Blake Douglas reporter
Blake Douglas walks alongside a river in Franz Josef, New Zealand, on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (Provided)

Journalism at its most impactful has the power to alter the trajectory of families or communities for generations.

That power is hampered in communities without strong newspapers or dedicated reporters. Be it investigating significant local issues or just keeping folks informed day-to-day, local news stands as a vital part of any community.

That’s why I’m eager to pick up the Edmond Civic Reporting Project from Joe Tomlinson, who led NonDoc’s Edmond beat for more than two years. Whether he was producing important feature stories, crafting Tuesday’s Edmond Email or running the @Edmond_News account on Twitter, Joe did critical work for this community because a city of 100,000 residents should have its own civic news, not be relegated to side bar stories or 60-second broadcast bites.

My constant goal is to keep readers up to speed with issues close to home and offer the context they need to make informed decisions for the future of their community. That has always been the same no matter where I have reported, whether that’s a town of 10,000 people or a metro of millions.

A chance encounter with history

In 2022, I left my home state after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. After a brief stop at the Charlotte Observer, I took a community reporting position in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, a community with only 40,000 permanent residents mingling with more than a million annual tourists. My time there proved to me the positive impact the press can make when empowering residents with information to take action as they see fit.

Much like the Edmond community I am excited to begin covering, Hilton Head Island faces affordable housing woes. Its workforce and long-time island residents were being forced to the mainland as housing costs skyrocketed. A chance encounter with a 93-year-old islander who feared for her family’s homestead which they had owned since shortly after Hilton Head was liberated by Union troops in the 1860s produced my proudest journalism to date.

Josephine Wright’s once expansive family property had been sold off piecemeal over time by other members of the family land trust, primarily to developers looking to build upscale housing to attract more retirees to the island. Her small family home sat on a remaining two-acre parcel and had been almost entirely enveloped by a new construction project. Driving through the area, I decided to knock on her door.

I was shocked to learn she was being sued by the neighboring developers over an encroachment dispute. The builders claimed the Wrights’ back porch and a nearby shed crossed onto their construction site, but the family believed the suit was a financial bullying tactic to force them to sell their land, which developers had previously been interested in buying. Though I contacted the developers several times, they never refuted the family’s suspicions, or commented at all.

When we eventually published the Wrights’ story, I expected it would provide a platform for concerned residents to voice their support, and if they were inclined, perhaps find a way to help the Wrights cover their legal costs. The actual impact far exceeded my imagination.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations poured into the family’s impromptu GoFundMe, first with support from locals and then massive chunks of change from celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Kyrie Irving and Tyler Perry. While filming a movie in nearby Savannah, Georgia, at the time, Perry even offered to build the family a new home on their land. The town government later suspended the builders’ construction until the suit was settled.

Now, the Wright family has a brand new home on that same land, courtesy of Tyler Perry. Although Josephine Wright died in January, the lawsuit settlement required the company to rebuild the family’s roof, add a privacy fence and maintain landscaping.

The family has established a charity to help others facing similar battles keep their property. Had I not knocked on the Wrights’ door and had they not been willing to trust a journalist with their story, none of that may have come to pass. The family trusted me at their most vulnerable because I was interested in them as members of the community in which I lived and reported.

All of that is to say I have seen the impact community journalism can have, and I understand the responsibility with which I must approach every story. As I begin this new role at NonDoc, I most of all look forward to building trust — story by story — with a new community as I did with the Wright family and all of Hilton Head.

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Community journalism? ‘That sounds so cool’

For the last seven months, I traveled through New Zealand and Indonesia on a delayed graduation trip. Traversing the Southern Alps, cruising New Zealand’s beautiful west coast and visiting Indonesian temples hundreds of years older than my entire home country occupied most of my thoughts during that time abroad.

During my travels, people often asked what I did in the United States, and each time I talked about the journalism profession, I consistently heard one thing: “That sounds so cool.”

Over time, those exchanges made me realize that I did truthfully miss journalism, as well as Oklahoma. When NonDoc — where I interned in 2020 — was looking to find its successor for the Edmond Civic Reporting Project, I believed that my community journalism experience was a good fit for the position.

Recently, as I sat down to eat at Braum’s for the first time in entirely too long, I watched as a family — headed by a dad clad head-to-toe in hunting camouflage — took a group picture in front of the drink fountain. It felt like a homecoming.

Stepping into a new place as a stranger and being asked to write with authority can be an intimidating prospect, but leaning on the memory of long-time locals and building relationships with them first and foremost will be my best first step. Speaking with reporters can often feel transactional they need a story, you have the information, and you may never hear from them again afterward.

But good journalism is not done that way, and I look forward to being a constant for folks engaged with Edmond’s community, not just someone who parachutes in when something has gone wrong.

I can’t wait to rediscover the little quirks of living and reporting in the Sooner state, and more than anything, I hope to tell impactful stories for folks in Edmond and Oklahoma as I did on Hilton Head Island.

Blake Douglas is a staff reporter who leads NonDoc's Edmond Civic Reporting Project. Blake graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2022 and completed an internship with NonDoc in 2019. A Tulsa native, Blake previously reported in Tulsa; Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; and Charlotte, North Carolina.