THE PENDER POST, BURGAW
June 12, 2007

You wouldn’t believe that little Burgaw would be able to support two newspapers, but somehow, the county seat (pop. 3,700) of Pender County does just that.

And most fascinating, both are owned indy weeklies owned by nearby families who have newspaper interests in neighboring counties Down East. The older of the two, the Pender Chronicle, dates all the way back to 1896 and is owned by the Oswald family of Wallace up in Duplin County. I did a Roadshow workshop there in ’04, and so I owed a visit to the newer paper, the upstart (1971) Pender Post.

A VERTICAL LEARNING CURVE

The Post is run by perhaps the youngest newspaper editor in the state, 26-year-old Mike Todd. He was hired last October by Les and Becky High of Whiteville News Reporter fame. The couple purchased the paper last fall, rescuing it from dire straits and taking a risk on one of my former students. Endearingly, Mike readily admits to his green-as-grass editorial status.

But Mike is not only smart as a whip; he’s local, and he cares. He’s is the quintessential hometown kid who went off to the big university and then came back home to make a difference.

So he’s making a go of the Post, with many sleepless nights and “going wide open,â€? he says, producing a colorful, well-written, fearless and nicely laid out 20-24 page weekly. A staff of about six “does about 40 things each,â€? he says with a rueful grin.

Being a Carolina man, Mike deserved not just any “head-bopperâ€? – but one of those “Heely-Boppersâ€? made in honor of the ’82 national basketball championship, donated to the Roadshow by the good folks at Balloons and Tunes of Carrboro.

THREATENED BUT NOT INTIMIDATED

Mike, though young, is not easily intimidated, as he has waded boldly into the political shenanigans of Pender County. When a former county commissioner threatened him over the phone, Mike, a former four-year starting wrestler in high school, replied, “COME ON DOWN!â€?

The bullying politico never showed.

That Mike’s family is from Pender has been a huge advantage for the young editor. His mom is a Goff from Rocky Point. Say no more; doors open; access is granted. Though he is a college boy come home, he’s no elitist. On Wednesdays when the paper comes out, Mike is right in there with the older hired help, inserting sections of the paper by hand. “The geriatric crew,â€? they call themselves, Mike notes, adding wisely, “I get half my news tips from the inserting crew.â€?

CONTROLLED CHAOS

The day I was at the Post, the little office was a hubbub of folks coming in and out, the scanner chattering like the soundtrack of newsrooms everywhere, telephone interviews going on through it all, staffers exchanging info and quips. This is one tight ship.

My little workshop “presentationâ€? here was more like a rapid-fire conversation, where everyone seemed to be talking at once.

Interactive? You betcha. I think the creators of PowerPoint would have been pleased. It seemed between every one of my slides, phones rang, people popped in and out of the room — the usual hurly-burly of a community newspaper newsroom in full sail.

But let me say this plainly: I love this state of “controlled chaos.â€? It’s just I’m not sure how effective my workshop was – but I surely had a hoot being a part of the action. Thus an old publisher turned perfesser gets his news fix. All I missed was inserting papers.

MEET A BEAVER-TRAPPING REPORTER

Mike is ably assisted by a community journalism veteran who must be one of the most unique and colorful journalists in the state. Jefferson C. Weaver is a complete throwback to another age.

Picture this: Dressed like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell newsroom painting from the ‘40s, the bearded Jefferson wears dark pants, a white long-sleeved shirt, dark vest and tie. Only his shoulder-length salt-and-pepper braided hair belies this decade. When the second generation self-described “newspapermanâ€? speaks, you hear Down East, and any pronouncement is likely to be accompanied by an eagle-eyed glare over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.

Did I mention that in his spare time Jefferson traps beaver?

Weaver’s daddy was a long-time Eastern North Carolina newspaperman, and Jefferson clearly regards the role as a sacred calling. Miffed by an awkwardly laid-out obituary, Jefferson opined, “We’re not just doing community journalism; we’re doing legacy journalism.â€? Meaning whoever is doing lay-out needs to remember that many story/photo packages will be cut out and pasted into scrapbooks, family bibles or the refrigerator doors.

The Post’s able photographer is big Andy Pettigrew, another UNC man, formally trained as a Southern Baptist preacher, but self-taught as a shooter. His sports photos really lift the paper out of the ordinary.

SPRAWLING UP 1-40

Many Tar Heels will recognize the name Burgaw as one of those green-on-white exit signs along the 70 mph rural blur of 1-40 between Raleigh and Wilmington. In fact, Jefferson Weaver was only half-joking when he said I-40 was built “so the Triangle can get to the beach.â€?

Burgaw, for so long a rural outpost considered remote from the city of Wilmington, is now experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly of having 1-40 completed and roaring by its doorstep.

Urban refugees from Wilmington are beginning to discover Rocky Point, Burgaw and inland Pender County — away beachside Pender along US 17, the “beach highway.â€? The coastal communities of Hampstead, Surf City and Topsail Island are a world apart from the rest of the county, populated by more transient folk, described bluntly by the staff as more “urban Republican Yankees.â€? The west side of Pender has been traditionally more “rural Democratsâ€? where family ties and alliances are the currency.

The Pender Post, smack-dab in the middle, is attempting to be a county paper, serving Pender’s disparate communities “from the Black River to the Beaches,â€? as their slogan under the nameplate says. That’s their mandate, their franchise, and their challenge.

It’s a good thing Mike is young and has the stamina. He’ll need it; there will be many more all-nighters if the Post intends to assert itself as the dominant paper in little Burgaw.

ON TO SOUTHERN PINES

The week after next, the ol perfesser gets a reality gut-check when he joins the fine staff of the Pilot of Southern Pines as they go daily once again for the U.S. Women’s Golf Championship at Pine Needles in Pinehurst.

This is the third time that publisher David Woronoff has taken his tri-weekly to a daily for a major international golfing event. In ’99 and ’05, he engineered the successful transition as his staff, including several volunteers like myself, cranked out eight 72-page tabloid “US Open Dailyâ€? publications that put the competition – even the major metros – in the shade.

Look for my posts from the U.S. Women’s Open. It should be fun.

ABOUT THE ROADSHOW…

For the back-story on the Roadshow and the Project, check out the  piece below.

I can be reached at jock@email.unc.edu

My office phone is 919-962-6421.

On the road, I’m mobile at 919-619-1034.

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