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You’ve heard of the proverbial one-stoplight town. That would be Kenly, except that there’s a new red-light out there by 1-95. So I reckon they’ve hit the big-time now.

Still, little (pop. 1,784) Kenly in the eastern Johnston County, 30 miles from the hustle and bustle of Raleigh, retains its small-town feel — two stoplights or not.

One wonders when the explosive Johnston County sprawl will hit Kenly, on borrowed time for now. I bet the growth issues are already there, albeit muted compared to what’s coming down the pike, as it were.

I couldn’t help but like Kenly, where people waved at me – a rank stranger, as I drove through their town on this crystal clear July morning, washed free of the muggies by last night’s wave of thunderbumpers.

Kenly CSXTypical to many Southern railroad towns, what little traffic there is comes to a dead stop when the CSX freight train comes hooting through, loudly slicing down the center of Kenly like a hot knife through butter.

Right there in the heart of downtown I find the charming antique office of the Kenly News– a scene to warm the heart of Norman Rockwell: a converted 19th century general store complete with creaking wooden floors, high ceilings, the glass storefront displaying an old typewriter and camera collection, and even a cast iron, pot-bellied coal stove in the back, left over from the general store days.

Yes, they have modern HVAC and computers. But the paper’s office is a delightful throwback – even to the tall double glass front doors with original door handle and the brass bell that announces each entering reader with a musical “Ding!â€?

Talk about reader access. No surveillance camera; no armed guard in the lobby (no lobby!); no keypad to the newsroom. When I walked in, before anyone recognized me, someone gave me a friendly “Hey!â€? Little wonder I felt so immediately at home at the Kenly News.


Kenly BackshopThe husband and wife team of Rick and Karen Stewart own and publishes the News, Rick serving as editor and publisher, and Karen as co-publisher and office manager. If this is a “mom and popâ€? operation, it’s a good one.

The Stewarts were hyperlocal before there was such a word as hyperlocal.

Instead of putting out a countywide edition and having to go head-to-head with excellent community papers in Smithfield (the Herald) and Clayton (the News-Star), Stewart creates micro-editions for nearby small towns within his coverage area.

So in addition to the Kenly News and the neighboring Selma News (a one-woman show run by Kelly Lake, who does it ALL), his diverse staff also produces weeklies for Pine Level and Wilson’s Mills by making local fronts for both communities. The Kenly News’ second in command is News Editor Cami Jo Narron, who came to the paper as a graphic designer after taking classes at the local community college. Staff writer Jamie Hodges, who especially likes sports, came to the Kenly News from the Wilson paper. He’s workhorse; the week I was there Jamie had three out of the four front-page stories.

All four Stewart papers are printed by contract in Benson, where a press serves the printing needs of several area community papers that don’t own their own presses. (We did the same thing for years at my papers in Forest City and Marion before being able to buy and maintain an expensive newspaper press of our own.)

In small places, seemingly small news items have major impacts. Last the week the Kenly News led with a story about a local veteran doctor leaving town for better opportunities elsewhere. But the town had attracted a new librarian, so there was cause to celebrate some. Down in Selma, the paper there was following an ugly dispute between local firefighters and town government, and back in Kenly I learned than an escaped emu, which was still at large, had terrorized kids attending a local vacation bible school.

Other than that, it felt like a quiet week in Kenly/Selma/Pine Level/Wilson’s Mills.

Driving through one of North Carolina’s many small towns like Kenly, you have to ask yourself: who lives here and why? No bright lights/big city, for sure. The local Siemens plant is shutting down and moving to Mexico. To live in Kenly is to work elsewhere I’m told – Selma, Smithfield, Wilson or Goldsboro. In other words, you have to want to live in Kenly.

Happily, for Rick Stewart and other publishers of North Carolina community newspapers, many folks wouldn’t live anywhere else.

It’s the kind of place where, when asked to list briefly words that define their community, Kenly News staffers offered: community, family, school and church-oriented.

It’s the kind of place where before lunch, the newspaper staff says grace over the pizza.

It ain’t Chapel Hill, folks; it’s North Carolina.

Tobacco BarnAnd another thing: my travels to small-town-N.C. defy the stereotypes of “sleepy towns nestling…â€?

Every town I go to invariably surprises me with some best-kept secret: the historic homes of Warrenton, the Old Threshers’ Reunion in Denton, the Yam Festival in Tabor City – and in Kenly’s case, the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

Not a stone’s throw from downtown, an authentically restored tobacco farmstead rests tranquilly beneath the towering loblolly pines — complete with tobacco barn, homestead, outbuildings, farm equipment working blacksmith’s shop, and most recently, a historic one-room schoolhouse. I am further impressed to learn that the Tobacco Farm Life Museum is the result of local initiative and local financial support. You go, Kenly! What a great place to bring kids to show them what rural North Carolina farm life used to looked like.

