2017 Feature, Small Newsroom winner

Dope Sick

David Armstrong, Matthew Orr and project team


Feature, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

“Dope Sick” is a raw and shocking account of two ordinary kids who grew up together in suburbia with loving parents. The best friends stumble into the world of opioids and unknowingly ingest the most dangerous opioid of them all: fentanyl. One, DJ Shanks, ends up dead — the other, Justin Laycock, incarcerated for killing him.

To tell the tale, David Armstrong and Matthew Orr made several trips to Toledo, Ohio. DJ’s family shared journals he wrote, Justin sat for an extensive interview in jail and the judge who handled his case agreed to discuss the decision. STAT filed public records requests for surveillance footage of DJ’s death and the drug deal preceding it, police camera video and audio of DJ being arrested, copies of text messages between DJ and his family before his death and reports of crimes DJ and Justin committed to support their drug habit. Orr and Armstrong went to the places where DJ and Justin played as boys and did drugs as teens. They rode along with police and attended court hearings.

“Dope Sick” highlights STAT’s groundbreaking use of multimedia. STAT was faced with recreating the collision of DJ and Justin’s lives from fragments of memory and evidence: Justin’s anguished recounting from prison, footage from a doughnut shop’s security camera showing DJ’s dying moments on top of a glaze machine, a journal full of pain and hope for recovery and a chain of text messages before DJ’s death. The key was to weave all these pieces into a gripping and immersive experience, to enhance but not overwhelm the narrative. The result was a seamless combination of 8,000 words, 20 videos, 2 texted conversations and 15 scene-setting photographs that more than 100,000 readers stayed with for well over six minutes on average — an eternity for digital media.

Their comments spoke volumes:

“It took me two days to read this story and watch the videos because they were so powerful that I had to take breaks.”

“This article is so realistic it brought me to my knees. I could not listen to all the video clips, I’ve lived this now-familiar story as a mother of an addict.”

The Poynter Institute newsletter called it “a knockout, tragic tale” while also noting that The New York Times cited the piece in an internal memo about digital innovation.

STAT also made creative use of social media, producing three video “trailers” for the story that were viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms.