Today’s launch of the Border Belt Independent reflects the work of a lot of people who are concerned about the future of journalism and democracy.
I’ve spent my 36-year career at my family’s newspaper, The News Reporter in Whiteville, as photographer, reporter, editor, and publisher, though technically I started working summers at the paper when I was 12. My grandfather, Leslie Thompson, was the advertising director at The Robesonian when he bought the paper in 1938. He was publisher when the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service in 1953 for reporting on the Ku Klux Klan. My father, Jim High, served as publisher for 61 years after my grandfather’s death.
But the internet and social media have caused massive disruptions in the way we live, think and consume news. In many instances, communities have lost their local newspapers, leaving what Northwestern University journalism professor (and Scotland County resident) Penny Abernathy calls “news deserts.”
What often results is a dark vacuum filled with lies, deceit, and mistruths that can destroy communities, and if we’re not careful, great nations.
The Border Belt Independent is the sum of ideas from people before me who have worked tirelessly to prevent more news deserts.
The BBI is a nonprofit online news organization that will publish in-depth stories on issues and newsmakers in four counties: Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland. These four counties are connected geographically and by challenges that are common among North Carolina’s rural areas.
The BBI is funded primarily by a three-year grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. While the trust has no editorial influence over the BBI, many of our goals are the same; namely, to improve the lives of underserved people. The people who live in Border Belt counties face barriers to health, mental health, education, and economics that are fostered by generational poverty. Many of these conversations must begin with the region’s children, who are adversely impacted by so many factors that set them up for failure.
It poses the question: How can we solve these problems if we don’t know what they are?
That, in a nutshell, is the Border Belt Independent’s mission.
We’ll examine these issues, provide context and, if we can, find solutions.
Another goal of the BBI is to fortify the reporting capacity of the existing newspapers in the region: The News Reporter, the Tabor-Loris Tribune, The Bladen Journal, The Robesonian, The Laurinburg Exchange, and The Pine Needle, the student newspaper at UNC-Pembroke. The BBI will work in conjunction with these as a partner, not as a competitor. We believe this partnership could serve as a model for other rural regions of the state.
Disruptions in newspapers’ business model mean fewer journalists are generating the type of in-depth reporting that communities need and deserve. That’s where an independent, nonprofit online newsroom like the BBI can help.
We hope you’ll follow the BBI as we grow. I’ll serve as publisher while continuing my day job at The News Reporter. We’ll announce the BBI’s just-hired editor tomorrow (spoiler alert: we found a really good one).
Staff writer Ivey Schofield will split time between The News Reporter and the BBI. We’ll also use other talented writers from across the region and partner with journalism programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Pembroke.
Today’s launch includes five stories from across the region. The lead story by Schofield looks at the Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy in Elizabethtown, the state’s only charter school for grades six through 12 that is solely focused on a military-style model. Only 9% of the sixth graders who enroll are grade proficient, but as school founder Col. Carl Lloyd says, “Give me what nobody else wants and we’re going to turn them into rock stars.”
There’s a profile of former Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt by Britney Nguyen of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, written in collaboration with UNC’s Media Hub. Britt’s office prosecuted thousands of people accused of felonies. Now he’s a defense attorney. WRAL recently debuted a documentary on possible problems with the trial of Britt’s most famous case: the James Jordan murder trial. Read what Britt has to say about it.
The region’s economy will be another focus of the BBI. One story today gives an overview of Bladen County. Another story examines the possibilities of the Lumber River as an ecotourism destination. It’s Part I of a three-part series that examines the lower Lumber River. We’ll look at the upper Lumber in a future story.
Later this week, we’ll feature Alex Munroe’s restaurant, winery and distillery near Elizabethown, take a look at Columbus County’s economy, and talk with Jeff Howard, who sees firsthand the importance of broadband in rural areas.
Be sure to follow us on Facebook at borderbeltindependent, on Instagram at @borderbeltindependent and Twitter at @beltborder and share our stories.