The lead stories in the Adair County (Kentucky) Community Voice newspaper’s website so far this week include a notice that locals don’t have to boil their water before drinking it after a water main break. The paper is reporting about why chestnut trees around Adair County are dying. You can see the school lunch menus for the week. It’s a bit of a breather from the last few weeks’ headlines.
The Aug. 8 edition explored the county’s needle exchange program.
A week before, three stories about Adair County’s opioid epidemic and an all-caps headline “The Cost of Addiction” covered the front page.
The paper, which has five full-time employees and a publisher who writes nearly all of the news, explained how social workers failed to prevent a 5-week-old baby boy’s death. The infant and his mother both tested positive for methamphetamine.
There was a second story about how drug cases are overrunning local courts and jails. The front page included a photo from inside the county jail where 13 women share a cell that is supposed to hold four people. The county government is spending a half million dollars a year to cover the constantly growing jail costs.
The third heartbreaking front page story told about an Adair County mother whose 23-year-old daughter died of a fentanyl overdose after she could not get a refill for her opioid prescription.
The publisher, Sharon Burton, made it clear more coverage would follow.
“The cost of addiction runs high. It has affected every family and every aspect of our community,” she wrote, before inviting “anyone with a story to tell” to call her.
She put her phone number right there on the front page.
To be sure the stories got out, Burton mailed free copies of the paper to every household in the county. That’s 8,000 copies to blanket the county of 19,000, where 23% of the people live below the poverty level.
Kentucky is awash in opioid pills, heroin and meth. A Washington Post database recently identified four Kentucky pharmacies that were in the top 10 drug stores to dispense opioids in the nation. One drug store in rural Kentucky sold 6.7 million pills, enough to supply every person in the county with nearly 100 pills a year from 2006 to 2012. Kentucky had 11 of the top 50 opioid dispensing drug stores in the nation. The pills are expensive, so now, people who have become addicted turn to heroin or meth.
Not long after she graduated from Western Kentucky University, Sharon Burton felt so detached from what she imagined journalism should be that she quit her job at a local weekly and started working at Walmart. But her divorce from journalism didn’t last. Thirty years ago she started up a statewide newspaper covering Kentucky farmers. In 2002, she did what she always wanted to do. She launched a weekly newspaper in the county where she grew up.
“She is hard-nosed and soft-hearted,” Al Cross, the Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues told Poynter. Cross is a professor, a lifelong Kentucky journalist and an advocate for rural journalism. Poynter heard about The Adair Community Voice’s reporting on opioids from Cross’s widely regarded Rural Blog. Cross said that in his more than 40 years of Kentucky journalism experience, he has never seen anything like the work that Burton is doing for her community.
“Weeklies don’t like to cover this topic — it reflects poorly on the community,” Cross explained. “When they cover stuff like this it is only from a criminal justice point of view. It is a health story. It’s a community well-being story. It is the kind of thing communities ought to work together to solve.”
Cross said that when news organizations only cover addictions when a case comes to court, it stigmatizes the issue.
“Community newspapers need to step up … to bring awareness to the problems, not sweep them under the rug,” he said.
“This is the elephant in the room. It is here and it is something we have to, we will discuss,” she said. “For people who are thinking, ‘Hey, you are writing a bunch of negative stuff about our town,’ I say it is because we love our town.”
Burton said the notion that small-town advertisers won’t buy ads in a newspaper that covers controversy isn’t true. “We do real news because people want real news,” she said.
She said a local doctor wrote a guest column last week giving a physician’s point of view.
“I think she felt I was being too critical of the medical community’s involvement in the opioid story. I am critical of the medical community and I am also glad to include that doctor’s point of view,” Burton said. But, “We have gotten more positive reaction to this than anything we have done in a long time, maybe since I suggested in an editorial that we needed less government and should consolidate city and county governments. That drew some reaction alright.”
Burton writes about 80 percent of the news content for the paper each week. In December, she explored her county’s needle exchange program, which has drawn “a fair amount of criticism,” she said. It’s the stunning details of what the exchange program has learned that helped her and her readers understand the depth of the crisis.
“Of 1,135 clients in the district who self-reported, a total of 420 needle exchange participants (37%) reported injecting drugs at least nine times a daily. Another 339 reported using six to eight times daily and 270 reported using at least three to five times daily. A total of 317 clients reported testing positive for hepatitis C,” which is prevalent among IV drug users.
Last week, Burton asked the needle exchange program to allow her to walk in and ask for needles and to participate in the conversations that a person with an addiction would undergo.
“I wanted to know what it would feel like just to ask for needles so I would know what it feels like to say you want a product to use because you are addicted and need to stick needles in your arm.”
“People ask, and I understand the question: ‘Why should we give free needles to people who abuse drugs when diabetics have to pay for their own?”
She was surprised to find the program gets 117% of the needles it dispenses back, meaning the program is helping to collect needles that might be tossed out in trash, left on a roadside or playground.
In 2002, when she started her paper, she said she needed to change the direction of her life.
“I am a Christian and I said ‘I am leaving it up to the Lord to tell me what to do.’”
In the top left corner of the editorial page above her name as publisher is the sentence “Truth will prevail.” Then comes Luke 12:2: “For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed; neither hid that shall not be known.”
On the right column of the editorial page are the names, phone numbers and emails of every local, state and federal official who represent Adair County. Below that, you’ll see the First Amendment. It’s right there under the politicians’ names every week.
“I love these farm people. I love my hometown,” Burton said. “I grew up on Woodward and Bernstein’s thinking that we should hold government accountable; we should cheerlead the good and point out the bad. ”
As we ended our call she apologized for “getting on my soapbox.”
“I’m just so passionate about these things,” she said. “I just want to do journalism the way it should be done.”