Marisa Mecke will join Mountain Times Publications in June to cover environmental issues in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties.

HIGH COUNTRY — Mountain Times Publications will join 200-plus newsrooms in welcoming a Report for America reporter in June.

Marisa Mecke will join Mountain Times Publications in June to cover environmental issues in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties.

Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization.

“As we commit resources to more investigative and in-depth reporting on environmental concerns in the High Country, Marisa’s appointment through Report For America comes at an optimal time,” said Mountain Times Publications Executive Editor Tom Mayer. “Her experience and desire will allow Marisa to laser focus on the stories in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties that demand sunshine and thorough reporting.”

More than 300 journalists, which include a number of corps members returning for a second or third year, will join the staffs of more than 200 local news organizations across 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam through Report For America.

“The crisis in our democracy, disinformation and polarization, is in many ways a result of the collapse of local news,” said Steven Waldman, co-founder and president of Report for America. “We have a unique opportunity to reverse this decline by filling newsrooms with talented journalists who not only view journalism as a public service, but who can make trusted connections with the communities they serve.”

Mecke will graduate from Davidson College in May with a double major in political science and Latin American Studies. During her college years, Mecke has worked as a feature writer for The Davidsonian student newspaper and worked at the student radio. She also currently works at the local NPR affiliate radio station in Davidson.

For the next year, Mecke will cover environmental issues, which she is familiar with. For the past few years, Mecke has worked as an outdoor educator at a nature center in north Atlanta. As part of that job, she would educate people on the ecology of the Southeast region, especially waterways. She’s also worked as an outdoor trip leader at Davidson and is certified in wilderness medicine.

Mecke said environmental issues in Western North Carolina don’t just affect the tourism and agriculture in the region.

“There are people at the center of all of those stories about the environment,” Mecke said. “I’m hoping to do people-centered stories about how our communities in western North Carolina are interacting with the environment and how the environment is interacting with us as well.”

She wants her role as an environmental reporter for Mountain Times Publications to not just be her writing stories, but as an outlet to help the community explore their interactions with the environment.

“Keeping people informed on important issues like how much is constantly happening with environmental policy and environmental degradation will be a really special opportunity and kind of service I can do,” Mecke said.

Gene Fowler, publisher of Mountain Times Publications, said he welcomes the partnership that will bring Mecke to the High Country.

“It will open up new avenues for us to explore topics we don’t typically have the resources to delve into in a community weekly market,” Fowler said. “The newspapers and the community will benefit on the whole from this partnership.”

Mountain Times Publications covers the High Country with newspapers of record in Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties. Mecke will be reporting on environmental issues from each location.

Avery Journal-Times Editor Jamie Shell said it’s a privilege to be able to help Mecke gain experience delving into environmental and societal issues in the area.

“Report for America offers a unique opportunity for journalists to dive deeply into local, issue-oriented reporting that is often missing from a number of newsrooms today, particularly rural, community-centered newsrooms such as in Avery County and our region,” Shell said. “In addition to being able to work alongside talented reporters and photojournalists affiliated with RFA, I’m excited that we can provide an avenue for Marisa and other future journalists who are passionate about journalism and see it as a public service and a difference maker within communities.”

Within the Christmas tree industry of Avery County, Shell added he is looking forward to Mecke reporting about how farmers are utilizing responsible environmental practices when it comes to protection of water tables and use of insecticides and fertilizers, among other issues.

Watauga Democrat Editor Kayla Lasure said she is looking forward to Mecke covering issues in the county such as resistance to asphalt plants, local business sustainability practices and possible barriers to customers obtaining solar power in the area.

“So many of our High Country community members are passionate about living among beautiful mountains and waterways, and protecting our surroundings,” Lasure said. “Our area will truly benefit from a deeper dive into environmental issues facing our communities.”

In Ashe County, Mayer — who is also the editor of the Ashe Post and Times — said he is looking forward to Mecke covering water quality in the area due to previous mining and current farm chemical runoff, erosion and periodic droughts in the area.

“I know that the natural world is such an important part of everyday life in Western North Carolina, and I am excited to explore all of the stories about how we interact with the environment along with the local community,” Mecke said.

Report For America has partnered journalists with newsrooms since 2017, and this year is the first year Mountain Times Publications applied for and received a Report for America corps member.

“As a rural region, where readers still rely on the printed newspaper for news because the internet’s reach is often unreliable, we wanted to bring a top, emerging journalist to cover the environment, an under-covered issue not only in North Carolina but across the country,” said Sergio Bustos, the south regional manager for Report for America.

Bustos said Mecke was an ideal match for Mountain Times Publications because she grew up in the South and has a passion for reporting on the environment.

Corps members are funded through a funding match model. Report for America pays for half of the corps member’s salary, while encouraging and supporting its local news partners to contribute one-quarter and local and regional funders to contribute the final quarter.

“We know that the biggest global challenges of our time — like equitable health care, the impact of climate change and affordable housing — will require trusted, local public service journalism if we are to come together to solve them,” said Charles Sennott, Report for America co-founder and GroundTruth CEO.

Report for America had a nearly $10 million philanthropic impact on U.S. local news in 2020. The total amount donated to Report for America newsrooms grew from $861,000 in 2019 to $4.6 million — a 61 percent increase per reporter.

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