A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Heading north out of Elkin on 21, I found myself singing the old Elizabeth Cotton verse, from the song “Freight Train,â€? that goes something like this: “One more thing I’d like to see…watch that old Blue Ridge Mountain rise as I ride old Number Nine…â€?

Jock LautererFor as you drive west in North Carolina, you will encounter what geologists call “the Blue Ridge Frontâ€? jutting abruptly out of the rolling Piedmont. Not as spectacular as the Front Range of the Rockies, the Tar Heel green ramparts are nonetheless a dramatic sight that never fails to stir me. When you top the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,972 at Roaring Gap, you know you’re “up the mountain.â€?

“Sparty,â€? as the old-timers used to say the name of their little (pop: 1,983) mountain hometown, was once my town too. Could it actually have been 39 years ago that I was the one-man show here at the eight-page, hot-type, buttugly weekly Alleghany News?

The paper office used to perch curiously at the edge of the courthouse lawn, like the watchdog it never was, in a 14×14 one-room brick building heated by a single, smelly kerosene stove.

Like the office, resources were few. Luckily, I had my own camera and typewriter. But I was happy, 23 and full of spit and vinegar, ready to try my hand at running what I supposed was “myâ€? newspaper. Had I not been Big Man on Campus with the Daily Tar Heel? How difficult could it be to put out a little mountain weekly?

Man, was I in for rude awakening, courtesy of “Miz Anderson,â€? the legendary, curmudgeonly, autocratic, red-headed owner/publisher of “myâ€? newspaper, which was printed at “herâ€? newspaper, the Skyland Post, an hour across the mountains in West Jefferson.

We disagreed on practically everything there was to disagree on, from newspaper content to the size of the photographs, even to my hair, if you can imagine that — for at the time I did wear it shaggy.

That our relationship was volatile is to put it mildly. “Big Stella,â€? as she was known, and I held hollering matches across her newsroom every press day.

Within four months of coming to Sparta, I was already plotting my own start-up. In an odd sort of way, I probably owe my successful entrepreneurial newspaper career to the prickly old Miz Anderson.

So, what a place to return to…my first time in 39 years. What would I find?

SPARTA TODAY

I found a county and a town that were clearly growing, but not to the degree of the Boone area, where growth (read: big box stores along traffic-clogged five-lanes and gated golf communities with outrageously expensive homes clinging to cliffs) strikes me as completely out of control.

So far, little Alleghany seems to have avoided much of the mountain shtick that seems so pervasive elsewhere. So far, at least. One gets the sickly feeling that it’s just a matter of time until the developers discover Alleghany.

A MOUNTAIN MAN-EDITOR

And I found a thriving Alleghany News office smack dab on a bustling Main Street just across from the paper’s former location.

SpartaThen I found a true mountain man running the operation in the person of editor Coby LaRue, a native of the region.

After a stint as a techie in the early 90s in RTI, Coby realized where he belonged, and got himself back to the hills, where for 12 years he’s been the paper’s editor.

With only two other writers and a summer intern, Coby is your classic weekly editor, doing a little bit of everything from writing, taking pictures, doing the layouts (Quark on Macs), walking the paper through the production process, stripping in the negatives and getting the paper printed down in Wilkesboro, an hours drive “off the mountain,â€? as the locals say. He even admits to hassling the pressmen if the printing doesn’t suit him. Though he didn’t say it, I imagine Coby helps with the mailing too. I’d say he’s The Compleate Editor.

At home, he has a wife and two small children, a garden and chickens. When you talk to Coby LaRue, you get the definite impressive that here is a man who has found his calling in life.

Not that his bed is one of roses. With a wry grin, he said, “If you live long enough – and I live long enough – I’ll definitely make everybody in this town mad at least once.â€?

JUST THE THREE OF US

The Hubbards of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot down in Wilkesboro own the Alleghany News, a 4,800-circulation weekly covering the mountain county of 10,000 souls.

Today’s workshop included Coby’s delightful intern, a bright local kid named Hannah Smith who is also a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill (and coincidentally the daughter of one of my old Sparta pals from way back when!)

And since there were only the three of us, the session turned into a spirited conversation. I was touched with how eager and receptive both Coby and Hannah were to hear coaching suggestions about how to improve the writing, photography and lay-out in the paper.

I came away from Sparta reaffirmed that these free, on-site journalism workshops are valuable and that they are working. Though the results may be difficult to quantify, I believe Johnny Appleseed would approve.

