As the reader can deduce from the name of this journal, I have a love-hate relationship with interstate highways.
They get me to my mountain cabin quickly, dependably and predictably without a red light between Chapel Hill and Marion in 3 hours, 22 minutes and 33 seconds.
But do I SEE anything, or EXPERIENCE anything along the way. No, I do not.
But contrast, Blue Highways, where one must travel slowly, observe the roadside vernacular and absorb the life alongside, commands that you savor the trip and “celebrate the ordinary.”
Be that as it may, to get to Henderson from here, one hour northeast of Chapel Hill, one is practically forced to get on that 1-85 treadmill — and thus my oblique introduction to the Roadshow visit to the Henderson Daily Dispatch, a Paxton Media Group community daily, that owes much, — as does its namesake city, (pop. 15,265) — to the proximity of that very interstate. Without I-85, Henderson might just as well be like Ahoskie: cut off and a challenge to get to.
Facing the challenges of a changing economic landscape
Yet even with a major north-south interstate linking it to Virginia to the north and the Research Triangle to the south, Henderson is challenged: with an estimated median household income of $25,907, 44 percent of the county kids qualifying for free school lunches, and a 5 percent population loss since 2000. It used to be known for its textiles, hosiery and tobacco production, but that was then; this is now. Unemployment stands at 6.7 percent as compared to the NC rate of 4.7 percent. And only 34 percent of households have home computers. (Data gathered from the Dispatch, homefacts.com and city-data.com)
Given these facts, all the more reason for a community paper like the Dispatch to roll up its sleeves and get busy with the never-ending task of community-building. In the words of Southern Pines PILOT publisher David Woronoff, “community is not a noun; it’s a verb.”
Historically, Henderson has served as the traditional market hub for the three county area, with Henderson’s home county of Vance being bracketed by Granville County to the west and Warren County to the east.
It struck me as too-wide coverage area for a small (approx. 8,000 circulation) daily (except Monday). But as Publisher Nancy Wykle explained, as the only daily in the three-county region, they feel obligated to cast their net that wide.
Veterans in the newsroom
As is the case with the best community papers I run across, the newsroom at the Dispatch includes some key veteran staffers with “feet-on-the-street/mud-on-their-boots” experience that anchors the newspaper, which also has its share of newbies/cub reporters.
Publisher Wykle is the former editor of the Durham Herald-Sun; Photo Chief Mark Dolejs is also a Herald-Sun veteran. I’ve known both of these fine journalists for several dozen years, so it’s good to see that they are committed to raising this paper up. Indeed, Mark won the prestigious NCPA Photographer of the Year award last year. And finally there’s Managing Editor Vanessa Shortley, who earned her spurs at the News of Orange County in Hillsborough.
Other staffers include Ryan Hedrick, crime reporter; David Irvine, part-time staff writer; Ryan Leger, sports editor; Allison Tretina, staff writer; and Tiffany Hudson, sections editor.
Our workshop in Henderson was enhanced by a delegation of folks from the J-school, including my dear young colleague Assistant Professor Joe Cabosky and Craig Anderson, the project director of the school’s new Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media; and former Visiting International Scholar and Associate Professor Chen Kai of Beijing’s Communication University of China. Then from the Durham-based youth development NGO Partners for Youth Opportunity, we were joined by Teen Mentoring Coordinator Carlton Koonce and PYO teen intern Diana Lopez, a staff writer for our Durham VOICE.
After the workshop, as we were enjoying a casual lunch in the newsroom, it was so fulfilling to observe the interaction and informal mentoring that young Dispatch staffer Allison Tretina was having with high schooler Diana Lopez.
The staffers told us that Vance County residents are welcoming, proud church-going folks. And that the hope for the future rests in growth areas of tourism, health care, schools, government and downtown revitalization. The town’s proximity to Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston make it a real draw for fishing and boating as well as water sports recreation activities.