Next time you’re near Kenly, (exit 107 off I-95 with easy access), this is a must for history buffs.

For an old newsie-turned-“perfesser,â€? nothing beats getting out of the classroom and into the newsroom.

When classes are over in May, I put Chapel Hill in the rear-view mirror as I hit the road, leading journalism workshops at community newspapers from Murphy to Manteo.

U.S. Open StaffThen, if I’m really lucky, I’ll find a community paper that needs a helping hand for some special project. The ol’ perfesser got a reality gut-check when he joined the fine staff of the Pilot of Southern Pines as they went daily once again for the U.S. Women’s Golf Championship at Pine Needles in Pinehurst earlier this month.

This was the brainchild of publisher David Woronoff who refuses to be intimidated by the national and international media presence in his county. His response to a major golfing event is to convert his tri-weekly into a daily for the duration of the tournament.

To pull this off, he has enlisted the help of several volunteers to help crank out the “US OPEN DAILY,â€? eight 72-page tabloid morning editions that put the competition to shame.

I’ve joined The Pilot family for three of the five U.S. Opens held at Pinehurst: ’99, ’05 and again this summer.

What a treat. I got an insider’s view of a top-quality community newspaper doing some of the very best “relentlessly localâ€? journalism around.

Pardon the vernacular, but as the expression goes: It don’t get no better than this.

Erin FranceAs I sat in the bustling media tent, in front of me the humongous media scoreboard stretched 60 feet across the room. Perhaps you’ve heard about the “Asian Invasionâ€? of women golfers from mainly Korea. I’m counting: 10 Kims, six Parks and six Lees.

That still doesn’t get me off the hook for misidentifying Grace Park in Monday’s paper as “Grace Kim.â€? In the ol’ perfesser’s class back at UNC, such a factual error gets a kid an automatic 50.

Bad perfesser. BAD!

I’m not sure how it came to be, but The Pilot crew had a front-row seat in the media tent where about 400 other media folk were massed — on our left, The N&O, and on our right, USA TODAY.

Not too shabby. Reminds me of Pilot publisher David Woronoff’s mantra: “We may be small-town, but we’ll never be small-time.â€?

Cover PhotoIn the ’99 Open, Pilot photojournalists shot film and processed it at a one-hour place. In ’05, we’d gone digital and were able to send photos by email. Now by ’07, photo-technology has gotten even slicker. Photographer Joann Dost had a Star Wars camera that allowed her to dictate caption information into the back of her camera.

Can you imagine what media technology will be like in ’14?

We’ll see. I plan to be there!

Through seven days of grueling heat, sweat soaked through shirt, pants and photo vest, blisters on toes and plenty of SPF 48, the old bod did pretty well for all its 62 years. Only my dogs suffered. On my feet marching around the dusty eight miles of Pine Needles from 8-5 daily…who needed “exerciseâ€? after that? I needed NEW DOGS.

Cover PhotoAfter shooting the US Women’s Open for the Pilot, I have a new respect for older workers who must stand or walk during their entire shift. Ouch!

One the best things about a great newsroom is great friends. I truly felt that David Woronoff had pulled together a bunch of folks who honestly liked being around each other – much less working together. Did we have fun? You betcha.

I’ll remember Lee Pace whose sportswriting  sometimes resembled poetry…Brad King for his companionable nature… Gordon White for his wry sense of humor… photo editor Sandie Rose for her grace under pressure… golf writing guru Jim Dodson who wouldn’t let a little thing like a gall bladder on the fritz keep him down…sports editor Hunter Chase who kept us all in stitches …veteran golf writer Howard Ward who keeps saying “this is my last US Open…â€? and then keeps coming back…â€?My reporterâ€? and future Pulitzer-prize winner, Erin France…veteran Pilot editor “back at the mole holeâ€? and bud extraordinaire Steve Bouser… and finally Woronoff, who on the first day told us all gathered for our first staff meeting: “Stay loose and have fun!â€? And he also noted we were surrounded by major media outlets, but that he expected that we would administer the shoe leather to their nether regions.

Looking back at our work, I believe we did kick some___.

Next week the Roadshow heads west as I lead a visual communications workshop for middle school teachers in Wilkes County, go to Mt. Airy to check out the brand-new Surry Messenger, an outrageous start-up, and then take a sentimental journey to the little mountain town of Sparta and the Alleghany News where I served as a “green-as-grass” editor of that one-man-paper fresh out of college many moons ago.

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