when completed, can be found at borderbeltindependent.org.

High, who will remain publisher of The News Reporter, is interim editor. Stories will be compiled by a combination of full- and part-time staff writers and freelancers. The center hopes to work with university journalism classes, like those at UNC-Pembroke, to provide internships and work-study opportunities for aspiring journalists. 

High said another goal of the Border Belt Reporting Center is to create a model to support reliable journalism in rural counties. 

“It’s no secret that media across all platforms has been disrupted, and local newspapers are no exception,” High said. “It’s critical that communities have access to trusted, fact-checked journalism. We’ve seen the conspiracy theories and rhetoric that fill the vacuum when a community loses its newspaper. It’s not pretty and causes great damage to our democracy. We believe this model will provide some of the glue to give people in rural North Carolina the trusted information they deserve.

“The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust grant makes this possible,” High said. “KBR is focused on trying to solve challenges in rural counties, but the first step is to understand what they are. That’s our mission.”

“Through our Healthy Places NC initiative, the Trust has long been committed to healthy, thriving rural communities,” said Adam Linker, director of programs at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. “To help change the systems that have held some of North Carolina’s rural counties back, we know that listening to residents about what they need to be healthy and lifting up their voices is critical. We’re excited to support the work of the Border Belt Reporting Center to understand the challenges facing southeastern North Carolina and to tell community-driven stories about opportunities for change.”

The center will be supported primarily by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust grant and other contributions when the center achieves federal 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. The North Carolina Press Foundation is the Border Belt Reporting Center’s fiscal sponsor.

In addition to the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust grant, the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund provided a $10,000 grant for a feasibility study and operating capital. 

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust was established in 1947 and is now one of the largest private trusts in North Carolina. Its mission is to improve the health and quality of life of financially disadvantaged residents in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, founded in 2017, works to ensure that all North Carolinians have access to the local news and information they need to make their communities thrive.