Letâs get this straight: Newspapers are not vanishing. At least not my kind of newspapers.
Yes, many major metros are in a circulation free-fall. But not my guys. The small, local or what we call âcommunity newspapersâ? â papers with circulations below 50k, many of them found off the interstates on the so-called âblue highwaysâ? of this nation â are doing very well, thank you.
In fact, these ârelentlessly localâ? papers are so quietly successful that big-city papers have finally noticed and are copying them! Ex: pick up todayâs N&O and count the number of local stories on the front page.
North Carolina has only seven papers that might be considered major metros â all the rest are âmy peepsâ? (as my hip Carrboro daughter calls âher peopleâ?) â this includes the 192 weeklies and small dailies of the Old North State.
If youâre like me, numbers make your eyes glaze over. So Iâll make this quick. Of the 9,321 newspapers in the U.S. only 217 are considered âlarge.â?
Now listen to this stat: statewide and nationwide 97 percent of our newspapers are SMALL PAPERS. And they reach almost three times as many readers as do âbigâ? papers.
OK, enough math. Letâs cut to the chase.
SO WHAT AND WHO CARES?
Veteran editor/professor Jim Shumaker used to demand that of his reporters when they pitched him a story: Tell me why this matters!
These are the papers that tell you when your garbage pick-up has changed, what the town council is up to, whoâs going to be the quarterback this week, when the library will open, why the school board decided to adopt a year-round calendar, whatâs for lunch at the school, who made the honor roll, when that road widening project will be done and how best to avoid traffic jamsâ¦
These are also the papers where many of our students get their first internships and many grads get their first jobs. Just looking at the sheer numbers, wouldnât you think itâs the job a great public university to service this industry?
That was my thinking when in 2001 we launched the Carolina Community Media Project as a way to help strengthen the stateâs community papers â both rural and suburban. The real reason âShuâ? would pay attention to my pitch: the better the community paper, the more likely it is that that community will have a vital civic life and a sense of pride in place â both keys to high livability in a free democratic society.
The better the paper; the better the community.
It ainât rocket science, but Iâve seen that dynamic at work too many times in too many places to discount the link.
So how can I, just one person, make a difference here?
Thatâs where Johnny Appleseed comes in.
THE HAPPY WANDERER
As a child I loved the story of Johnny Appleseed, the wandering pioneer nurseryman, planting seedlings for free wherever he went. In my Little Golden Book, Appleseed was barefoot, skinny, bearded and whistling, toting a backpack full of tiny saplings — happy in his work.
I was particularly captivated by Johnny Appleseedâs selfless work ethic, as he knelt to dig a hole, pop in a tiny sprout, back-fill the hole lovingly and then move on to the next farm or village, perhaps never to see the fruits of his labor. But the man didnât need accolades or affirmation; he knew he was doing what we Southerners call âthe Lordâs work.â?
Reading my Little Golden Book, I thought to myself: Would that someday I could be so happy in my work.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
And so it has come to pass. When, in the summer of 2001 I set out on the first series of free, on-site workshops for small newspapers around the state, itâs not surprising that Johnny Appleseedâs name and vision sprang to mind.
Co-sponsored by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Carolina Center for Public Service, the âroadshowâ? needed a descriptive handle. What better than that of the happy wanderer, planting seedlings wherever he went?
Thus the name was coined: the Johnny Appleseed Summer Community Journalism Roadshow.
The name was so catchy that smart-aleck colleagues began suggesting that I add the name of a new road warrior for each succeeding summerâs workshop. So today it has come to this:
The Johnny Appleseed, Charles Kuralt, Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, âPossum-Dodgin,â Summer Community Journalism Roadshow.
Hereâs how a typical roadshow visit goes:
I meet with the newsroom staff from 10 a.m.-noon for a âCommunity Journalism 101â? group session. All we need is place everyone can sit, a table to place a projector, an electrical outlet and a light-colored wall.
Lunch can be together, separate, catered, whatever. Most often the paper picks up this expense, but that is not required.
Then I do one-on-one coaching sessions all afternoon. Eight folks max, roughly 20-30 minutes. I ask reporters to bring two clips of good stories and two clips of one they struggled with. Sort of the good the bad and the ugly. We brainstorm about what made the good ones good and what made the less good ones turkeys. It’s coaching. Not a critique.
People should leave feeling good about themselves and their role in the community. For my part, I try to equip them with some constructive ideas about how to ramp up their work.
Oh, and about those Pac-Man antennae? Well, when I come to your town, youâll get it.
FROM WARRENTON AND BEYOND
This yearâs Roadshow kicked off on May 16 in the lovely historic town of Warrenton, an hour and a half northeast of Chapel Hill, up I-85 and then off east on another of the stateâs âblue highwaysâ? into the farmland of Warren County.
At the charming mainstreet office of the Warren Record, I was greeted enthusiastically by redheaded editor Jennifer Harris, a native Warrentonian with a zest for the profession and a passion to help better her struggling community, where 25 percent of the storefronts are empty.
