KENLY: ANOTHER BEST-KEPT SECRET
Youâve heard of the proverbial one-stoplight town. That would be Kenly, except that thereâs a new red-light out there by 1-95. So I reckon theyâve hit the big-time now.
Still, little (pop. 1,784) Kenly in the eastern Johnston County, 30 miles from the hustle and bustle of Raleigh, retains its small-town feel â two stoplights or not.
One wonders when the explosive Johnston County sprawl will hit Kenly, on borrowed time for now. I bet the growth issues are already there, albeit muted compared to whatâs coming down the pike, as it were.
I couldnât help but like Kenly, where people waved at me â a rank stranger, as I drove through their town on this crystal clear July morning, washed free of the muggies by last nightâs wave of thunderbumpers.
Typical to many Southern railroad towns, what little traffic there is comes to a dead stop when the CSX freight train comes hooting through, loudly slicing down the center of Kenly like a hot knife through butter.
Right there in the heart of downtown I find the charming antique office of the Kenly Newsâ a scene to warm the heart of Norman Rockwell: a converted 19th century general store complete with creaking wooden floors, high ceilings, the glass storefront displaying an old typewriter and camera collection, and even a cast iron, pot-bellied coal stove in the back, left over from the general store days.
Yes, they have modern HVAC and computers. But the paperâs office is a delightful throwback â even to the tall double glass front doors with original door handle and the brass bell that announces each entering reader with a musical âDing!â?
Talk about reader access. No surveillance camera; no armed guard in the lobby (no lobby!); no keypad to the newsroom. When I walked in, before anyone recognized me, someone gave me a friendly âHey!â? Little wonder I felt so immediately at home at the Kenly News.
The husband and wife team of Rick and Karen Stewart own and publishes the News, Rick serving as editor and publisher, and Karen as co-publisher and office manager. If this is a âmom and popâ? operation, itâs a good one.
The Stewarts were hyperlocal before there was such a word as hyperlocal.
Instead of putting out a countywide edition and having to go head-to-head with excellent community papers in Smithfield (the Herald) and Clayton (the News-Star), Stewart creates micro-editions for nearby small towns within his coverage area.
So in addition to the Kenly News and the neighboring Selma News (a one-woman show run by Kelly Lake, who does it ALL), his diverse staff also produces weeklies for Pine Level and Wilsonâs Mills by making local fronts for both communities. The Kenly Newsâ second in command is News Editor Cami Jo Narron, who came to the paper as a graphic designer after taking classes at the local community college. Staff writer Jamie Hodges, who especially likes sports, came to the Kenly News from the Wilson paper. Heâs workhorse; the week I was there Jamie had three out of the four front-page stories.
All four Stewart papers are printed by contract in Benson, where a press serves the printing needs of several area community papers that donât own their own presses. (We did the same thing for years at my papers in Forest City and Marion before being able to buy and maintain an expensive newspaper press of our own.)
BIG DEALS IN SMALL PLACES
In small places, seemingly small news items have major impacts. Last the week the Kenly News led with a story about a local veteran doctor leaving town for better opportunities elsewhere. But the town had attracted a new librarian, so there was cause to celebrate some. Down in Selma, the paper there was following an ugly dispute between local firefighters and town government, and back in Kenly I learned than an escaped emu, which was still at large, had terrorized kids attending a local vacation bible school.
Other than that, it felt like a quiet week in Kenly/Selma/Pine Level/Wilsonâs Mills.
WHY FOLKS LIVE WHERE THEY LIVE
Driving through one of North Carolinaâs many small towns like Kenly, you have to ask yourself: who lives here and why? No bright lights/big city, for sure. The local Siemens plant is shutting down and moving to Mexico. To live in Kenly is to work elsewhere Iâm told â Selma, Smithfield, Wilson or Goldsboro. In other words, you have to want to live in Kenly.
Happily, for Rick Stewart and other publishers of North Carolina community newspapers, many folks wouldnât live anywhere else.
Itâs the kind of place where, when asked to list briefly words that define their community, Kenly News staffers offered: community, family, school and church-oriented.
Itâs the kind of place where before lunch, the newspaper staff says grace over the pizza.
It ainât Chapel Hill, folks; itâs North Carolina.
A LITTLE JEWEL
And another thing: my travels to small-town-N.C. defy the stereotypes of âsleepy towns nestlingâ¦â?
Every town I go to invariably surprises me with some best-kept secret: the historic homes of Warrenton, the Old Threshersâ Reunion in Denton, the Yam Festival in Tabor City â and in Kenlyâs case, the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
Not a stoneâs throw from downtown, an authentically restored tobacco farmstead rests tranquilly beneath the towering loblolly pines â complete with tobacco barn, homestead, outbuildings, farm equipment working blacksmithâs shop, and most recently, a historic one-room schoolhouse. I am further impressed to learn that the Tobacco Farm Life Museum is the result of local initiative and local financial support. You go, Kenly! What a great place to bring kids to show them what rural North Carolina farm life used to looked like.
