Why I love my hometown paper

Back in the day, March 1969, your columnist, with portable manual typewriter (and hair) at the upstart/start-up THIS WEEK in Forest City, N.C.  (Ron Paris photo)

THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS

By Jock Lauterer
Columnist

Fifty-five years ago this month, in a small town in Western North Carolina, two far-sighted and relentlessly energetic friends recruited a recent UNC college graduate and former DTH photographer to help them launch a start-up community newspaper from scratch—fearlessly taking on a well-heeled legacy paper right across the street.

We called it THIS WEEK, subtitled grandly “Forest City’s Modern Newsweekly.”

The three partners worked 24/7. In fact, there were days when, as the expression goes, “30 hours wasn’t enough.” All-nighters on weekly press-day were common. In addition, two of us became new fathers later that spring. It was a wild and crazy time.

But it paid off. In just four years, THIS WEEK in Forest City had garnered all the state press awards there were to win, purchased our own newspaper press and a downtown building, hired a staff, and finally, bought out the competition paper. To cap it off, in our ninth year, we went daily, becoming The Daily Courier.

I’ll be the first to concede we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams partly because the ’60s -’70s were the golden age of community newspapers: no Internet, no Craigslist, and only a few big media companies, the latter of which, back then,  were not even slightly interested in gobbling up and then snuffing out small local papers.      

That was then; this is now

This brings us to today when the death and dearth of local news outlets have been well documented and much lamented. And with good reason: it’s all been studied and researched: Communities lacking that local watchdog newspaper result in less government accountability, more corruption, lower rates of citizen civic engagement, and a palpable loss of community cohesion and a sense of place.

My former UNC J-School colleague Penny Abernathy, who popularized the phrase “news deserts,” estimates that the U.S. has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers. This trend threatens the very beating heartbeat of this unique nation we call home.

But we’ve hit the bottom of the curve and are on our way back up.

In their new book, “What Works in Community News,” Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy are also optimistic, writing, ” News deserts will persist and may even expand, yet, here and there, some communities…are being extraordinarily well covered. If we can understand why — what combination of founders, funders and audience has come together in those places to make for a successful news organization, then we can begin to chart a way forward and apply those lessons to other communities.”                

Clegg and Kennedy say there is a way up and out of the news desert. “The local news crisis will be solved one community at a time,” they write. ” Our one animating belief is that independent local leadership of such projects is crucial…independent local news organizations serve their audience by providing them with the news and information they need in a self-governing democracy….some are thriving, others are just getting by. Many are digital startups, some are legacy print newspapers.  There are hundreds of examples across the country , serving urban centers, affluent suburbs, and rural communities.”

My theory is this: when the big timber falls, the sunlight streams in, and the little sprouts spring up. That’s us; TLR is a little green sprout. And we, in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, are in what I call a new “News Garden.”

So, If you’re still wondering why this publication and other true community newspapers are critical to the maintenance of this thing we call community, consider the comments of the late great cowboy poet and columnist Baxter Black, who wrote the following in an op-ed piece titled, “Why I Love My Hometown Paper,” (a weekly in San Pedro, Ariz.).

“Small-town papers often thrive because CNN or the New York Times are not going to scoop them for coverage of the ‘VFW Fish Fry’ or ‘Bridge Construction Delay’ or boys and girls playing basketball, receiving scholarships, graduating, getting married or going off to war…”

“I think of local papers as the last refuge of unfiltered America – a running documentary of the warts and triumphs of real people – unfettered by the spin and bias and the opaque polish of today’s homogenized journalism. 

“It is the difference between homemade bread and Pop-Tarts.”

I’m betting that The Local Reporter can be one of those success stories that Clegg and Kennedy will want to write about in their second edition of “What Works in Community News.”   TLR is independent, nonprofit, locally owned, and has the goal of providing relentlessly local coverage of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Southern Orange. We’re local, and we care.

If you care, donate. Water the garden.


Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades

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1 Comment on "Why I love my hometown paper"

  1. I could read Jock Lauterer with one foot in a fire. The passion he taught me for telling stories in a community paper has stuck like glue. He taught us to hold up a mirror to a community’s best and worst and let the readers make up their minds about what to do next. I love him like a brother, and I am crazy about my brother.

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