There are news stories that make headlines only after they survive never being told at all.
Sometimes news outlets consciously avoid doing stories. But other times it’s a matter of being strapped for reporters and resources. Those gaps in coverage can be harder to fill in rural areas.
“I first want to apologize if Ms. Chardoudi was made to feel as if her mother’s story was old news. That was not our intention,” read the email in response to Bonnie Wathey’s story tip in August of last year.
Bonnie Wathey had sent the tip to a local paper on behalf of her friend, Mandy Chardoudi, whose first inquiry to the paper had gotten no traction. Out of despair and exhaustion, Chardoudi had given up trying to get the tip the attention it deserved.
The news Chardoudi wanted the paper to cover was extremely personal. Chardoudi’s mother was murdered November 17, 2018, by her ex-boyfriend. Chardoudi was shocked to learn nearly four years later in a Robeson County courtroom that her mother’s murderer had not made his own way to her mom’s house. He had been delivered to her doorstep by an on-duty Lumberton police officer.
Despite Wathey and Chardoudi’s efforts, the local paper never picked up the story.
Instead, Wathey heard from an independent newsroom that covers four southeastern counties of North Carolina. The publication, called the Border Belt Independent, is a non-profit news organization that publishes a weekly digital paper with in-depth stories. Sarah Nagem, editor of the publication, reported the story. The article went viral, circulating to news outlets statewide.
Publishing an in-depth story about the performance of local law enforcement shows why newsrooms like the Border Belt Independent are important.
If the Border Belt Independent hadn’t reported the story, it might have remained another small-town tragedy, said Wathey. This was the second incident of Lumberton police delivering the same perpetrator to the doorstep of his victim. Fortunately, the first victim survived.
Wathey has worked in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County courthouse for over a decade and says she was shocked that a mistake of this kind went unchecked, let alone unreported.
Nagem with the Border Belt Independent said that lack of local journalism capacity can be a big problem.
“I think that, like other rural communities across America, we have elected leaders and county managers and town managers who have gotten away for a really long time with not talking to the media and not being very transparent,” she said. “I think an organization like Border Belt [Independent], that’s one of the areas where we can help the most.”
Two North Carolinas
The Border Belt Independent covers a stretch of four rural counties in southeast North Carolina. The counties —Bladen, Scotland, Robeson, and Columbus – were once centers of the tobacco industry and textile manufacturing. Today, the Border Belt Independent is helping cover the ways residents are redefining the area in positive ways — like reviving the counties’ agricultural roots.
“When businesses want to move into an area, they look at crime rates, they look at school districts. I think when you look at the total puzzle of a place like Robeson County in particular, there are real challenges,” said Nagem.
Les High, the Border Belt Independent’s founder and publisher, seconds the sentiment, saying these counties are a different world from the state’s metro hubs.
“There’s Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and some other metro areas, Asheville, that are very prosperous. I would say they’re as prosperous as anywhere in the country.”
It’s a different story in the Border Belt. The median household income in the region is about a third lower than the state median, according to the 2020 Census.
A 2021 North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation report showed that three of the Border Belt counties (Bladen, Scotland, and Robeson) had a higher index crime rate than Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford, the three largest counties in the state. Robeson alone, a nonmetropolitan county with a population of 116,530, has a 38% higher crime index rate than Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte and has a population of over 1 million.
”This is probably not unique to North Carolina, but there are two North Carolinas,” High said.
These economic conditions also influence the counties’ gap in news coverage.
An Ally in the Newscape
The Laurinburg Exchange, The Robesonian, the Bladen Journal, and the News Reporter of Columbus County are the four primary papers in the area. Three of them are commercially owned. There’s a half and half split between dailies and weekly operations. Together they have a staff of six reporters and six editors.
“For newspapers, it’s a big challenge,” High said. “And so it’s very difficult for them to dedicate three or four days or several days even beyond that, to doing an in-depth story about issues. So we really don’t cover day-to-day stories. That’s their job and that’s what they do well. But that’s really about all they had the resources to do.”
High considers the Border Belt Independent to be a dual service, providing information directly to the community and giving unique local content to the region’s newspapers.
Nationally, newspaper operations have been on a steady decline since 2005, and massive industry layoffs have resulted. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism 2022 report said 360 outlets closed in the first two years of the pandemic.
While commercial news operations suffered, nonprofit news organizations grew in 2021. The Border Belt Independent was one of many that opened that year, not as competition to commercial media but as a partner.
“In the old days, journalists on different publications competed with one another. We have lost so many journalists over the last 15 years, almost 60% of journalists,” said Penolope Abernathy, journalist and visiting professor at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. “A wise editor, whether you’re working on a startup digital site or on a traditional newspaper, understands that the only way you’re going to be able to cover what needs to be covered is to collaborate.”
The Border Belt Independent allows local papers to republish its stories for free. It’s able to do that because it has found other funding that supports its mission of serving rural communities.
Growing a Newsroom
A 2021 report from the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) shows that the majority of revenue for nonprofit newsrooms comes from individual donors or foundations. This funding model removes dependance on ad revenue to keep the lights on, but it has complications for smaller news operations. Larger and older publications get most of the major gifts from individuals, according to the INN report. And rural communities are less likely to have philanthropies to support local journalism.
The Border Belt Initiative has addressed this gap through funding from one of North Carolina’s largest philanthropies, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which awarded the news organization a three-year grant of nearly $500,000. The foundation funding “makes the Border Belt very unusual,” Abernathy said.
“We had conversations with their staff…we ask each other, the KBR staff member, myself, how could we solve these problems, particularly in rural areas that people don’t know about them or they don’t care about them?” said High.
High said the grant has supported two reporters for their small team who cover everything from environment, social justice, education to the economy, profiles, and community events. If the Reynolds Charitable Trust decides to provide more funding, they’re set to add a third reporter.
But High doesn’t see the Border Belt Independent as just another news project in a funding cycle. Rather the publication is an active part of showing ways the Border Belt can overcome its limitations and change for the better.
Trust and Building on a Legacy
“A huge challenge is getting our young people to come back and make a living here, but they can’t,” High said. “There’s nothing here to come back to, by and large. So that’s something that we take very seriously, …we’ve got to find a way to get these four counties to find solutions, to make them more prosperous, but it’s just not throwing money at new industry or that type of thing.”
High’s acumen as a publisher has been well-tested. He sold his family-owned paper, the News Reporter, the same year the Border Belt Independent was established. In many ways the Border Belt Independent is the continued legacy of the watchdog journalism established by his grandfather, Leslie High.
The News Reporter, based in Columbus county, had been a family-owned operation since 1938. It was one of the smallest newsrooms in history to receive the Pulitzer Public Service Gold Medal. The paper won the award in 1953 for its two-year crusade to expose the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Its editorials and news stories documented the violence of the white terrorist organization and identified people who worked for law enforcement by day and the Klan by night.
One of the Border Belt Independent’s committed readers is Beachum McDougald, a lifelong Scotland resident and meticulous follower of Border Belt news. He used to read newspapers from all four counties cover to cover.
“When Les High started that [Border Belt Initiative] up, I latched onto it right away even though it’s online,” said McDouglad. “He highlights the good things, he highlights the difficulties, but politically he stays neutral…knowing Les, and knowing the reporters that he has, it’s just a wonderful publication
His only complaint?
“I just wish it came out more often.”
Editor’s Note: The Daily Yonder is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which is cited in this article. The organization’s most recent report on the state of nonprofit news was released in May 2023.