This week we talked with Roanoke Times higher education reporter and co-creator of the podcast, “Septic,” Robby Korth.
Robby talks about how “Septic” (which was in Apple’s top 10 news podcasts in the U.S. and in the top 50 podcasts overall) came together, how podcasts can appeal to audiences that don’t traditionally engage with newspapers, finding time and a balance to work a regular beat and create a serialized audio series and a lot more.
To start can you please introduce yourself and tell us about where you work and what you do there?
I’m a higher education reporter for The Roanoke Times. I work in our New River Valley Bureau in Christiansburg where I also live. Most of the time I write stories about Virginia Tech. Though, in my almost four years at the newspaper I’ve done general assignment and breaking news reporting as well. Recently, I co-produced the serialized podcast Septic with business and technology reporter Jacob Demmitt.
I’ll get to the subject matter of Septic in the next question. What made you want to dive into creating a serialized true-crime podcast initially?
Jacob and I knew we wanted to do something different. A podcast seemed like an interesting way to tell stories that we hadn’t done much of in the past (though The Roanoke Times has had a Virginia Tech Hokies podcast in the past). We toyed around with a few different formats for podcasts. We tried interviews and talking about local news. Those podcasts weren’t good. So we went back to the drawing board and talked about podcasts that we liked and listened to. Podcasts like Serial, In the Dark and Accused came up. We then talked about stories that would be interesting not just for our audience but a wider group of people. The Noah Thomas story came to mind because of how it made headlines. Jacob covered that trial of Noah’s mother Ashley White and he said that trial changed the way he viewed the case and thought it might be interesting for others to listen to too. So our initial plan was to just play the court audio without hearing much of our voices. We requested the audio recordings of the trial from Judge Bradley Finch. He gave them to us almost immediately. We started combing through the 50+ hours of audio and realized our strategy of just playing it wouldn’t be very interesting so we decided we needed to write a script and tell the story ourselves if we wanted to provide proper context.
Listen to the first episode of “Septic.”
Very interesting. For those that don’t know about the Thomas story, can you give us a summary of what the case involved?
Absolutely. On March 22, 2015, 5-year-old Noah Thomas went missing from his home in Pulaski County. Police and the community mobilized for four days in an effort to find him. On March 26, the FBI and Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office started the search over and discovered him deceased in his family’s septic tank. His mother Ashley White was charged with several child abuse felonies, including child abuse leading to Noah’s death. His father was charged with felony child abuse as well. Meanwhile, on Facebook and in the public sphere people’s imaginations ran wild. Blame was put on the parents. Folks in Pulaski County and beyond began calling for the death penalty and they said they believed she murdered her son. Prejudicial opinions were so prevalent that it was impossible for the court to seat a jury when Ashley White eventually went to trial on the child abuse charges.
It’s such a crazy story. The mother was convicted on a felony murder charge, right? As a print reporter, what was it like trying to make a cohesive narrative in audio form for such a complicated and layered story with endless amounts of twists and characters?
She was actually convicted of child abuse contributing to death (as well as two other child abuse felonies). She was at one point charged with felony murder, however, that charge was thrown out by a judge before the trial started.
As for the narrative, we looked at building it similarly to how we’d tell a big series of stories in print. We outlined what each episode should tell like we were building a print series. With Septic, we identified themes we wanted to get out there then we looked at where those themes would fit while trying to tell the story more or less chronologically. Once we nailed down what we wanted each episode to say we just started identifying different audio pieces that would fit with each theme and we’d build our writing around the natural audio we had. It was a timely process that went through many iterations. Early drafts of the show have very little in common with the final product.
Were you two happy with the end result? Did doing this podcast make you want to seek out the next one, or was it a one-off type thing?
We were thrilled with the end result. It was in the top 10 in the Apple news podcast charts and the top 50 podcasts overall. But those successes aside, I’m most happy with how it’s been received. Locally, we’ve gotten great feedback. Listeners have told us it changed the way they thought about the case. On top of that, I think it exposed us to young people who aren’t subscribers to the newspaper. It served as a reminder that The Roanoke Times does great journalism consistently because it drove them to our site and put our name in their minds. We’re interested in doing another podcast in this same style and we’ve started laying the groundwork for that. Septic took a year, but we can definitely work faster with all that we’ve learned. That being said, we’re still writing stories on our beats and working the occasional weekend shift. Carving out time can be a challenge.
