Tar Heel Bus Tour makes stop at The News Reporter, Border Belt Independent

By Justin Smith

Publisher, The News Reporter

A Carolina blue bus filled with more than three dozen faculty members and senior administrators from UNC Chapel Hill stopped at The News Reporter Wednesday to learn about community journalism.

The group, joined by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, was part of the multi-day Tar Heel Bus Tour, which sends one bus on a westward route from Chapel Hill and one bus to the east.

“The Tar Heel Bus Tour is an opportunity for administrators and faculty to see the towns and communities our students call home and witness firsthand the challenges and opportunities across the state of North Carolina,” said Guskiewicz.

During their stop in Whiteville, Tar Heel Bus Tour participants heard a presentation from Justin Smith, owner and publisher of The News Reporter, and Les High, founder of Border Belt Independent.

UNC Bus Tour, Border Belt Independent, Whiteville, CISM, Tablestakes
The News Reporter Publisher Justin Smith and Border Belt Independent Publisher Les High talk with UNC faculty and senior staff Wednesday. Photo by Dashuan Vereen, The News Reporter

“As graduates of UNC Chapel Hill, Les and I were incredibly honored to host Chancellor Guskiewicz and the Tar Heel Bus Tour,” Smith said. “It was a wonderful opportunity for us to introduce the visiting faculty members to issues facing our industry and to explain how our media organizations have benefited from initiatives at Carolina’s journalism school.”

Smith and High shared how their organizations have received professional support from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The News Reporter and Border Belt Independent have participated in the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stake Newsroom Initiative, a yearlong program that helps media organizations create sustainable solutions to thrive in the digital age.

Smith discussed The News Reporter’s recent expansion of its digital reporting — including the launch last year of its new website and e-mail newsletter published each weekday. High talked about the history of the paper, including its 1953 Pulitzer Prize shared with the Tabor-City Tribune for the newspapers’ coverage of the Ku Klux Klan.

Having sold The News Reporter to Smith in 2021, High turned his attention full-time to Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit news organization that publishes in-depth stories on rural southeastern North Carolina and makes those pieces available for other news organizations to republish.

“We cover Robeson, Bladen, Scotland and Columbus counties. They’re all very similar demographically and they face a lot of common challenges,” High told the Tar Heel Bus Tour participants, who come from a variety of academic disciplines.

“We have two goals: We primarily publish in-depth stories and give context to issues. Also, we support the four local newspapers in this region,” High said. “I’m a lifelong newspaper guy, so I want to help people’s lives get better through our reporting, but we also have to make sure our little newspapers in our communities survive.”

Busy press day

The bus pulled up to The News Reporter’s offices Wednesday afternoon about an hour after editors sent Thursday’s newspaper to the press.

“The Tar Heel Bus Tour participants got a firsthand look at how quickly news can develop, even in small towns,” Smith said. “We explained to them that, just a few hours earlier, we had to redo our front page after International Paper announced that it was cutting 200 positions at its Riegelwood mill.

“Then, as Les and I were presenting, Assistant Editor Diana Matthews returned from an emergency meeting in which county commissioners voted to cancel their contract with Nakina Fire and Rescue. Although it was too late to get that news in this week’s paper, we quickly published a story online. That was a good example for them to see how we’re evolving our workflow to meet reader demand.”

Tour of Whiteville

Following their visit to The News Reporter, the UNC administrators and faculty returned to the bus for a brief tour of Whiteville.

Mayor Terry Mann, Smith and High served as tour guides, discussing a range of topics, including the historic courthouse renovation, downtown development, flooding, the recent jobs announcement by Provalus, county government’s downtown campus and Columbus Regional Healthcare System.

The News Reporter, Whiteville, UNC Chapel Hill, Hussman School of Journalism, Columbus County, CISLM, Tablestakes
Senior administrators and faculty members from UNC Chapel Hill pose with copies of The News Reporter in front of the newspaper’s office Wednesday during the Tar Heel Bus Tour. Staff photo by Dashuan Vereen