THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS
By Jock Lauterer
Early one Saturday morning back in 1975 found me at the main street newspaper office in Forest City sweeping the front room, when an old farmer wearing faded overalls came through the front door (no keypad, no buzzer, no armed guard) wanting to see the editor.
“You got him,” I said, parking the broom.
Impressed, the old farmer paused and thought before he reflected, “You know, runnin’ a newspaper must be a lot like having a cow.” And when he saw my puzzled expression, he explained, “You have to milk her twice a day — and you can never go off!”
That I am an ink-stained wretch, a life-long newsie and a proud member of the Fourth Estate should surprise no follower of this space. The co-founder of two western N.C. weeklies, I served for 15 years in the editor’s chair — years that should be measured in dog years.
When I joined the journalism faculty at UNC in 2001, my happiest and most soul-satisfying experience was the 17 summers I spent on the Johnny Appleseed Community Journalism Roadshow, leading workshops at 190 small papers literally from Murphy to Manteo.
These days, you’ll find me, by dawn’s early light, trundling half-awake 50 yards down the leaf-strewn driveway with my old-man’s picker-upper/grabber to retrieve the morning papers.
Plural: newspapers. We take both the Raleigh and Durham newspapers. One for her; one for me. In print. Ink on paper. Old school. Which, when returned to hearthside with coffee and feet up, we read exhaustively, a morning ritual that restores some sense of order and normalcy.
On any given day, the papers inform, enrage, delight, entertain, confound and enlighten. I am so habituated to this morning ritual, that on many a Saturday morning I’ll find myself halfway down the driveway before I remember that McClatchy killed its Saturday edition some time back. Then, it’s thank goodness for the stack of partially read old newspapers back at the house.
So, as we say in the news biz: I bleed ink.
In short, we are avid newspaper readers and relentless supporters of same. In addition to the aforementioned papers, we also subscribe to the print editions of the Ocracoke Observer, the Daily Courier of Forest City, N.C. (my old newspaper) the Sunday edition of The New York Times — and finally Bill Horner’s fabulously renovated and reinvented Chatham News+Record out of Siler City/Pittsboro. Then throw in the digital subscriptions to the DTH, Washington Postand New York Times— in addition to The Local Reporter.
And when we’re at the beach — Oak Island, to be specific — it’s not a complete experience without a thorough dive into the Harper family’s 85-year-old award-winning weekly out of Southport, The State Port Pilot. It was from that very paper that an editorial reminded me that last week was National Newspaper Week.
In the lead editorial under the headline, “This year, newspapers are on the 2020 ballot,” Associate Editor Terry Pope opines, “Today newspapers find themselves in the midst of a very unusual presidential election cycle where the media has become a target by some just for doing their job. You could say this election is about newspapers and whether voters will give a vote of confidence to their local community news sources over the claims of some politicians in power.”
The editorial writer then cites conclusions from a Pen America 2019 study on the erosion of local news: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”
The editorial ends with this pitch: “We ask for your vote … Our solid plan has worked for 85 years, and we would like to be re-elected for another 85 years …” and then the stinger: “Where would our community be without a free and active State Port Pilot newspaper?”
Of course, we in Chapel Hill-Carrboro know exactly what that feels like.
“A community without a newspaper is like a church without an altar,” writes former University of Montana J-School Dean Jerry Brown, who adds, “Something is missing — a familiar voice, a sense of home, a continuity. The character of a place is defined by its newspaper.
There has been much written about the decline in local news and “news deserts.” And while I respect the researchers and their efforts, I’d like to see more work being done on the positive responses to this deficit — a phenomenon I call “news oasis” or even “news gardens,” in which we are witnessing the emergence of energetic, bumptious local media “sprouts.”
As our modest seedling marks its first anniversary, this is a great time to put your shoulder behind the wheel to support The Local Reporter, our organic, grassroots effort to bring some semblance of consistent and relentlessly local coverage to our community.
Long live community journalism and local reporting, the heartbeat of American journalism.
Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.