Part I — Stumbling Upon Tragedy

Reporter Jack Healy’s unexpected encounter with America’s opioid epidemic

Photo via Charlie Rose

Camped out in a small town diner with a piece of chocolate cake, Jack Healy stumbled upon tragedy. He was background reporting on a “reverse migration” story when he struck up a conversation with the woman running the restaurant. “I started asking about the challenges facing the community, and she started talking about drug stuff,” he said, “and that’s when she mentioned Mr. Winemiller and his family.”

The Winemiller family had garnered local attention for their unprecedented and devastating experience with opioids. Last year, two of Mr. Winemiller’s children died of overdoses within nine months of each other. His only remaining son is two months in recovery from a heroin addiction.

Healy didn’t have an address, but he had a name. “I just had my iPhone with me,” Healy said, “so I Googled around for it.” He located Rodger Winemiller’s home, got in his car, and drove. “That was the genesis of this.”

via Twitter

In his story, “2 of a Farmer’s 3 Children Overdosed. What of the Third — and the Land?,” Healy, New York Times Rocky Mountain correspondent, offers a vignette into the lives of Roger Winemiller and his son Roger T. Winemiller. The two of them live and work together on their family soybean farm in rural Wayne Township, about an hour east of Cincinnati, with a population just under 5,000.

“I just sort of showed up,” said Healy. He didn’t realize at the time, but Mr. Winemiller spoke with a local TV news station weeks prior to his arrival. “He was in a position where he was ready to start sharing his story,” he said. Healy spent time with both father and son, accompanying them to Roger Jr.’s probation office and treatment clinic. Mr. Winemiller had to drive, as his son’s license had been revoked.

“They’re both incredibly public in different ways, and really honest about their feelings in ways that you don’t necessarily expect from midwestern guys,” said Healy. “Obviously there is so much sadness and so much tragedy,” he said, “but it was good that they were talking about each other and their views — just totally honest.”

Though, this is not always the case when journalists seek stories about those affected by this epidemic. Addicts and their families are often reluctant to share their stories. They may be too overwhelmed or upset to speak about it, or perhaps they fear the stigma that surrounds drug addiction.

“Whether you’re a metro or national reporter, a lot of the time you’re knocking on someone’s door at a really bad time,” Healy explained. He emphasized that while remaining respectful and polite, journalists need to make the case for why someone’s story should be shared.

For Healy, the most compelling element of this story was the fact that Mr. Winemiller made his living on the land, relying on the help of his son. Healy had read plenty of stories on the epidemic, but couldn’t remember one that touched on the issue from the unique position of the Winemiller family. “There was all this tension between the father and the son, about the life they were living together, and how they were gonna make it work,” he said.

via New York Times

Perhaps it was this new approach that landed his piece on Page A1 of the Times. It appeared with the headline: “As Heroin Infests Farms, a Grieving Parent Fears for the Future.”

“You always hope that a story you spent time on gets onto the front page,” he said. Traditionally, this would all but guarantee your story gets attention. “But,” he continued, “the amount of eyes on the paper copy of the newspaper is so much smaller now.”

“As an institution,” Healy added, “we’re thinking less and less about the front page as a conventional measurement of whether your story is getting attention.” Still, the stories on the front page of the Times are, for many, the most important stories of the day. Healy’s piece also proved popular digitally, as it was widely shared and disseminated via social media platforms.

“This was a random story that just jumped out at me,” he said. The opioid epidemic was not Healy’s usual beat. He comes at the epidemic with a fresh perspective, which shows in the way he tells the story.

One of the most striking moments is when the younger Mr. Winemiller expresses anxiety about access to his drug treatment once his father cannot drive him each morning. “‘Set you up for failure,’” said the younger Mr. Winemiller. Healy lets this tension play out among the subjects, rather than, himself, diving into controversies over access to treatment.

Treatment is one of the most disputed aspects of the epidemic. Healy doesn’t deal in this conflict; rather, he profiles a family who fell victim to a national issue. In this way, his story is insulated from some of the larger, ideological debates about addiction and treatment. Some readers prefer this human-interest reporting to a more clinical, numbers-heavy approach. However, on a macro level, the tensions and morality-based arguments regarding treatment are a key piece of the puzzle. Small-scale tragedy may not be enough to capture sustained public interest.

Healy has written two other stories that touch on the opioid epidemic, one on overdoses in Ohio, and another about treatment in central Utah. Recognizing that he isn’t an expert on the epidemic, Healy recommends I speak with Katharine Seelye, the New York Times New England bureau chief.

To hear Seelye’s take on the epidemic, and reporting on it from New England, check out Part II.