A NEWSPAPER WAR IN MT. AIRY
Wednesday, July 17

What would Sheriff Andy Griffith think about the newspaper brawl going on in his old Mayberry?

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a newspaper war going on in Mount Airy, where the upstart Surry Messenger launched a five-day-a-week daily paper on July 9 in response to the Heartland group’s purchase of Mid-south Management of Spartanburg in mid-June.

Previously, MSM owned the community papers not just in Mount Airy, but also Elkin, Yadkinville, West Jefferson and Stokes County. All were sold as part of a package deal with Heartland Publications LLC of Conn., which if my hunch is right, did what any new profit-driven out-of-town chain does when they purchase new properties: they make cuts.

Mt. AiryWhatever happened, the result was that many folks from both the Mount Airy News and the Elkin Tribune said in effect: No Way, Jose. We’ll just start our own daggum newspaper. And on July 9, that’s exactly what they did.

THEY’LL NEED THOSE DEEP POCKETS

After securing financial backing of a local investor who is said to have deep pockets, they set up shop in a local shopping center and went about the adventurous business of creating what Publisher Michael Milligan claims is the first daily start-up in North Carolina in 40 years.

And another thing the new paper’s leaders wanted me to know, the Messenger is an Investor-EMPLOYEE owned paper. That’s a different breed of cat, and accounts for the energy I witnessed at the Messenger office during my visit today.

The Messenger staff of 17 includes four staffers who had worked at Elkin and 13 who had worked at Mount Airy, including former Mount Airy News Publisher Michael Milligan, former Elkin Tribune Editor Rebel Good and former News Managing Editor Phil Goble.

The Messenger has a free home delivery circulation of 8,973, distributing mostly to northern Surry County for the time being. With about 80 rack locations, the Messenger’s circulation gets up to 10k daily. They are printed in High Point, an hour’s drive away.

At the Messenger, Milligan is publisher and Good is editor.

AND IT GETS MESSY

To make matters nastier, Heartland has sued the new paper, accusing them of “raidingâ€? (their word) their staff of key personnel, circulation records and computer passwords. I’m not going to stick my foot in this legal donnybrook. (For more information on the lawsuit, check out the work of Sherry Youngquist of the Winston-Salem Journal who has done some fine reporting on this story.) My job is to try and help ALL community newspapers of this state.

Meghan CookeThat’s what I was trying to do last month when I phoned the new editor of the Elkin Tribune, and when I began chatting about the change in ownership, he abruptly hung up on me.

In my publisher’s playbook, that is an unforgivable sin. You don’t hang up on people no matter what. So excuse me if I’m not feeling very charitable towards Heartland Publications LLC right now.

A LONG HISTORY

And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a decades long relationship with many of the folks at the old News and Tribune, several of whom have been longtime supporters of the Community Media Project and this Roadshow. Milligan and then Managing Editor Phil Goble hosted my Roadshow visit to the News a couple of summers ago, and Rebel Good, UNC-CH class of ‘69, had been at the Elkin Tribune for 29 years, since 1978!

I was so fond of Milligan and Goble that I placed one of my most outstanding community journalism students, Meghan Cooke, at the News for an internship there this summer, never suspecting that the rising junior from King might get caught up in the teeth of this newspaper slugfest.

Visiting and counseling with Meghan today, I was relieved to hear her say that the experience, though harrowing, has been valuable. With the News staff down to a skeleton crew, her workload (and number of clips) has increased tremendously, making her all but indispensable to the News.

IN ALL FAIRNESS

While I was in Mt. Airy, I paid a visit to the new News office where I was greeted courteously by Heartland’s new publisher, Gary Lawrence, who was kind enough to give me some of his time. Sitting in his office decorated with University of Alabama sports mementoes and memorabilia, we had a frank talk about the summer’s transition, and I left the News feeling a little better about Heartland.

MEANWHILE ACROSS TOWN…

At the busy office of the Messenger, I watched an impromptu newsroom jam session where publisher Milligan delivered a stirring pep talk. “We’re on the cutting edge!â€? he told his staff with the vigor of a high school football coach dishing out a halftime locker-room pep talk.

