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Can collaborations save journalism, and communities, from news deserts? The Border Belt Independent thinks so.

Border Belt Independent
Les High, longtime publisher of the Whiteville News Reporter and founder of the Border Belt Independent.

As major newspapers continue to consolidate and close down smaller operations, small towns and rural areas are becoming news deserts. A new project just west of the Cape Fear region is trying to turn things around.

When newspapers die, the results can be grim: local governments go unchecked -- budgets bloat, transparency decreases -- and the stories of marginalized communities go untold. The newspapers that do survive are stretched thin, especially in less metropolitan areas, where reporters have to cover a lot of ground -- without a lot of resources.

That’s the case on the ‘border belt’ -- the rural region between North and South Carolina, encompassing Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties. And that’s where the Border Belt Independent comes in -- the non-profit is dedicated to providing quality investigative journalism, for free, to the region’s newspapers.

Founder Les High, who is also the longtime publisher of the News Reporter in Whiteville, was inspired by the work of Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor, journalist, and former media exec who exhaustively studied the phenomenon of news deserts.

“The Border Belt Independent is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And you know, we're losing our newspapers. It's a pretty tough business model. And so we know that newspapers still can do meetings, [boards of] commissioners, school board, that type of thing. But what they've lost is the capacity to do in-depth investigative stories," High said.

There’s no doubt the newspaper industry is a tough one, but for High the issue is more fundamental.

“A community that’s lost its newspaper is in real trouble — there’s no accountability, there’s no watchdog. Because when you have a news desert, I mean, we all kind of know what fills that vacuum. And it's a pretty dark space, and it's a real threat to our democracy," High said.

The goal of the independent is to dig into stories that take up more bandwidth than local papers have — sometimes that means the hours of number crunching and pouring of documents involved in a budget story, and sometimes that means days, or even weeks, building relationships to bring a story out of an underserved community.

Then — and for many journalists, this is the truly wild part — High wants to share this work, for free, with the local papers he’s collaborating with. Even for those with a passing familiarity with the industry, this is clearly a paradigm shift.

“I mean, back in the day, you probably know this, if it was the Wild West, we protected our sources. You know, it was hand-to-hand combat for stores among journalists. Now collaboration is such a big deal. And across platforms too, not just newspapers or newspapers, but all platforms," High said.

High recently brought on Sarah Nagem, who’s previously worked with McClatchy and News & Observer, as an editor. She says she’s looking for a modern take on “old school” reporting. Sometimes this means shorter, punchier work instead of the multi-part exposes of yore — but it still requires the time-consuming footwork behind the scenes.

“Investigative journalism has certainly evolved over the years. You know, what, I think it doesn't always have to be this 5000-word expose. You know, a quick 500-word story saying, ‘Hey, you know, this money was misspent.’ Often smaller newspapers just don't have time to dig deep into budgets and things like that. So it doesn't always have to be this, this huge thing -- it’s really about holding powerful people accountable," she said.

High and Nagem are now looking for freelancers, and potentially full-time reporters down the line.

Much of this work is made possible by a nearly half-million dollar grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust — that will support Border Belt Independent for about three years. There’s plenty of work to do for the time being, High says, but the long-range goals could be even more ambitious.

“If we can make this happen, where we can provide investigative reporting, can we replicate this in other rural counties in North Carolina, or potentially the nation? And I hope that we can," High said.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.