North Carolina carves a deep slice through the American Southeast, encompassing an area that’s weather concerns are as varied as hurricanes along the Atlantic coast to deep winter snows in the Smoky Mountains.

But even if the combination of climate and geography doesn’t make it easy to maintain, there’s still an unmistakable cohesiveness to the Tar Heel state.

For example, leaders have collectively tried to maintain as many downtown corridors as possible through a series of programs that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Although success has perhaps come in small increments, some believe it’s helped galvanize the state and maintained a focus on policies as well as best practices.

That was the opening topic in what GateHouse newspapers from across the state are turning into a year-long series — finding common threads that keep North Carolinians unified, while lending solutions to problems that have already been tackled in other locations.

The series, labeled the North Carolina Heritage Project, is a smart exercise in pooling resources, and an example of using individual topics to create an intriguing deep dive into a diverse region.

The idea was hatched when a pair of editors from the Wilmington Star-News, Dan Spears and Pam Sander, met with Sarasota Herald-Tribune editor Bill Church.

Star-News“When (Church) came through our area to meet everyone after he was named Southeastern Regional Editor, he remarked how varied and interesting our state was, yet how we seemed connected despite our variations in size and geography,” Spears said of Church, who was selected as GateHouse’s 2015 Editor of the Year for just such creative thinking.

“From there we had a handful of conference calls and a Google Doc in which all the editors across the state were allowed to give their input right off the bat. What resulted is The North Carolina Heritage Project — a series of stories throughout 2016 by GateHouse newspapers here in North Carolina. We haven’t picked a number, but the goal is to take pieces of North Carolina history, and show how they’ve gotten us to who we are today and how they will affect who we will be in the future.”

Sander gave credit to Spears, Wilmington’s sports editor, for putting the pieces together, and effectively getting the project off the ground.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, Dan has given us a template to work off of for future projects — from conference calls, using Google docs for the ongoing discussion, being receptive of all ideas, setting deadlines well in advance for delivery of individual pieces,” said Sander, who was promoted to the post of executive editor in 2012.

“From a journalistic standpoint, it has already been fabulous: Our launch was about downtowns. Dan is driving to Asheboro to sit down with editor Annette Jordan and a reporter on her staff to talk about the next installment: Rural churches. Also on tap for the year are ideas around manufacturing, the evolution of the farmer, technology, the juxtaposition of sections of the state that are quite regressive and sections that are extremely progressive.”

Spears said at least a half-dozen topics have been firmed up for the year-long series, but the goal is to see even more topics bubble to the surface.

“For each subject, one of the papers is in charge of a statewide angle … how we’re doing this as a state. Then, each paper has the opportunity to do a localized story on the same subject. In combination to print stories, we want to have a good digital accompaniment (in some cases, I hope the digital component will really be the centerpiece and the stories will become the secondary parts) for each subject,” he said.

Knight map“We’re letting the paper that is in charge of the statewide story help guide that digital content and compile information. Between our local skill sets, the digital team in Sarasota and the Center for News Design in Austin, we’ve got resources to churn out some cool pieces.”

The opening chapter published on Jan. 17 and explained how the state has spent more on downtown redevelopment than many other infrastructure pieces. Individual sites used the main bar created by Cammie Bellamy, but then added a piece that highlighted initiatives in their region.

Wilmington’s digital producer, Chris McGaughey, put together the web portion of the project, which included this Knight Lab map that walks readers through various state projects.

Wilmington 8“As we found out, civic pride, a quest to preserve history and opportunity have collided to make that the thing to do. And new downtowns seem to be helping towns moving forward,” Spears said.

The next chapter is scheduled for a March 20 release, focusing on the evolution of rural churches. Spears expects the team at the Asheboro Courier-Tribune — which has long made enterprise packages a priority as part of their Sunday Focus series — to build on what Wilmington did for the first story package.

“I think there are so many potentially exciting things we can do visually and digitally for this piece,” Spears said. “After we talk, we’ll send out an email to everyone with deadlines and things we need to get the web component finished.”

Spears noted that the Shelby Star, Gaston Gazette and Lexington Dispatch were among the papers that used the opening chapter to create a dynamic Sunday package. He expects the series to keep the lines of communication flowing freely, as well as to provide some tremendous perspective for readers.

“Since we’ve all done one together, I’m looking forward to how we move forward and really take some big steps,” Spears said. “There are so many great stories to tell.”

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