Thirty years ago, I worked with Eric Eyre at the Escondido Times-Advocate, in Southern California, a small daily newspaper that is no more. We were both in our twenties, but were no matched pair. Eyre swore off leather and meat. I wore cowboy boots and ate at the Hamburger Tree. A vegan and a faux cowboy, we became fast friends.

Many young reporters, then and now, aspired to the New York Times. Eyre told me that his dream paper was the Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana. He figured that he could make a bigger difference at a smaller paper. He had a thing for the underdog, which is something every reporter says and most mean, but few have meant it more than Eyre.

He didn’t land in Gary. Instead, he got a job in West Virginia, where, since 1998, he has worked for the Charleston Gazette, now the Gazette-Mail. It is the state’s biggest newspaper, but that doesn’t mean it’s big. Circulation peaked, in the nineteen-fifties, at eighty-six thousand. It’s not half that now. What is big is its reputation for fight. The paper’s unofficial motto is “Sustained Outrage,” and, in West Virginia, there is plenty to be outraged about. Underdogs are everywhere.

At the Gazette-Mail, Eyre’s career has been the stuff of quiet legend. Feature films get made about the work of reporters at the Washington Post (“All the President’s Men”), the New York Times (“The Killing Fields”), and the Boston Globe (“Spotlight”). About the work of Eyre and his paper, there is a twenty-four-minute documentary, which I suspect you have not seen.

For years, I have nursed a hope: that, someday, Eyre would write a book on what it is to do big work in a small newsroom, and what it is we’ll lose if those newsrooms are no more. Now that day has come. This week, Scribner is publishing “Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.” The book is a story of pills sold and lives lost. Years ago, painkillers began flooding West Virginia. In six years, from 2007 to 2012, seventeen hundred and twenty-eight people died from an overdose of oxycodone or hydrocodone alone.

As reporters will, Eyre began to poke around. He wanted to know about the pills, how many there were, where they were coming from. This set up a showdown. On one side, you’ve got three pharmaceutical giants, each making billions of dollars distributing painkillers. On the Fortune 500 list, one comes in at No. 6. Another is No. 12. The third is No. 14. The companies can dispatch lobbyists and lawyers in waves. They’re backed up by the Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal agency that shows little energy for policing these powerful distributors but lots of energy for resisting the release of public records. Reporters say that D.E.A. stands for Don’t Even Ask.

On the other side stands Eyre, in his khakis, working for a family-owned paper on the brink of bankruptcy. He works in a capitol press room with broken chairs, missing ceiling tiles, and two rat traps. His laptop is a six-year-old Acer. His desktop is so old that a large file could make it crash. A law professor represents Eyre and his paper for free, which is good, because that’s about all the paper can afford.

Some reporters (I know, because I’m one of them) get to spend months on a single investigation. Twice I’ve spent years. Eyre did his investigating while writing two hundred and fifty stories a year. He worked while in constant danger of losing his job, because of cuts occasioned by a merger (the Gazette and Daily Mail becoming the Gazette-Mail) or bankruptcy (the Gazette-Mail finally went over that brink) and sale. He worked while losing his health. In 2016, Eyre was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder with no cure. As a tremor stemming from the disease worsened, he found it harder to type.

But he continued to do what reporters do. He went through banker’s boxes of faxes and counted, by hand, two thousand four hundred and twenty-eight suspicious order reports from one distributor and almost double that from another. He received a critical document in a manila envelope hand-delivered to his home mailbox, the source unknown. He dropped numbers into a spreadsheet and set to sorting and ranking, because even a six-year-old Acer could handle Excel.

He demanded the unsealing of records, wrote “the story of a lifetime,” won a Pulitzer, and, most important of all, cracked open a public-health crisis that rocked not only West Virginia but the country as a whole. He revealed the numbers that the pharmaceutical industry fought so hard to keep secret. In those six years in which seventeen hundred and twenty-eight West Virginians overdosed and died, drug wholesalers dumped seven hundred and eighty million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the state, about four hundred and thirty-three per person.

Every crisis reminds communities anew of journalism’s importance. We’re seeing that now, as the spread of the coronavirus yokes us to the news. Eyre served his community in a time of need. With his new book, he took the death of a coal miner, William (Bull) Preece, found dead in a trailer in Mud Lick amid a residue of crushed pills, and told the how and the why. His reporting led to restrictions on prescriptions, greater tracking, more transparency. He shamed an industry and saved lives. Working at a small newspaper, Eyre made a big difference.

I wish the story would end there. But Eyre’s work is part of the deeper, darker narrative of local journalism. When Eyre and I worked at the Times-Advocate, in Escondido, we competed with the Blade-Citizen in Oceanside and the San Diego Union and the San Diego Tribune. Then the Times-Advocate merged with the Blade-Citizen, and the Union merged with the Tribune, and the Union-Tribune, the bigger of the joined papers, swallowed up the smaller of the joined papers. Four daily papers became one. (Hell, even the Hamburger Tree closed.) With hundreds of newspapers going under, scholars write of the “expanding news desert.” The small paper has become the Old West. Even our long-ago stories can be hard to find. Search Eyre’s name in the Union-Tribune archives and the result is “No Documents Found.”

Today, the pandemic is only hastening the decline of community papers, from the Monterey County Weekly to the Portland Mercury to the Riverfront Times. Readership soars, and advertising collapses. The Gazette-Mail is not the paper it was even a year ago. Ken Ward, Jr., an investigative reporter who has led the way nationally on covering coal companies, recently left the newsroom. Last week, the paper laid off two reporters and a photographer. Meanwhile, Eyre’s Parkinson’s keeps getting worse. On Tuesday night, he sent me a note. He said that he had just submitted his resignation letter. In order to stay at home, as we’ve been told to do, he made arrangements to mail in his key card. The same day his book came out, Eyre left the paper.

Source: www.newyorker.com/feed/everything