One recent steamy night in the Riverfront Bar & Grill of Marietta, Ohio’s century-old Lafayette Hotel, the chatter intensified with an air of excitement. Friends were dialing up friends along the Ohio River to get updates on the Queen of the Mississippi, a giant paddlewheel boat that was expected to slide alongside the hotel any minute, right outside the window.

Folks leaned against tables, faces close to the glass looking for a glimmer of light around the bend. Aficionados meanwhile impressed patrons with facts about paddle wheels.

It was awkward for me, a journalist of 47 years sitting at one of the high-demand window tables, slightly captured by the excitement of a luxury river cruise ship while typing furiously the notes from a sobering meeting I had had only a few hours earlier downriver in Belpre, population 6,500.

The meeting was sponsored by Your Voice Ohio, an Ohio media collaborative of more than 40 news outlets determined to prevent democracy from dying in darkness.

The conversation? About three dozen people had gathered in the basement of the Belpre Masonic Hall to talk about the opioid crisis killing about 5,000 people a year in Ohio and West Virginia.

Five thousand. Each year.

There were tears as mothers related stories of children who died, or children who were recently released from prison with no counseling or support. Belpre, clearly, had not escaped the scourge. Nor had Parkersburg, W.Va., where we met in the Boys and Girls Club hall the night before, and Marietta, where we would pack the county fairgrounds meeting hall the following night.

Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky are at the heart of an epidemic that seems to be lost on the world. More people die annually of opioid overdoses in Ohio alone than Americans killed by terrorists in the last 20 years. Coastal journalists parachute in, write of devastation and hopelessness, then move on. There is no clamor for a hurricane-style rescue, no leadership that suggests that these people, often taken prisoner by a prescription drug, matter.

Before the three meetings in the Ohio Valley, there had been 11 similar meetings across Ohio as part of the Your Voice Ohio project, which seeks to gain a better understanding of the people we serve and then represent them as equal players in public policy. At the invitation of the What’s Next Mid-Ohio Valley organization based in West Virginia, Your Voice Ohio bridged the Ohio River for this one weekend.

Our collaborative’s mission is to restore trust in local news media. Some would say that’s self-serving. I view it as nothing less than trying to save the world. Good journalism equips communities to identify solutions to the things that will otherwise kill us, to take constructive action and make life better.

The Your Voice Ohio editors chose to experiment with the opioid crisis first, then segue to the more complicated Ohio economy – it sucks – as we figure out how to do our jobs better.

What we have learned is game-changing: the experts, policy makers and politicians to whom we pay so much attention know far less about life in the community than the people who have been marginalized for decades – citizens.

Our engagement effort was designed not to bring citizens to our journalism, but to bring them into our journalism by becoming familiar with and telling their stories. And rather than pound away at the idea we’re all going to die – something journalists have perfected since Watergate – Your Voice Ohio is asking people to identify solutions that would work for them, then we consider those solutions as we hold policy makers accountable.

Are journalists real?

At the world-café meetings, journalists are asked to sit with regular folks and participate. Don’t take copious notes. Listen. Give the people some space. And, most importantly, share what you know professionally and personally. The act of being real changes perceptions.

Some journalists find that to be a new experience. Our ethics code has allowed us to separate ourselves from our communities and our people for the sake of appearing unbiased. But instead, we have become disconnected. Several times we heard: “I didn’t know the media cared.”

More importantly, some journalists resisted the idea that they should reflect a desire to help the community improve. They ask, “Isn’t that advocacy?

Really? If every person a journalist meets wants his or her life to improve yet newsrooms focus on conflict, corruption, death and destruction, then are we not advocating the opposite? We say that we’re informing the public so people can act, but fail to recognize that what they really want are solutions to those problems to make life better – and they in fact have solutions.

In essence, we’re refusing to provide the public what it wants and needs and moreover fail to recognize that the public does in fact have ideas to contribute.

As one reporter said after attending three sessions: “We think we know what the public needs, but we often don’t.”

As we watched nearly 1,000 people over several months arrive at these meetings with vastly divergent life experiences, they identified solutions to the opioid crisis that were consistent across Ohio and West Virginia. That moved the question of advocacy to a more sophisticated level.

The idea of advocating for specific solutions was uncomfortable. As one reporter observed, the community supported needle exchanges to address the soaring rate of hepatitis C cases, the health officials supported needle exchanges, but one elected official blocked it saying it supported illegal activities.

If she continues to pursue stories on the exchanges, is she not an advocate?

We discussed this idea: If one public official defies science and public opinion and we allow that to go unchallenged, are we not his advocate? When do the people have an opportunity to place their solutions on the table, and what’s wrong with vetting their solutions, showing which ones have worked elsewhere, and which ones have not, and holding officials accountable to our good journalism?