The Record, with a staff of about four, is a typical weekly in that everybody there does a little bit of everything. They are owned by Womack, a small group out of Chatham, Va., that also owns a bunch of other N.C. weeklies â so folks at my workshop were also from the Lake Gaston Gazette of Littleton, the Mebane Enterprise and the News of Orange County from Hillsborough.
ALIKE BUT DIFFERENT
Every newspaper has a distinct personality, history and culture. The Record serves a small poor mostly rural county that has yet to feel the benefits of the booming economy of the Triangle. The town itself is a historical gem with Victorian homes lining the shady main street. Perhaps not surprisingly, the great North Carolina writer Reynolds Price is from nearby Macon.
Warrentonâs downtown is in the midst of a revitalization project, and I left there feeling a little ashamed that as a native Tar Heel, I knew so little about this place. The folks at the Record aimed to fix that, loading me down with all sorts of brochures and literature (and even a CD!) promoting their community.
A LAKE NEWSPAPER
Meanwhile, northeast of Warrenton up the road in Littleton, Editor Doug Hughes faces a different challenge at the weekly Lake Gaston Gazette. In my notes from the workshop I wrote, âThe Gazette serves a community with no clear center.â? Instead, Hughesâ readers are united only by the lake, their love of the water, and living that lifestyle. It is a disparate readership the Gazette strives to unite, and theyâve got their work cut out for them.
IN THE CROSS-HAIRS
The newspapers of Mebane and Hillsborough, thought distinct, are more alike because they are both caught in the cross hairs of the Triangle/Triad growth dynamic. Both towns, accessible just off major interstates, are growing like Topsy with new developments popping up like mushrooms in former farmlands. (Little wonder that Orange County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state.) Editors of both papers expressed concern over the rampant growth in their respective communities where new residents are likely to work in some distant office park and only come âhomeâ? to Mebane or Hillsborough to sleep. How does a community newspaper instill a sense of community stakeholdership in what is becoming a bedroom community? Thatâs much of the challenge for the folks at the Mebane Enterprise and News of Orange County.
NOTHING COULD BE FINER
MAY 24, 2007
Nothing could be finer than to set out on a pristine morning in May and hit the North Carolina backroads. I get to see the Tar Heel state in a way few âperfessersâ? do.
Midway between Pittsboro and Siler City, where the highway 64 unrolls across the rolling fields of Chatham County like long hall carpet, in a meadow there stands the most unusual object.
Or pair of objects. In the waving field of hip-tall grass two stark rock pillars, side by side, identical, except one is built of blond stone and the second is made of black rock. Built by a local rockmason, the twin pillars are one manâs personal tribute to the victims of the Twin Towers, a sobering monument, incongruous in the summer morningâs sparking sunlight.
I pass the mini-twin towers on the highway going too fast; then consider, find a turnaround, and returning to wade into the dew-soaked vetch and clover to get the photograph.
THE CHATHAM NEWS AND RECORD
The Chatham News (in Siler City) and the Chatham Record (in Pittsboro) represent one of my favorite types of papers: a family-owned, independent, fiercely local newspaper that is run, edited and produced by folks who have lived there a long time.
Writer Milburn Gibbs is one of the paperâs walking history books.
Hereâs just some of what âperfesser Gibbsâ? taught me during my visit to their fine paper:
â¢ Charlie Daniels (âThe Devil Went Down to Georgiaâ?) is from Gulf in southern Chatham.
â¢ The original founders of the University first considered the Chatham community of Haywood for the building site, but rejected it because they feared the town had too many taverns.
â¢ Silk Hope, up in the north central, gets its unusual name because it was the site an ill-fated Chinese silkworm industry venture.
In Siler City, where Latinos make up about 50 percent of the townâs population, the numbers are even higher in the schools. I was told that approx. 73 percent of the schoolkids are Latino. Yet only about four teachers speak Spanish. At the paper one reporter speaks a little Spanish. The staff acknowledged this is a huge issue for them and their community. I suggested implementing a bi-lingual column, produced perhaps by the local Hispanic support agency, similar to Chapel Hill-Carrboroâs El Centro Latino.
A HOUSE DIVIDED
When I asked the staff of the Chatham News and Record to draw me a big map of the county and to orient me as if I were a new reporter on the first day at the job â they drew and quartered the county. Straight down the middle, north to south, and then left to right, east to west. But mainly, they wanted me to know the North-South line was important, like a Mason-Dixon line. Siler City, with 7,000 folks, anchors âWest Chathamâ? and is a âwhole nother place,â? from arty, eclectic (read: liberal) Pittsboro to the east, which also serves as the County Seat.
And then thereâs âNorthern Chatham,â? an area so far removed philosophically, demographically and politically from Siler City that you could almost see the staffers wanting to put on their map: âBeyond Here, There Be Dragons.â?
As one reporter told me: Pittsboro and Northern Chatham really belong in the Triangle, while Siler City and West Chatham are more a part of the Triad.
Quite understandably, staffers considered Northern Chatham, (heavily populated by people like me: NIMBY university-types) to be more of a âChapel Hill-Southâ? than true Chatham.
And as another reporter told me, âI havenât done a story up there in ages.â?
I told them I thought they ought to start paying attention to folks âup there,â? or else the N&O or Durham would.
