Three reporters in the Mahoning Valley, Renee Fox, Jordyn Grzelewski, and Lindsay McCoy, have worked aggressively in recent years exposing the death and destruction wrought by the heroin crisis, yet despite their dire warnings on television, on the web and in newspapers, the situation here has worsened dramatically.

In Trumbull County, opioid deaths grew at a rate far faster than the state from 2013-15 and Trumbull now is the seventh-worst county in one of the four worst states in the country. Mahoning is only slightly better.

Lest you think the more than 700 deaths – yes, 700 -- in the two counties since 2010 are not your concern, consider: More than a dozen of those were truck drivers. At least 19 prepared food for public consumption. More than 20 were in the healthcare industry working as nurses, pharmacists, health aides and drawing blood.

There were police, security guards and more than a dozen who assembled automobiles. For every user who died there may be scores of users still working those jobs.

What are opioids? They include prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl.

Worried yet? Wonder what can be done?

The three reporters from the Warren Tribune Chronicle, Youngstown Vindicator, and WFMJ-TV view themselves as part of the community and want to be part of the effort to turn the opioid crisis around.

Their editors and news directors share the concern.

In an effort unique to U.S. journalism, the Tribune Chronicle, Vindicator, and WFMJ are setting aside their competitive instincts on this issue to launch a community conversation aimed at solutions.

Those sessions will occur Oct. 22-24 in Struthers and target neighborhoods in Warren and Youngstown –selected because maps of deaths show they have been deeply affected.

Covering the media collaboration as well as assisting in the coverage will be reporter Tim Ruddell at WKSU National Public Radio at Kent State University.

The community sessions start with the assumption that public policy decisions and adequate funding from the state and national levels aren’t going to happen soon. There must be a community vision with citizens taking responsibility. People will be asked whether opioids have affected their lives and how. They’ll be asked how the valley would look if it were successfully turning the crisis around and what must be done to do so.

The Mahoning  Valley media initiative is part of a larger Your Voice Ohio/Ohio Media Project. What is learned in the Mahoning Valley will be transferred to other communities around the state.

The funding and organizational leadership comes from the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan public engagement organization in St. Paul, Minn.

Jefferson has secured $250,000 in support from the Democracy Fund and $75,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for Your Voice Ohio and a companion project in Appalachian Southeast Ohio, led by Journalism That Matters.

Andrew Rockway, the Jefferson Center's Program Director, is leading the initiative in Ohio. 

"To address the opioid epidemic, we need to better understand it. We can only do that if we're listening to community members, and providing communities with the information they need to take productive action," said Rockway. 

There are several leadership groups watching the media effort to determine how best to aid the attack on opioids. Among them are the local judicial system, the Youngstown City Club, the Ohio Civility Consortium in Akron and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a Washington D.C. organization that has identified Ohio as a state ripe for constructive citizen action.

"This is the type of forward-thinking and collaborative approach that Revive Civility Ohio encourages," said Lauren Litton, coordinator of the program, sponsored by NICD. "People with diverse perspectives must find ways  to collectively explore solutions to pervasive issues, like the opioid epidemic, that are eroding our communities." 

Planning this project already has required a change among media partners. The three reporters and TV news director Mona Alexander, Youngstown editors Todd Franko and Mark Sweetwood and Warren editor Brenda Linert have winced on occasion as they’ve thought setting aside their desire to have better stories than their competitors. For this project, they’re willing to share each other’s work.

They see this as a life-or-death situation too important to let their own competitive spirits get in the way.

To help the journalist prepare answers you need and to begin collecting ideas, email your thoughts on root causes of the heroin crisis and your solutions to me at [email protected]

Coming up next week, the news outlets will publish a list of solutions that have worked in other communities and raise questions as to whether any are applicable here.

Meanwhile, to join one of the community conversations, go to our Eventbrite page or read more about the sessions here. 

The 21 News team has many of the most experienced journalists in the Mahoning Valley among its staff.  You know their names, you’ve welcomed them into your homes for years.   They are the people you’ve trusted to bring you in depth coverage of important issues affecting our area and today there are few issues more important than the opioid crisis.  The epidemic crosses socioeconomic lines. It  impacts crime rates, policing efforts, lost productivity in the workplace and how we parent our children.  It could be family member, a friend or neighbor who’s struggling with addiction.  The list of people who know someone affected is growing. Efforts to solve the problem are underway using traditional methods like police investigations and prosecutions.  None of those efforts involve talking to average citizens about what needs to be done.  That’s what Your Voice Mahoning Valley is all about.  We’re using the resources of the top news organizations in the Valley and the non-partisan, non-profit Jefferson Center to go out in the community and ask people what they think needs to be done.   Our end goal is to generate new approaches to solving the problem and report on realistic solutions.  This effort is unprecedented in the area and is being closely watched by other news organizations around Ohio that are also struggling with the epidemic.  The story by Doug Oplinger is startling and depressing.  Still, we know the Mahoning Valley has risen from tough times before and lead major efforts to bring about positive change.   It’s time to do it again.  21 News and its media partners are here to listen to you, let’s talk.

Mona Alexander, 21 WFMJ News Director