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Great reporting, at the local level

By Margaret Sullivan

The Washington Post

In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

You could see that commitment in every word of reporter Eric Eyre’s two-part investigation:

“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths,” it begins. It details what happens in places like Kermit, W.Va., where the population is only 392.

“There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town. Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.”

Eyre, an 18-year veteran of the paper and its statehouse reporter, needed the help of lawyers — working pro bono — to unseal a lawsuit and to pry loose records from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Buttressed by plenty of hard data, and brought to life by shoe-leather reporting, Eyre’s series hit hard and prompted reform.

“I didn’t know a darn thing about this subject a few years ago,” Eyre told me, “but over time you can specialize and become an expert.”

Kelly McBride, vice president of Poynter Institute, has watched Eyre’s work for years: “I so admire his dedication to the people of Appalachia, which he has approached not only as an excellent reporter but as a member of the community.”

But that kind of knowledge and depth is precisely what’s in trouble as newspaper staffs decline across the country, with many companies struggling to stay solvent after the precipitous — and accelerating — decline in print advertising revenue.

“Regional and local newspapers have been decimated,” Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy wrote last week.

Digital reporting outlets and local TV stations do good work but, as Kennedy noted, research has shown that “some 85 percent of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers.”

And the need for scrutiny only grows.

“Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists,” said a Center for Public Integrity study.

One of the best ways to hold government accountable is by having a skilled beat reporter, like Eyre, in the statehouse. He told me that his opioids series grew out of his long-term knowledge about the state attorney general’s connections to the pharmaceutical industry.

But nationwide, the number of statehouse reporters was down even more sharply than overall reporting staffs, a Pew study reported in 2014.

Even weakened, regional newspaper journalism is still making a powerful difference today.

For example, local news outlets “sounded the alarm” leading to the withdrawal of the Republican health-care proposal meant to replace Obamacare, a recent Columbia Journalism Review article reported. “Editorials and news coverage in numerous American communities responded with a clear message that such measures simply didn’t pass muster for their communities,” wrote Trudy Lieberman. And voters let their elected officials know their displeasure in phone calls, emails and town-hall meetings.

Last week’s Pulitzer Prize announcement recognized local journalism beyond West Virginia — from reporting on police abuses in New York City, uncovered by the New York Daily News and ProPublica, to editorials about pollution in rural Iowa from the tiny Storm Lake Times. Last year, the investigative prize went to a collaboration between the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for revealing the appalling treatment of patients at Florida’s mental hospitals.

“An industry that is dying is still alive,” wrote Roy Peter Clark on Poynter.org, in a piece before the Pulitzer awards. “While alive, it may continue to perform vital services to a community — services such as news and information, keeping an eye on city hall, on sewage in the bay, on the failures of local schools.”

But extend the employment trend lines another 15 years, and face the inevitable: This journalism is disappearing.

There’s no easy fix. It’s a much knottier problem than finding digital-age solutions on the national level because the work needs to be done in so many different communities around the country. As McBride puts it: “It’s hard to make it scale.” Philanthropists, foundations and journalism organizations are working toward solutions.

These efforts, and others, need to ramp up, with an even greater sense of urgency.

“Sustained outrage” is vitally important. So is keeping it alive.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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