The construction of a new town hall; plans for the annual autumn Pumpkin Festival; the dedication of a rebuilt country church following a devastating fire; the semi-annual Ruritan Club chicken barbecue â hardly the breathless âthis-just-inâ? breaking news of CNN â but to the folks of the Spring Hope Enterprise, this is the stuff of next weekâs front page.
My students and I know this firsthand because we are the reporters and photographers covering these seemingly ordinary events in the little town of Spring Hope (1,281) one hour east of here.
How did a band of UNC-Chapel Hill journalism students find themselves last week in what some would call âthe middle of nowhere?â?
Therein lies the tale.
THE BACK STORY
Remember the horrendous tornado of early May that leveled the little down of Greensburg, Kansas? I was sitting in front of my TV when I heard the editor of the Kiowa County Signal, standing there amid the rubble of his town, say practically in tears: I donât know how Iâm gonna do it, but Iâm gonna put a paper out next week.
I jumped right out of my chair and hollered: I need to be out there helping that guy! While I was figuring out how I could change all my summer plans and catch a flight to Kansas, I realized: Hold on, Kansas is not my turf.
So I buzzed my professor pals at Kansas State and the University of Kansas to see if they were springing into action. No, they hadnât done anything yet, but I was assured theyâd get right on it.
Then it occurred to me: Hey Lauterer, what would YOU do if an North Carolina community paper took a direct hit from a hurricane? How prepared are you? Do you have a Rapid Response Journalism Team primed and ready?
âWullâ¦.no, not exactlyâ¦â? I had to admit. And then the wheels starting turning. âBut maybe if I get off my duff and start planningâ¦.â?
WHY IT MATTERS
As the author of the book, âCommunity Journalism: Relentlessly Local,â? Iâve learned how vital community newspapers are to the maintenance of local civic life. Iâve seen it all too often: Towns without enlightened community papers are simply handicapped. Not surprisingly, strong papers are usually found in strong communities.
Iâve also witnessed how community papers serve their communities, particularly in times of crisis â most recently, the hundreds of Gulf Coast small local papers that not only survived Katrina/Rita, but kept publishing, saying to their towns and the world in general, âWeâre Still Here!â?
This heroism of everyday community journalism goes largely unheralded. Only when a little paper wins a Pulitzer does the world sit up and take notice. And thatâs fine; community papers arenât in the PR business. Theyâre in the business of serving their communities, pure and simple.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
So shouldnât it be the business also of the local colleges and universities to serve their communities too? Doggone right. And the notion ainât exactly mine. UNCâs legendary WW I-era president, Edward Kidder Graham, preached that the campus of this great university should be âcoterminousâ? with the borders of the state.
That is: the whole state is our campus!
Within a week of the Greensburg, Kansas, tornado I had fleshed out a plan for how a community journalism âbucket brigadeâ? could come to the aid of a Down East community newspaper in crisis. But then my thinking took another turn.
Why sit around and wait for disaster to strike? Find a community paper right now that needs help.
And that led us to Spring Hope, where I knew my long-time pal and veteran editor and publisher, Ken Ripley, was going in this month for a double hip replacement, a process that will require two separate operations and a lengthy recovery at home. Knowing the unstoppable Mr. Ripley, he refuses to miss an issue, putting out his paper via laptop from his bedside.
So how cool would it be for a UNC journalism class to form a âbucket brigadeâ? over to Spring Hope to help provide content for Ripleyâs beleaguered Enterprise?
As it turns out, itâs not just cool; itâs fun and productive. And if our first week is any indicator, the Bucket Brigade is also an invaluable learning experience.
As I watched my student reporters fanning out across town to do their stories and take their pictures, I became convinced they were learning far more than just lessons in journalism. Perhaps some of them were already realizing that âthe middle of nowhereâ? is the center of someone elseâs universe.
Jock Lauterer teaches community journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill where he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-962-6421.