In which the Johnny Appleseed Summer Community Journalism Roadshow takes to the High Country of Ashe, Avery and Watauga Counties for a workshop at the five papers included in Mountain Times Publications. This is the 16th summer of these workshops, a public service initiative of the UNC-CH School of Media and Journalism, and its Carolina Community Media Project, led by founding director Jock Lauterer.
Fresh off a three-week teaching gig in China and barely over jet lag, “Mr Joke” kicked off the 16th annual North Carolina Summer Johnny Appleseed Community Journalism Roadshow with a rousing workshop, Friday, June 3, at the Mountain Times Publications group of newspapers in Boone, including the Watauga Democrat, the Blowing Rocket, the Avery Journal-Times, the Ashe Mountain Times and the Mountain Times.
Led by group Publisher Gene Fowler Jr., the five weeklies are not just profitable, they have also enjoyed another banner year, veteran newspaperman Fowler says proudly.
Part of the Formula
If there is a tried and true formula I’ve observed over the years at the best community papers, certainly one of the ingredients is continuity of personnel in the newsroom.
To my way of thinking, low newsroom turnover sends a clear message to the reading public: our people are locals with the same shared concerns, goals and values as you. And our reporters are not journalistic carpetbaggers, suitcase reporters or parachute journalists — a charge that has been leveled with some justification, particularly at local TV news.
So as the newsroom crew of the five papers filed into the conference room, I was struck by the recognition of familiar faces..
Wait! Weren’t you here back in ’06 when I did my first Roadshow to Boone?
Yes, indeed — and many of these good folk were about to get their second dose of Mr. Joke.
The workshop attendees included: from the Watauga Democrat, (in Boone) Tom Mayer, Garrett Price, Anna Oakes, and Steve Behr; from the Avery Journal-Times, (in Newland) Jamie Shell, Rob Moore, Laney Ruckstuhl and Matt Debnam; from the Ashe Mountain Times, (in West Jefferson) Eric Hoffmann and James Howell; from the Blowing Rocket, (in Blowing Rock) Jeff Eason; and from the Mountain Times, (a three-county compendium) executive editor Tom Mayer. Last but not least comes Publisher Fowler’s son, Trey, a 2014 UNC J-School grad, who is working on the advertising end. Also attending were Sherri Norris, editor of All About Women, a glossy high-end magazine produced by the company; and James Luke Barber, an intern at the Avery Journal-Times.
Driving the High Country Economic Engine
Tourism and Appalachian State University are the economic drivers of “The High Country,” the region comprised of the three northwestern counties of Ashe, Avery and Watauga where these papers thrive. So not surprisingly, Fowler’s team cranks out multiple specialty publications – all very profitable.
Fowler proudly told me that “half of our bottom line comes from niche publications,” including special sections and magazines such as, an annual three-county prep sports graduation edition, vacation guides for Boone and Blowing Rock, guides to annual seasonal special events such as the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain and the Woolly Worm Festival at Banner Elk, as well as a slick, high-end women’s magazine.
Call it Mountain Cred
I love this part of the state. Its rich history and mountain culture is dear to me. My first college newspaper internship was in WNC, as they call this 18-county region. And my first editorship — at the ripe old age of 23 — was at the Alleghany News, a one-man, eight-page weekly in tiny Sparta. Additionally, my first marriage was to a “mountain girl.” And if a flatlander wants to get “dug in” with the locals, that’s about the most immersive and effective way I know of. Thirty-three years after our divorce, I am still known to some folks up yonder as “Maggie’s husband.”
Additionally, Publisher Fowler reminded me that back in the early ‘80s, when I was founding publisher of the McDowell Express in Marion, (and Fowler was a high school kid), I actually competed against his dad, Gene Fowler Sr., publisher of my bitter rival paper, the McDowell News.
In one of the most unique introductions I’ve ever had, Publisher Fowler told the workshop crew that around the Fowler household, back during the Marion newspaper wars of ‘80-’83, I was known as “that damn sonofabitch.”
Both papers were too proud to sell out to the other, and it took an outside third party to settle the kerfuffle. As irony would have it, it was Roy Park Sr. who bought out both papers.
Yes, that Roy Park— as in Roy Park of the Park Fellowships and the Park Library at the UNC J-school where I now teach.
But I digress…
Who’s Teaching Whom?
As with so much of education, I feel as if I’m not so much lecturing as I am unleashing talents, giving kids permission to be great, unfettering pent-up dreams. With apologies to Ol’ Roy, (who holds a master’s degree in education from UNC!), I’m convinced that the best coaches teach and that the best teachers coach.
I was reminded of how much I still had to learn about this region when the workshop attendees launched our interactive exercise: each team from each paper attacked flip-chart size Post-Its with colored markers, drawing a basic map of their coverage area, filling it in with locations of key news generating sites — schools, courthouse, watering holes…sort of a “Ashe, Avery, Watauga County Map for Dummies.”
The idea of the exercise is for them to team up to educate ME – as if I am a brand-new cub reporter on my first day at their paper. What do I need to know strategically and immediately about where stuff is and who to talk to and where to find them? And then drilling down further, I asked each team to articulate with just a handful of words, the mood, the vibe, the zeitgeist, of their respective counties.
The results were – and always are – insightful, instructive and educational.