It was 8:00 a.m. on March 8, and Rowan University alumnus Stephen Stirling’s phone kept going off. Though tired and groggy from having been up until 2:30 a.m. taking care of his four-month-old son Lucas – a frequent occurrence – the influx of messages immediately caught his attention.
Stirling, who graduated in 2006 with a degree in journalism, soon found out the reason for his phone “blowing up” was because he had won the Scripps Howard Award for Digital Innovation for his article “Herointown.” While the award was humbling, it was not until a co-worker sent a congratulatory email saying that drinks were now on him, that he realized the award came along with a $10,000 prize.
As a member of the Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) team at The Star Ledger for NJ Advance Media for the past five years, Stirling works as a data reporter finding the stories in numbers and connecting them to the people they represent. He had been interested in covering heroin addiction in New Jersey, like reporters at other papers were, and wrote several traditionally formatted articles on the subject. He noticed that despite the high numbers of heroin-related deaths being reported in traditional, hard-news formats, the stories did not resonate with readers.
“I noticed people weren’t connecting with it, they were able to keep their distance,” Stirling said. “[I thought] ‘why isn’t this drawing the attention it should?’”
That attention for Stirling came in April of 2014, when he began treatment for his alcoholism. Stirling came face-to-face with the effects of heroin, as he was one of only a handful of people not in the program for heroin addiction treatment. Observing the people surrounding him, Stirling did not see the stereotypical model for heroin users. They were not junkies from inner cities, they were young – mostly under 30 – and from upper-class living conditions. Although he was there for treatment, he could not stop thinking about how to turn what he was seeing into a story that could connect with readers.
“I heard all these stories, and they weren’t the stories I was reading about,” Stirling said. “They were upper-middle-class kids, they were telling these mind-boggling stories about their addiction and where it brought them. The entire time, I’m thinking ‘How do I get these stories into print?’”
He started working on “Herointown” early in 2015, starting with a Google form attached to one of his earlier heroin stories, encouraging people to send in stories of their experiences with heroin, whether they or a loved one used. Ultimately, the form received 500 responses from 215 towns in New Jersey, ranging from 17-to-79-year-olds. Some answers were just a few sentences long, and some were over 2,000-word accounts of the ripple effects that occur from a single addiction. From there, Stirling went on to spend a year working undercover with the Paterson Police Department, visiting the jail and needle exchange programs, combing through death records and treatment data and talking with the parents of heroin addicts.
The idea for how to format all of the information he collected came from sitting down with his editors and brainstorming about how to change the presentation to best reach people. They decided that creating a fictitious town could better display the different social classes and occupations that heroin addiction can be found in.
“This is certainly the largest project of my career,” Stirling said. “It was challenging at times, there were times when I thought this is never going to get published. But ultimately we stayed the course.”
The judges listed Stirling’s use of qualitative and quantitative data to tell the story of New Jersey’s heroin problem as what ultimately earned him the award.
“The winning team at NJ Advanced Media found a new way to tell the story of a national epidemic ravaging their state,” the judges’ comments said. “This innovative approach, as effective on mobile media as it was on the desktop, used multiple data sources to illustrate the human cost of the heroin use in New Jersey.”
Stirling – who gets to keep the $10,000 prize – plans to distribute part of it to the members of his team who helped with the project. The rest will be helpful in taking care of his son.
While appreciative of the money, Stirling considers the best prize to be the impact his article has had on readers. Since publishing, he has received hundreds of emails from people thanking him for giving a voice to the struggle they or a loved one went through. Some even emailed him saying they wished their loved ones had made it into the article.
“What really struck me was the reaction from people that read the story,” Stirling said. “Hearing it had helped people through the grief of losing a loved one, or seeing communities start to come together and talk about the issue as a result of the story, it’s why I do what I do. I’m grateful for the honor, and everything that comes with it, but it’s a bonus compared to the response I got from people that read it.”
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