UNC Table Stakes participant forms nonprofit journalism center

Les High

News ink flows in Les High’s veins — so does thinking progressively.

Local news has been the family business since 1938, when his grandfather purchased The News Reporter, located in southeastern North Carolina. But High, the newspaper’s third-generation leader, knows success means staying focused on the future.

High, the paper’s editor and publisher, looked toward the future when he participated in the first UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative in 2017-18 and positioned the legacy newspaper for a digital-first mindset.

A linchpin program of the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (UNC CISLM), the UNC Table Stakes program helps media organizations thrive in the digital age.

Now, High utilizes another Table Stakes essential — collaboration — as he launches the Border Belt Reporting Center, a nonprofit journalism center that will soon begin publishing in-depth stories on issues facing southeastern North Carolina.

LES HIGH as a child (CENTER) helps BREAK GROUND FOR THE NEWS REPORTER WHERE IT CURRENTLY RESIDES IN Whiteville, North Carolina. his father, Jim high, stands behind him.

Focusing on Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, the center’s stories will publish in a variety of ways, including online through the Border Belt Independent at borderbeltindependent.org. The center’s stories will also be shared through an email newsletter and across social media platforms. Local newspapers and statewide media outlets will also distribute the center’s articles.

Such in-depth work, highlighting both problems and solutions surrounding issues like education, poverty, health and race, remains critical in the area amid a climate of decreasing local news coverage and misinformation fears, High said.

“Collaboration is a key tenet of journalism today. The partnerships we developed through UNC CISLM and the UNC Table Stakes program set the stage for the Border Belt Reporting Center,” said High, who serves as the Border Belt Independent’s interim editor.

Besides full- and part-time staff and freelancers, High hopes to work with university journalism classes, like those at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, to provide internships and work-study opportunities for aspiring journalists at the center.

The center will increase capacity across the region for the sort of impactful, groundbreaking investigative work that won The News Reporter the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953 for reporting on the Ku Klux Klan.

The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund provided the center a $10,000 grant that funded early operating capital and a feasibility study that was then used to secure a three-year, $495,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a philanthropic organization that promotes equitable health outcomes and thriving communities.

“The Trust invests to promote equitable health outcomes and thriving communities for all residents. Many of the issues impacting people’s health are shaped outside of medical clinics,” said Adam Linker, the Trust’s director of programs. “Robust news environments help highlight the community conditions that drive inequity and poor health outcomes. Good reporting helps give voice to the concerns of marginalized communities.”

High also wants the center’s reporting to highlight the positives of the area — such as ecotourism potential and a burgeoning organic farming industry — and ways to spread that economic impact across the entire community.

“The Border Belt Reporting Center will use all the Table Stakes principles as it develops its business model and target audiences,” said Charlie Baum, the UNC Table Stakes coach who worked with The News Reporter staff. “In particular, targeted content for targeted audiences will be key as they sort out the stories and audiences that gain the most traction. I’d imagine that deepening their ties with the communities served will be essential.”

High knows that deepening community ties in 2021 means good reporting promoted by digital engagement and enhanced by audience-generated content ideas.

High credits the UNC Table Stakes program, as well as CISLM’s now retired Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy, for teaching him such lessons.

High said Abernathy’s research, which charted the proliferation of U.S. news deserts and the media industry’s changing revenue models, was foundational.

“Penny recognized before most newspaper people that media business models were about to undergo drastic disruption,” High said. “She worked early on to help my staff and me understand what was coming and to start thinking outside the box. Her research has been a launching pad for nonprofit journalism.”

As news moves online and traditional advertising dollars dwindle, nonprofit revenue models have become appealing, High said. He pointed to North Carolina’s Carolina Public Press and North Carolina Health News as nonprofit news sites that inspire him.

High hopes the Border Belt model can be replicated in other rural areas.

Baum noted that nonprofit news funding takes many forms, and the future will contain a blend of nonprofit news and for-profit news enterprises supplemented by foundation and donor contributions.

The Knight Foundation echoed that sentiment in a piece that examined 2020’s nonprofit news trends — from for-profit news organizations’ deepening commitments to fundraising to the complete nonprofit conversion of formerly for-profit legacy organizations like the Salt Lake Tribune. And Poynter predicted that nonprofit local news will continue to rise through initiatives like the Knight News Match.

For High, while the business model has changed, the value of good local journalism stays constant. In-depth reporting that informs, educates and sparks solutions remains a critical component of a community’s basic civic health, he said.

High’s grandfather and father — whom High succeeded as The News Reporter’s managing editor in 1994 — knew that. The Border Belt Reporting Center will carry on their legacy of service to southeastern North Carolina — and collaboration.

That Pulitzer Prize the newspaper won? The News Reporter shared it with the neighboring Tabor City Tribune, now the Tabor-Loris Tribune, for reporting that prompted an FBI investigation that imprisoned several Klan members.

“We must have the same courage to cover the hard issues like my grandfather and father had,” High said. “The center will help us do it.”