All the same, the Chatham News and Record is a wonderfully lively, ârelentlessly localâ? and delightful paper to read. It took me 30 minutes just to wade through the first of THREE sections of that weekâs paper. Again, all local. Not a shred of wire copy or canned stuff. The paper is lovingly and skillfully edited by Randall Rigsbee, while the photo and layout work of veteran shooter Jeff Davis cannot be valued highly enough.
And the fact that the paper publishes exclusively in what I call âvivid black-and-whiteâ? and yet retains its appealing visual character, is quite an accomplishment in 2007. Whenâs the last time you saw a non-color newspaper you couldnât put down?
THE DENTON ORATOR
MAY 25, 2007
West of Siler City down highway 49 out of Asheboro, the âback way to Charlotte,â? many a traveler is greeted by the unexpected sight of rolling green hills and distant green vistas more akin to the Ozarks or central Pennsylvania. These are the Uwharries, noble remnants of an ancient mountain range.
Past a town aptly named âFarmer, my car radio is off and the windows are open to greet the song of the killdeer or the sight of new-mown hay rolled in giant cylinders dotting the manicured hillsides.
Little wonder then that tiny Denton is home to the 37th Annual Southeast Old Threshersâ Reunion, billed as the âgreatest steam, gas and antique farm machine show in the Southeastern U.S.â? attracting 60,000 visitors to the four-day fest, June 30-July 4.
Denton is also the home of a newspaper with one of the most unusual names. The Denton Orator was started and named by publisher Stan Bingham in 1995, and frankly, I picked this paper for this yearâs Roadshow out of sheer curiosity.
With a name like the Orator, it had to be a cool paper.
And so it is. And paperâs newsroom is one of the most attractive facilities for a small paper youâll ever see: a converted classic small-town pre-WW II era corner bank, featuring huge windows and spacious high-ceilinged rooms. The colorful walls (painted by these three energetic newsies) makes a fine display area for area artists.
Of all the over 100 newspapers Iâve visited in these seven years, the Orator is the one that reminds me the most of my own two papers in Rutherford and McDowell Counties, where a staff of three or four produced not just a quality paper, but had FUN doing it â where fun was a core work ethic, and where the chemistry, camaraderie and culture of community in that newsroom was so real it was downright contagious.
I know Iâve never spent so much time laughing during one of my workshops as I did the other day with Toni Covington Ayers, Kelly Bledsoe and Tennille Sullins, the three jolly women at the Denton Orator.
âItâs a miracle,â? exclaimed Toni when a reader came in with box of doughnuts for the staff. âStuff like this happens all the time. Since Iâve come to work here Iâve gained 30 pounds!â?
Dressed informally in summer outfits and sandals, these women clearly know how to work hard and play hard.
They even pulled off a luncheon picnic out in the town park right across the street from the paper office. I presumed it was held in my honor. But no â they told me they try to do this kind of thing every week. This picnic was complete with homemade cherry ice cream! How cool is that?
Little Denton, pop. 1,500, is described by the staff as being âliterally 20 miles from everywhere,â? and it is this classic small-town appeal that makes Denton increasingly attractive to newcomers seeking asylum from distant urban areas. Says Editor Toni Covington Ayers, âYou can drive from Charlotte to here in about the same time as it takes you to get from one side of Charlotte to the other.â?
From my experience at the Orator, I got the distinct impression that Denton readers know what a jewel theyâve got. With a healthy circulation of 2,600 in a town almost half that size, the Orator represents the best of our business.
Discussing the joys and sorrows of writing for a hometown newspaper where the writer is likely to know most everyone in town, Toni told me about the time an obituary came across her desk describing the death of a local child who she had known had been fighting leukemia.
âI put it off and put it off, but then finally, I had to write the story. And I just sat there writing and crying.â?
âWriting and crying.â? That pretty well says it all, when the community journalist has to write the story that tears your heart out, but you know you have to write it anyway.
When it was time to go, I wanted one more photograph: of the four of us out in front of the paper office. Kelly went and recruited a woman from a nearby law office to make the photo. But when we posed, and the woman began to take the photo as a horizontal, I could see the picture needed to be a vertical.
To our volunteer photographer, I hollered, âTurn it sideways.â?
To which the poor woman frowned, and than bent over like a pretzel, sideways.
âNo,â? I blurted, âNot you! It!â?
At which point all five of us dissolved into helpless laughter.
Later that night when I got home, I had already received an e-mailed photograph from the good women at the Orator â all in a row bending over sideways â accompanied by the admonition: âDonât forget to turn it sideways once in awhile!â?
So thanks, Denton, thanks for the lessons, the laughs â and the ice cream!
Oh, and one more thing. Kelly Bledsoe took my photo class at UNC back in â84. In two years Iâm liable to have her daughter in the same class. Oy!
Well, letâs go Down East this week to Burgaw and the Pender Post. Then on to Southport and the State Port Pilot. Later in June the Roadshow will be in Pinehurst to help with the Southern Pines Pilotâs coverage of the U.S. Womenâs Golf Championship.
Meanwhile Iâm keepinâ it out of the ditches.
Yr hmbl svt