Sarah Nagem is editor of the Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit news organization that covers four counties in southeastern North Carolina. She previously worked at The Salisbury Post and The News & Observer. In this interview, conducted by email, Nagem discusses her role at the BBI and her transition to a small, nonprofit newsroom.
Q. What is the Border Belt Independent? What is its place in the media landscape in southeastern North Carolina?
A. The Border Belt Independent is an online-only publication covering issues that affect Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties. These rural counties (except Bladen) border South Carolina, and together they are home to more than 230,000 people who farm the land, work in manufacturing plants and sometimes struggle to get by in the economically distressed region.
Les High, who recently sold The News Reporter in Whiteville to the newspaper’s editor, launched the Border Belt Independent this year as a solutions-focused journalism initiative. Our goal is to not just highlight problems and inequities in the region, but to talk to experts about what can be done about those problems moving forward.
BBI is grant-funded, so we don’t need to stress about advertising revenue and page clicks. Our website, borderbelt.org., does not have a paywall.
Thankfully, each of the four counties we cover still has a newspaper, and we don’t compete with them. Instead, we act as partners with them. We recognize that with small staffs, they don’t always have time to dig deeper into stories. But we do, and we encourage them to publish our work in print and on their websites.
Q. Describe your role at the BBI. What is your typical workday or workweek look like?
A. I’m the editor, and my role is to identify important stories, report and write stories, handle the organization’s social media and manage freelancers.
After spending more than a decade at The News & Observer and McClatchy, where I kept fairly regular hours, I have embraced a more flexible schedule with BBI. One of the biggest lessons I learned during the coronavirus pandemic is that behind-the-scenes journalism doesn’t always have to look like it used to. I’m all about brainstorming sessions and creative meetings, but I embrace the idea that people should be allowed to work when they’re at their best.
That being said, you might find me writing a story at 11 p.m. on a Sunday.
Q. You moved from a regional newspaper owned by a national chain to a small, nonprofit operation. What has that transition been like?
A. To be honest, it was a terrifying leap. I believe strongly in McClatchy’s mission, and I felt an emotional connection to the company and my colleagues after so many years. I like to joke that I was destined to work for the company, since I spent part of my childhood going to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games when a member of the McClatchy family owned the team.
But when I learned about BBI, I immediately wanted to be part of it. I grew up in West Virginia, and I knew I could relate to many of the challenges people face in southeastern North Carolina, including generational poverty, limited access to health care and a lack of public transportation.
The transition to a startup has been easier than I expected. I don’t miss all the Zoom calls that come with working at a large organization. I do, however, miss having a large group of people to chat with throughout the day, even if the communication was via Slack.
The challenge now is figuring out how to continually build an audience for BBI, and how to get stories in front of the people who need to see them. We’re building everything from scratch.
Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the BBI?
A. As an editor, I like to first dive into a story as if I’m a regular reader. That way, at the end of the story I can ask myself if I learned anything that affects my life or my family members’ lives, or if I gained something enlightening or entertaining. If the answer is no, the story might need to be reframed.
We don’t have a big team of freelancers yet, but we’re hoping to work with more of them. A huge plus for me in this job is that I get to both write and edit, which I’m equally passionate about.
As for writing headlines, that’s generally my call. In my previous job, we put a huge focus on headline writing. Sometimes we would spend 15 minutes as a team workshopping one headline. So I got a lot of practice, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of being a journalist. A good headline should be engaging and often should have a curiosity gap, but not so much that it sounds ridiculous. It’s a delicate balance.
Q. What advice do you have for students and others interested in careers in local journalism?
A. It’s great to dream about working for The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. They do amazing work on a national scale to hold powerful people accountable.
But there are powerful people in small communities all across America who also need to be held accountable. Without local journalism, how many misdeeds and how much corruption could slip through the cracks? As newspapers continue to shrink or disappear, local journalism has never been as important as it is right now.