The more I study community newspapers, the more different types of papers I’m finding out there.
From Chapel Hill to China and from Murphy to Manteo, the variety of niche, hyper-local, print-based publications is both eyebrow-raising and encouraging to this unapologetic newspaper wonk.
Meet the Mountain Breeze of Lake Lure, N.C., which I’d label a “hobby newspaper,” or maybe a retirement newspaper — meaning that I suspect its owners never set out to make a fortune with the paper, but rather to serve the community and give its owners something to do.
I also call such publications, “invisible newspapers.” I use the term “invisible” not as a negative, but as an identifier: because the Breeze is not a member of the established press trade groups like the North Carolina Press Association or the National Newspaper Association; they don’t send their people to journalism workshops — nor have many professional journalists outside Rutherford County ever heard of the Breeze. They are not a part of the mainstream N.C. community press.
Be that as it may, as I travel these “blue highways,” I’m beginning to appreciate the community-building role played by such undocumented community newspapers, quietly plugging away out there, under the radar. (And I further suspect that every state contains dozens of such invisible community newspapers.)
For while in the big picture, the Breeze under the radar, in Lake Lure, the Breeze IS the radar.
Not your typical town
The Breeze is located in the historic N.C. mountain resort village of Lake Lure — nestled around an old hydroelectric project and under the deep shadows of “Rumbling Bald” and the cliffs of Hickory Nut Gorge and one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, Chimney Rock State Park.
Like many historic tourist destinations, Lake Lure is a lively mix of year-round locals, weekend day-trippers, aging bikers, country club and golf retirees (many from Florida and other points north) — all this making for interesting and lively times in local governance.
Back when I was running papers in this neck of the woods, Lake Lure was considered sort of poor-man’s Riviera, and blue collar get-away. Today, it is still an easy and convenient mountain daytrip from the sweltering flatlands east and south, so folks from Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., can get their mountain fix without trekking all the way to the high mountains farther to the west.
While location location location has always been in Lake Lure’s favor when it came to tourism, the Hickory Nut Gorge area’s relative isolation had a different effect on local media attention.
Deemed too far away to merit much news coverage from distant larger towns except in case of extreme disaster, Lake Lure went for decades without any local media outlet.
All that began to change in the mid-‘80s when Rumbling Bald Resort, a new golf community, launched an in-house and marketing newsletter named the Mountain Breeze. It caught the eye of retired Gastonia Gazette editor Bill Williams and his wife, Betty, who in 1987, acquired the Breeze and began crafting it into a quarterly published community newspaper.
The current owners, David and Cathy Leestma, bought the paper in ’05, expanding it into a bi-monthly covering the Hickory Nut Gorge area communities of Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and Bat Cave. The Breeze went online in 2006 mountainbreezenews.com
Getting the scoop on the Breeze
To get the scoop on the Breeze, I meet Breeze Editor Janette Harvey at the best barbecue place in Western North Carolina, which happens to be a stone’s throw away from my cabin, just seven miles from Lake Lure.
Let it be noted that Janette doesn’t call herself the editor; I do.
She calls herself “Breeze associate” — but to me she’s the boots-on-the-ground manager, ad sales coordinator, circulation director and all-purpose utility infielder and one-woman band. The masthead lists owners David and Cathy Leestma as editor/publisher and advertising/business, respectively.
Content comes from a host of unpaid volunteer columnists who write on everything from fishing, books, the arts, health, real estate, home improvement, gardening, local history, birds, travel, faith, cars, genealogy, golf, and coin collecting. Janette says many of these columnists have been writing for the Breeze for years.
As we are chowing down at Mike’s Cove Creek Barbecue on highway 64/74, Janette explains that the Breeze “isn’t news related, not political, nothing negative…it’s a change of pace from all the stuff going on the in the world — plane crashes and border crossings — but it is community related, You find out what’s going on here, so it helps bring the community together. Everybody loves this paper.”
Space is given to regular columns from the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor and the Town of Lake Lure’s environmental management officer.
The Breeze has a fairly consistent group of local advertisers, many of whom appear to be like barbecue magnate Mike who tells Janette, “Just keep the ad running until I tell you not to.”
Because it’s a bi-monthly, the Breeze has a long shelf life, she says, “It’s more like a magazine than a newspaper. People hang onto it, and don’t throw it away.”
The paper’s growth is reflected in its expansion this summer to a monthly. Editor/Publisher David Leestma writes by email, “…we went monthly for the summer this year to meet the high season demand and with excellent results, we plan to do so in the future.”
The Breeze has a lean business model that relies heavily on the Web: Janette is the sole employee in Lake Lure and handles everything from home, including all her ad sales, most of which is done over phone or by e-mail. A reliable stable of long-time columnists email in their regular topical columns. Production folks are spread all over the map: The Breeze webmaster lives in Charleston, S.C.; their layout person works from home in Belmont; the graphic artist is in Ellenboro; and owners David and Cathy Leestma work much of the year out of their in their primary home in California. Such an arrangement would have been untenable 20 years ago.
Technology allows the Breeze to be printed in distant Gastonia, where the Gazette presses run off 6,600-7,000 copies of the 48-page tabloid paper.
Janette and her strapping 15-year-old grandson, Henry Elmore, deliver the free papers to some 75 drop spots in and around the Hickory Nut Gorge area as well as to points east to Rutherfordton, Forest City and Ellenboro — a task she says she truly enjoys. “I like to go out and meet the people,” she says.
The Breeze has 20 primary high-traffic drop spots that Janette re-stocks every Friday, sometimes not being able to keep up with the demand, she says.
“I leave 150 papers at Ingles, and sometimes they’re gone by the end of the day. To me, that tells me people read it. This is the real thing.”
As the Breeze has grown, so has the community of Lake Lure. Janette points to a new doctor’s office, school, visitor center, state park, sporting activities, an annual dragon boat race, an annual “Polar Plunge” on New Year’s Day, and the 5th annual “Dirty Dancing” movie festival which celebrates the ‘80s cult movie filmed there, and the 10th annual Lake Lure Olympiad, a runner’s road race/triathlon that raises funds for local charities.
Going on their 28th year
With all its feel-good, non-watchdog, non-confrontational content, it would be easy to dismiss the Lake Lure Mountain Breeze as a tourist rag, a fluff-piece, a chamber of commerce mouthpiece.
But I’m not about to do that. I live in Carrboro; so I know what a town is like when it has no newspaper. And I’ve seen how empty and incomplete a community feels when it loses that independent hyper-local voice.
Editor/Publisher David Leestma says it like this in an e-mail, “With a family history connected to Lake Lure since the ’60’s, Cathy and I are strongly invested in this community and believe, as do so many Breeze readers say, that The Mountain Breeze captures the spirit, essence and vitality of this beautiful region and its people. We are committed to making that so for a very long time.”
Be it ever so humble, the Breeze serves a very real purpose, satisfying a need for local information and filling a niche in the business market.
As Janette Harvey says, “It’s been here going on 28 years. We must be doing something right.”