And there is this idea: many people with different life experiences and political positions were able to reach agreement across 14 communities. How is that possible in what we call a divisive environment, where media and politicians cast issues as competing and sometimes false narratives?

One reporter noted that officials in her community didn’t play by the simple rules of the Your Voice Ohio meeting – change tables, meet new people. She also noted that that county had one of the highest overdose death rates and a reputation for disrespecting people struggling with addiction. A person struggling with addiction sat at their table and called them on their failure to serve. The reporter realized that citizens are often lost in the conversation, and that’s wrong. She said that representing the people wasn’t advocacy journalism, it was instead good journalism.

So let’s go back to the Parkersburg-Marietta area, where internet access is poor, population is in decline, and the only growth area is Exit 1 on Interstate 77 as people pause for gas and fast food at the Ohio River.

Like all of Ohio, the Mid-Ohio Valley folks agreed that there are two priorities in the addiction crisis: restore human dignity to the victims and families; and save the children. That meant treatment rather than arrest, plentiful rehabilitation services, and coping skills for kids who must navigate a drug-ravaged home.

Self-aware of exploitation

But Mid-Ohio Valley (MOV) meetings offered something not heard as clearly across the rest of Ohio: a convincing belief that they had been exploited – and still are.

“Is [exploitation] a valid finding?” was the question I posed to Aaron Payne, a reporter for WOUB at Ohio University. He covers issues in the valley for a National Public Radio collaborative that stretches the length of the Ohio River. Yes, he said, when you consider the history of the coal industry, which extracted wealth from the valley then left communities without jobs. The same question was asked of a group of local retired professors, public officials, engineers and business owners at the Lafayette Hotel breakfast room the next morning. They looked at this foolish old journalist, nodded yes, then moved on to Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, which was occurring as they sipped coffee.

The 150 MOV folks who gathered over three days put exploitation and the drug crisis into perspective. The pharmaceutical industry and medical community offered a pill to ease the pain of a spiritual hole caused by plummeting income, no jobs and nowhere to go.

The MOV meetings illustrated the vast disconnect between people in the heartland, their state governments in Charleston and Columbus, policy makers in Washington and journalists who look for a face to apply to a story.

The same week we met in the Ohio Valley, the White House announced an initiative to obtain pledges from employers to hire people. This created a false narrative in the MOV.

Great idea – a pledge. The reality, said a man in the breakfast group at the Lafayette hotel, is that there are “Help Wanted” signs all along the road from the northeast corner of Ohio to the Ohio River. Those jobs are unfilled, said citizens in the meetings, because people in recovery often accumulated a record of felony arrests so they could buy drugs. Even though they’re clean, they can’t get hired.

So, while politicians win pledges for jobs and job training, there is little benefit to the thousands of people in recovery who can’t get hired. Without a job, they cannot pull the family back together and achieve that number one solution identified across our meetings: respect for those in the struggle.

A college degree of separation

One person in recovery said addicts reach a point of despair that creates a rare moment for intervention. There needs to be a public hotline that gets them whisked to services.

Journalists and people in the recovery business quickly said, “There IS a number,” and offered it up.

Right, said the man in recovery. “Did you ever try to call it?”

For politicians and people in the recovery business and journalists who don’t live the same life, the hotline works.

Here’s what he said happens: The desperate caller receives a list of phone numbers and instructions. Think about that. A person who has hit rock bottom, perhaps at 2 a.m., staring at life-threatening withdrawal in the next several hours, must make phone calls during the business day hoping someone will answer and have an opening for an appointment, maybe in a week or two.

As the Ohio Valley journalists regrouped several days later, the failure of the hotline haunted them. Our lives are different. The idea was put on the table that we have college degrees. What was the reason we did that? To improve our lives? And did we ever consider that 80 percent of the people in our community don’t have one? Has that difference affected our ability to understand?

In search of joy and hope

As I dragged my suitcase with three days of dirty clothes past the display cases of weapons, paddle boats and ballcaps at the Lafayette Hotel, the coffee bunch was there for the thrice-weekly meeting. They were reflecting on the failures of government. Outside, another paddle wheel had come to shore, tourists were climbing the hill to tour historic Marietta and locals in lawn chairs were sitting under trees to watch the excitement. One woman hinted that it was an escape from current politics.

Unlike a journalist, she didn’t feel a need to be fully engaged in Congress, the President or Marietta city council. She needed a little joy, and the news didn’t provide it.

Interesting place, this MOV. They’ve seen jobs disappear, incomes plunge and watched loved ones die. And they are convinced they’ve been exploited. The question arises: What if a feeling of exploitation becomes pervasive across the country? Maybe it has, but people with college degrees just don’t get it.

What’s refreshing in the MOV is that after the last meeting, people spilled into the parking lot and lingered awhile. There were hugs, even with journalists, and on a note card, one person wrote this for the journalists to read later: “I learned how much our community cares about each other and the future of our community. WE all can and are willing to fix this.”