Messenger StaffIf Milligan is the high-energy football coach, then Good is the wise old civics teacher. Their chemistry works. In fact, the chemistry of the Messenger newsroom was palpable – the place looking trendy with a dozen white Mac desktops studded about the one wide-open room, an industrial work-in-progress atmosphere about the place supplied by wires dangling from an unfinished ceiling, and reporters rushing here and there, answering phones, hollering at each other – the complete opposite of my morning’s visit to the other paper, which I had found eerily quiet and with no sense of urgency.

And the Messenger is on the cutting edge. In a country where most all dailies are distributed by paid subscription, starting up a daily and offering it for free is a bold and risky business model.

But if anybody can make it work, these folks can.

Their online edition should be up and working some time in late July. Go to www.surrymessenger.com

TEACHING TEACHERS
Wilkesboro, July 17

Today I drove to the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County to talk to a bunch of middle school teachers about how to help kids see.

The brainchild of Sandy Cook, our school’s Newspapers in Education guru, this was the third such workshop I’ve helped her with in the last two summers. Last year, when I helped with similar workshops in Moravian Falls and Asheville, I was impressed with the dedication of these public school teachers.

Today was no different; 30-some teachers from Burke, Wilkes, Forsyth and Surry counties who were eager to learn how to use simple point-and-shoot photography to help kids grasp the basic vocabulary of visual communications.

I told them I wished that years ago I had had teachers who even knew a shred about different learning styles — for I’m a classic visual learner. Math? Forget it! But put the equation into a picture form – as in geometry — and I see the problem instantly.

Teach WilkesSo I showed these teachers examples of great photography: the masters and the Pulitzers. And I showed them photo projects their students could take on to help them express themselves visually and to hone their visual communications skills.

Along the way I hope I told them about the nobility and importance of our craft/art/profession.

“We’re never not teaching,â€? a wise old math teacher once told a faculty meeting years ago at Brevard College.

Repeat: “We’re never not teaching.â€? Forget the double-negative. There’s power in that mantra. It means: your open office door sends a message to students; your office door shut tight sends another.

As I think back to my great teacher/mentor/editors who helped shape me, they had a common trait: that they were always teaching, and that their “doors,â€? so to speak, were always open. Open to the wandering kid in search of a paper clip, a word of advice, a life.

And I told these teachers about Martha Gill, the English teacher and journalism advisor at Chapel Hill High School who first picked me out of the crowd and noticed me for who I really was.

Upon spying my humble scrapbook of snapshots one afternoon during a journalism club meeting, Mrs. Gill chirped brightly, “Why Jock, you’re a photographer!â€? — thus, with a single sentence, sending me on my lifelong career path.

Would that I could so launch young lives on their true trajectories.

Today as I led that session with these teachers, I could see in their faces the same unselfish passion to make a difference in some kid’s life. And today I was again proud to be a teacher.

TO THERE AND BACK

And thus ends the 7th Annual Johnny Appleseed, Willie Nelson, Charles Kuralt, James Taylor, Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, ‘Possum-Dodgin’ Summer Community Journalism Roadshow.

In three months the Roadshow workshops have reached 17 communities and/or newspapers across North Carolina:

Bryson City, the Smoky Mountain Times
Warrenton, the Warren Record
Littleton, the Lake Gaston Gazette
Burgaw, the Pender Post
Denton, the Denton Orator
Siler City/Pittsboro, the Chatham News and Record
Kenly, the Kenly News
Selma, the Selma News
Wilson’s Mills, the Wilson’s Mills News
Pine Level, the Pine Level News
Southern Pines, the Pilot (the U.S. Women’s Open golf championship)
Wilkesboro, Newspapers in Education, teachers’ workshop
Mount Airy, the Mount Airy News and the Surry Messenger
Sparta, the Alleghany News

ONWARD AND UPWARD

On my office back in Chapel Hill wall hangs a state map that now has 125 colored pins from Murphy to Manteo, each one pinpointing a community paper that the Roadshow has reached since the summer of 2001.

Where will the road take us next summer? And what new “road warriorâ€? shall we add to the Roadshow hall of fame?

Any suggestions?

As Frasier used to say: “I’m listening.â€?

jock@email.unc.edu

One Response to “In which the Roadshow climbs up the mountain…”

  1. Kim

    I’m in your old stomping grounds- Rutherford County- and I wish for a truly local paper. I was a reporter for a twice-weekly local in Middle Tennessee for years, and I miss the exclusivity and quirkiness of a community paper. I’ve googled the papers you’ve visited and have been delighted with the local personality of each. I’ve had lots of fun reading your blog and can’t wait for more!

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