Member Spotlight: The Bristol Herald Courier

By | 2018-02-14T16:32:20+00:00 December 14th, 2017|
This week we talked with The Bristol Herald Courier politics and local government reporter, David McGee. Below, McGee discusses covering the opioid crisis in southwest Virginia, establishing a podcast and the challenges of being a reporter at a newspaper that straddles two states.

Tell me about your job at the HC. How long have you been with the paper and what are some recent projects you’ve been apart of? What’s your beat?

I am a reporter at the BHC. I managed a weekly newspaper for 13 years before coming here in 2001.My beat is primarily local government and education in Bristol Virginia. I also cover some legislative issues.This year a lot of my time has been focused on covering the impending merger of our two local health care systems – Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System. It has been a three-year regulatory nightmare needing approvals from both Virginia and Tennessee. My other project – since February 2016 – has been the local utility’s planned sale of its telecommunications division to a private firm. Another regulatory nightmare that has required many, many local, state and federal approvals. This year’s staff project was examining the regional impact of neonatal abstinence syndrome, since our area has been dubbed an epicenter of IV drug abuse – primarily painkillers and meth – for the two states we serve.

Can you tell me a little about your all’s coverage of the opioid epidemic and talk about the “Addicted at Birth” series?

The paper has run a series of stories over the past couple of years related to different aspects of the opioid crisis that was blowing up around us. When we were challenged by Managing Editor Rob Walters to select an intensive staff project, all the reporters wanted to tackle the opioid issue. Realizing the overall problem would be too large for our limited staff, we honed in on the heartbreaking issue of babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome – who were collateral damage.

We began by conferring with some experts both individually and as a staff. We met with the district attorney general from Sullivan County, Tenn., whose office was overrun with opioid abuse cases and who was an advocate and a neonatologist from Holston Valley Medical Center. I also spoke with folks from East Tennessee State University who established a center to study opioid issues and who had a working group devoted specifically to babies with NAS.

From there we developed a preliminary list of story ideas, scheduled and conducted interviews and began the writing process. At what I would call the midway point we realized that much of our coverage focused on the problem in Tennessee. At that point, reporter Lurah Spell and I began developing sources and story ideas that would bring Southwest Virginia into the loop. What we discovered was that Tennessee officials were further ahead in terms of recognizing and trying to address the problem while Virginia was in an earlier stage. One local lawmaker, Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, had four pieces of legislation pass last year that addressed different aspects of the opioid issue and he also became an excellent source.

The final product dominated the paper for a full week. It launched on a Sunday with an entire package of stories and a two-page graphics package produced by our designers that contained significant statistical information. We typically ran three or four stories each day through the following Saturday – with a balance of voices from mothers to health care workers, law enforcement, social services and support groups. We wrapped up the series on Sunday with a reader reaction piece.

All of the stories, photos, videos and related pieces that ran on the website were assembled as one large collection that anyone could and can access, as we dropped our pay wall as a public service.

The series remains an open book. We have run a couple of follow-up stories since it ran and there are plans to run others, utilizing the logo and connecting the dots. One of those ongoing topics is a lawsuit filed by Tennessee attorneys general against major drug makers that produce many of painkillers that are the drugs of choice in our region.

Tell me about how the idea for the HC’s podcast, “On The Record,” came about and what your role was in its conception? Since launching what has the response been like from your readers/listeners?

Rob Walters, our managing editor, wanted a podcast component for the online aspect of the NAS series. It began with a single interview I did with Dr. Nick Hagemeier of ETSU who talked about the opioid problem and some of the steps ETSU was taking to address it. It was about 20 minutes long. To augment that, all the reporters pulled pieces of audio from other interviews from all sides of the NAS issue and we uploaded those as well.The response was pretty good which inspired us to make it a weekly feature. A development team of our web content coordinator Paul Rice, chief photographer David Crigger, multi-media reporter Zach Irby and I met two or three times to agree on some parameters and we did some research on other, similar efforts. After some staff training, we launched in November and the response has been pretty steady.

Each episode includes three segments, a news segment where one reporter provides one or two interviews, a sports segment from one of our sports guys and Paul Rice reads a brief entertainment calendar of events prepared by our features department. I serve as host and do the intro and outro voiceovers.

What are some of the unique challenges that come with being a reporter at a newspaper that straddles two states?

We have  two of everything – two City Councils, police and fire, different laws, court systems, school systems, codes, terminology and ways of doing things. Sometimes the governments cooperate and it’s kind of impressive to see. Other times it gets chippy. There was a tremendous competition between retail developments and the two cities just off Interstate 81 and Tennessee – the larger of the two cities – won that battle by a wide margin. Those of us who’ve been here awhile are used to it but we train a lot of young reporters and its always a learning curve. It also makes for more work because if we write something that impacts one region we often try to include the other.

What’s are some things you’re covering right now that you feel are going to have a lasting impact in the region?

The impending merger of our two health care systems, which is now expected to be formalized, in January, impacts virtually every hospital in our coverage area. The systems have pledged to use money saved from duplications to invest in a number of community health initiatives. If that all comes to pass, it could make a real change for an area that has abnormally high rates of cancer, diabetes, drug abuse, poor health outcomes, smoking and the like. It should prove interesting to watch unfold. The other would be the acquisition of the OptiNet telecommunications network by a private firm. The service is currently operated by a public entity but is hamstrung on where it deliver broadband, cable TV and phone service. There are large pockets of underserved areas in our coverage area that broadband could aid real economic development. It will be a long process but the private firm appears to be capitalized and prepared to extend those services into some areas hard hit by the fall of the coal mining industry.