Next time youâre near Kenly, (exit 107 off I-95 with easy access), this is a must for history buffs.
US OPEN WOMENâS GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP REDUX
For an old newsie-turned-âperfesser,â? nothing beats getting out of the classroom and into the newsroom.
When classes are over in May, I put Chapel Hill in the rear-view mirror as I hit the road, leading journalism workshops at community newspapers from Murphy to Manteo.
Then, if Iâm really lucky, Iâll find a community paper that needs a helping hand for some special project. The olâ perfesser got a reality gut-check when he joined the fine staff of the Pilot of Southern Pines as they went daily once again for the U.S. Womenâs Golf Championship at Pine Needles in Pinehurst earlier this month.
This was the brainchild of publisher David Woronoff who refuses to be intimidated by the national and international media presence in his county. His response to a major golfing event is to convert his tri-weekly into a daily for the duration of the tournament.
To pull this off, he has enlisted the help of several volunteers to help crank out the âUS OPEN DAILY,â? eight 72-page tabloid morning editions that put the competition to shame.
Iâve joined The Pilot family for three of the five U.S. Opens held at Pinehurst: â99, â05 and again this summer.
What a treat. I got an insiderâs view of a top-quality community newspaper doing some of the very best ârelentlessly localâ? journalism around.
Pardon the vernacular, but as the expression goes: It donât get no better than this.
VIGNETTES THROUGH MY LENS
As I sat in the bustling media tent, in front of me the humongous media scoreboard stretched 60 feet across the room. Perhaps youâve heard about the âAsian Invasionâ? of women golfers from mainly Korea. Iâm counting: 10 Kims, six Parks and six Lees.
That still doesnât get me off the hook for misidentifying Grace Park in Mondayâs paper as âGrace Kim.â? In the olâ perfesserâs class back at UNC, such a factual error gets a kid an automatic 50.
Bad perfesser. BAD!
RIGHT THERE WITH THE BIG BOYS
Iâm not sure how it came to be, but The Pilot crew had a front-row seat in the media tent where about 400 other media folk were massed â on our left, The N&O, and on our right, USA TODAY.
Not too shabby. Reminds me of Pilot publisher David Woronoffâs mantra: âWe may be small-town, but weâll never be small-time.â?
STAR WARS IS NOW
In the â99 Open, Pilot photojournalists shot film and processed it at a one-hour place. In â05, weâd gone digital and were able to send photos by email. Now by â07, photo-technology has gotten even slicker. Photographer Joann Dost had a Star Wars camera that allowed her to dictate caption information into the back of her camera.
Can you imagine what media technology will be like in â14?
Weâll see. I plan to be there!
NEW FOUND RESPECT
Through seven days of grueling heat, sweat soaked through shirt, pants and photo vest, blisters on toes and plenty of SPF 48, the old bod did pretty well for all its 62 years. Only my dogs suffered. On my feet marching around the dusty eight miles of Pine Needles from 8-5 dailyâ¦who needed âexerciseâ? after that? I needed NEW DOGS.
After shooting the US Womenâs Open for the Pilot, I have a new respect for older workers who must stand or walk during their entire shift. Ouch!
One the best things about a great newsroom is great friends. I truly felt that David Woronoff had pulled together a bunch of folks who honestly liked being around each other â much less working together. Did we have fun? You betcha.
Iâll remember Lee Pace whose sportswritingÂ sometimes resembled poetryâ¦Brad King for his companionable natureâ¦ Gordon White for his wry sense of humorâ¦ photo editor Sandie Rose for her grace under pressureâ¦ golf writing guru Jim Dodson who wouldnât let a little thing like a gall bladder on the fritz keep him downâ¦sports editor Hunter Chase who kept us all in stitches â¦veteran golf writer Howard Ward who keeps saying âthis is my last US Openâ¦â? and then keeps coming back…â?My reporterâ? and future Pulitzer-prize winner, Erin Franceâ¦veteran Pilot editor âback at the mole holeâ? and bud extraordinaire Steve Bouserâ¦ and finally Woronoff, who on the first day told us all gathered for our first staff meeting: âStay loose and have fun!â? And he also noted we were surrounded by major media outlets, but that he expected that we would administer the shoe leather to their nether regions.
Looking back at our work, I believe we did kick some___.
Next week the Roadshow heads west as I lead a visual communications workshop for middle school teachers in Wilkes County, go to Mt. Airy to check out the brand-new Surry Messenger, an outrageous start-up, and then take a sentimental journey to the little mountain town of Sparta and the Alleghany News where I served as a “green-as-grass” editor of that one-man-paper fresh out of college many moons ago.