Beginning in May, newspaper readers in four North Carolina counties (Columbus, Bladen, Robeson and Scotland) will see their community papers carrying in-depth investigative articles originating from a new online news source, the Border Belt Independent.
The free online journal will focus on regional challenges such as education, poverty, drug addiction, race and health, said Les High, former longtime editor of The News Reporter and its publisher since 2018. High feels a special concern about issues affecting the present and future wellbeing of the region’s children. “There’s no shortage” of such issues to report, he said.
“We live in an area where neighbors help neighbors,” said High. “People are empathetic. Churches and nonprofits want to help.” But if citizens don’t know about problems, they can’t fix them. “The hope is that when people see the issues, they’ll want to be involved in the solutions.”
The Border Belt Independent will not duplicate local papers’ routine reporting on governments, schools, public safety, sports, business or features, High said. Instead it will enable those papers to carry thought-provoking stories that their own overstretched staffs sometimes lack time to cover.
The Border Belt Independent’s parent organization is the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center, established this spring with funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.
As the online publication gets off the ground, High will serve as its interim editor, supervising a staff of full-time, part-time and freelance reporters, until a permanent editor is hired. He will remain publisher of The News Reporter.
Stories will also be distributed in an email newsletter and via social media. High hopes the Border Belt Independent will gain readers in Raleigh, or anywhere decision-makers are looking for factual reporting about issues facing rural citizens. The publication will contain no advertisements, he said.
High began thinking about a multi-county collaboration “five or six years ago,” he said, as nonprofit reporting centers such as Carolina Public Press began to emerge, bridging traditional newspaper circulation territories.
According to 2019 U.S. Census data, the four adjacent counties have a combined population of about a quarter of a million people. Columbus is the only one to have two newspapers, The News Reporter and Tabor-Loris Tribune. Print newspapers in the other three counties are Bladen Journal, The Robesonian and The Laurinburg Exchange.
The Border Belt Reporting Center hopes to provide internships and work-study opportunities for aspiring reporters enrolled in UNC Pembroke’s mass communication major or other journalism programs. Local freelance writers may apply to contribute stories as well.
High said a longer-term goal of the center is to become a model for reporting in other rural areas before they become “news deserts.” The term refers to communities without local newspapers that are dependent on broadcast media and scant coverage by larger-city papers.
“It’s critical that communities have access to trusted, fact-checked journalism to hold the powerful accountable and connect communities,” he said. “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.”
Unlike major media, the Border Belt Independent will be tailored to its regional audience. “I want people in these four counties to realize this is written for them,” High said.
The Border Belt name, High said, pays homage to the days when “Tobacco was the lifeblood of all these communities. It provided a good living for a lot of people.
“That’s gone now,” he said. “We’ve got to find new paths to prosperity.” High hopes the new publication will help readers build on the valued aspects of the past but also “move past and on to better things.”
For the first three years, the center’s primary support will be a $495,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, whose mission is to improve the health and quality of life of financially disadvantaged residents in North Carolina.
The center is now in the lengthy process of applying for federal 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, which will allow individual supporters to make tax-deductible contributions.
Once launched around May 1, the Border Belt Independent can be found at borderbeltindependent.org.