‘Tar Heel Bus Tour’ stop spotlights rural news solutions

WHITEVILLE — Every day, Justin Smith and Les High work through the challenges and opportunities of providing high-quality, local news and information to their rural community. On Wednesday, the two news publishers stood before a busload of 40 faculty and staff from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and tried to describe what it’s like.

“Today was kind of intense — every press day is,” Justin Smith, publisher and editor of News Reporter, told the crowd.

Les High (right) and Justin Smith address the UNC Bus Tour audience

Just before 11 a.m., a few hours before the weekly paper was due to the printer, one of the largest employers in Columbus County announced they were going to cut about a third of its workforce. The News Reporter team sprang into action, with a quick story for the web and a longer one a new front page.

“You can’t plan on having to switch gears mid-stream,” he said, holding up proofs of the old and new front page. “But that’s what we’ve been doing.”

The Whiteville News Reporter and High’s Border Belt Independent co-hosted the stop about local news on the Tar Heel Bus Tour East, in which faculty members from across UNC-Chapel Hill spend their fall break touring NC to learn more about the state, as well as challenges, solutions and the university’s role.

The group poured into the newspaper office, touching the old bound volumes and checking out the page proofs. Then they got ready to engage with the presentation that highlighted a local response to the local news crisis, with faculty from African Studies to UNC Rural diving in.

“Why do you think it’s the small towns where newspapers are surviving?” asked Martin Louis Johnson, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the English department and a former journalist himself.

“The problem is that a lot of these newspapers aren’t surviving,” Border Belt Independent Publisher Les High said. Since 2004, more than one-fourth of the nation’s newspapers have closed, and those that have survived have shed jobs and pages.

What helps set the News Reporter and the Border Belt apart, he said: Local ownership. Also, the ability to pivot, and a connection to the community as well as resources such as UNC Table Stakes.

High went through cohort one as the editor of the News Reporter and cohort five as the publisher of Border Belt Independent; Smith is currently going through Table Stakes in cohort six with the News Reporter.

“What we do with Table Stakes is we help find solutions.”

“What we do with Table Stakes is we help find solutions,” said Erica Beshears Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media Director at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Over six years, the UNC Table Stakes program has trained 62 news organizations in organizational change, digital transformation and audience-first practices. High likened Table Stakes to an MBA program for journalists, teaching them to think strategically and make data-informed decisions.

Table Stakes is a return for them both — High and Smith are alumni of the journalism school, and many of their family members who are also employed by the news outlets have graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We have a big UNC presence,” High said. “Me, my mother, my father, my sister — Carolina changed my life.” His wife and both children also attended UNC.

The News Reporter was founded in 1896 and has been owned by the High family since 1938, covering Whiteville and the surrounding coastal counties. The paper, which is an hour east of Wilmington, won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service with the Tabor City Tribute for its coverage of the KKK in 1953.

Former employees of the News Reporter line the wall in the newsroom.

During his 40 years as editor of the News Reporter, High remembers standing at the back of the printing press warehouse and watching the newspapers come to life. “You just knew that was democracy in action,” he said.

In Table Stakes, their initial challenge was “Don’t go out of business.” Five years later, the News Reporter is still going strong — and they’re still transforming.

Smith, who joined the paper as editor of News Reporter in August 2018, bought the paper from the High family in August 2021. He moved the paper from its longtime office and cut print from two to one day per week.

In the last year, News Reporter has started covering growth and development stories, introduced new story forms and launched a voter guide. The paper has seen essential subscriber growth.

How do you analyze the market to make those decisions, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz asked during the presentation. Do you reach a point where you decide to go entirely online? Smith said the decisions were made by analyzing ad placement and legacy costs, as well as opportunities for growth.

After ensuring the News Reporter would be in good hands, High looked to experiment with new journalism models. Border Belt Independent, funded by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, is a response to the challenges legacy and startup publishers face in economically disadvantaged rural areas.

“The vacuum that fills those spaces is often a dark space,” High said.

He started Border Belt Independent as a nonprofit news organization in 2021 to provide in-depth, public service reporting to four rural counties that made up the old Border Belt Tobacco Market. All of their content is free to republish by understaffed local papers or digital sites.

Toward the end of the 45-minute visit, News Reporter Assistant Editor Diana Matthews returned from an emergency county commissioners’ meeting. She informed the group that not only did the commissioners call on the governor and NC General Assembly to provide emergency aid after the layoffs, they also announced an unrelated decision: The board terminated a contract with an emergency services vendor.

Smith said without the News Reporter’s coverage, the community may not learn about what would happen if they called 911.

“That’s an example of what’s at stake,” he said.