What’s your take on the Noah Thomas case? I know you’re a reporter but as someone with a large breadth of knowledge about the case and all its inner working, were you left with any loose ends or unanswered questions that still drive you crazy?
Episode 6 probably stands as the best example of what we think happened. Something that was unlikely occurred on March 22, 2015. To me, Noah Thomas was wondering outside while his mother slept and fell into his family’s septic tank. There are details we don’t know and will probably never know. I honestly don’t know whose fault it is. It seems to me like you could heap blame on several different people but that’s not something I’m interested in doing. What I do know is this is a grave tragedy that deeply affected our community. I’m proud of the way we explored it and I hope it causes people to pause and think critically before judging someone in a difficult situation.
“Newspapers need to find ways to get more good journalism and storytelling out into the world if we want to be successful. Podcasts are certainly one good way to do that, just like writing great stories and getting big scoops that capture people’s interest. We need to find multiple ways to be nimble if we want to redefine the type of stories we’re telling people. The thing that needs to remain consistent is delivering good journalism.”
Do you think that podcasts have the potential to redefine how some people (younger people especially) view newspapers?
Podcasts are one innovative way to tell a story. I think the redefinition has more to do with good journalism and storytelling. Newspapers need to find ways to get more good journalism and storytelling out into the world if we want to be successful. Podcasts are certainly one good way to do that, just like writing great stories and getting big scoops that capture people’s interest. We need to find multiple ways to be nimble if we want to redefine the type of stories we’re telling people. The thing that needs to remain consistent is delivering good journal.
What was it like to bounce between your higher education beat and the podcast? They seem like two different worlds, both in the medium and in the subject matter. Did you master the balance between writing about a horrific crime and universities in the area?
It was interesting. One day I was in a faculty senate meeting, the next I was digging through courtroom files in Pulaski County. Very different challenges and different types of storytelling because of the medium and the subject matter. I don’t think I ever mastered anything, but by the end I was much better at balancing my schedule and using every free moment to work on the podcast. Jacob and I would try to schedule things similarly so we could work together on certain days and then spend other days doing our regular beats.
Aside from Septic, what has been one of your most memorable stories for the Times that came from you higher education beat?
Probably our coverage of the 10-year anniversary of the April 16, 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. It was very challenging work, but we all came together to do a thorough report that was reflective and tasteful in my opinion. So much of the media coverage of the tragedy was exploitative and we tried to move away from that, which I believe we effectively did. We actually put some short audio clips on the microsite to supplement those stories that were just an attempt at getting our feet wet in the audio storytelling world.
As a relatively young person in the industry, do you ever encounter the question (from the occasional observer), that asks, “why you would want to work in newspapers? Aren’t they on the way out?” If so, what’s your response?
Yes. That’s something I’ve been asked and I’ve asked myself even. I highly value good, quality journalism and I relish the opportunity to make it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to spend my entire career at newspapers, but I do know I’ll want to keep making good journalism. Right now, the local paper is one of the last best places to do that. Look at what I got to do with Septic. I had great support from editors Todd Jackson, Lee Wolverton and Lawrence McConnell and a collaborative partner with great ideas in Jacob Demmitt. I don’t think there’s any other institution that would foster that type of storytelling that’s local, unbiased and informative.
So in a lot of ways what you’re saying is that you see newspapers as irreplaceable in the role they serve and have served historically?
I don’t see what could replace them. No journalistic entity that’s in existence now could possible replace them, that’s for sure. Newspapers, though, have to get more nimble to remain viable.
Was there anything else you wanted to add?
I will add that Jacob Demmitt and I really made this project together and he deserves as much credit if not more than me. Without him, Septic wouldn’t exist. I am also very grateful to Lawrence McConnell, Lee Wolverton and Todd Jackson our editors on the project. They were incredibly supportive and helped us realize our vision.