When little news is big news in small places

July 18th, 2015
An Italian couple in Montepulciano read the paper together, discussing the day's news. (Jock Lauterer photo)

An Italian couple in Montepulciano reads the paper together, discussing the day’s news. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The Roadshow takes a slight diversion this month, a dip into sunny Tuscany where Mr. Joke finds a parable and lesson about the importance of community journalism in the charming 16th century hill town of Montepulciano.

 

      The world traveler with a weather eye to media consumption can’t help but notice how Italians devour their newspapers.

Look, here’s this 30-something sitting beside us at Caffé Stella, Montepulciano’s most popular outdoor bistro. He’s got his cappuccino and his La Nazionale, which is receiving his undivided attention.

Newspaper readership in our little town is everywhere, a sight to warm the cockles of my soul. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Newspaper readership in our little town is everywhere, a sight to warm the cockles of my soul. (Jock Lauterer photo)

And then, when our man is done with his coffee, he gets up and goes inside the café…and within two minutes, the 40-something woman, seated opposite us with her collie dog, reaches over and picks up the La Nazione for herself.

Then, within 10 minutes, a 60-something woman, who appears to know the collie woman, approaches her and asks if she can read the paper. Si, prego! In the space of 30 minutes, the single copy of La Nazione has passed hands three times.

And so it goes.

Inside Café Stella when I ordered my morning caffe, copies of the paper were lying about on empty tables, open to the sports pages where local soccer wars were documented.

Earlier this morning, when we dropped off our son and his daughter at the bus station, a newspaper stand offered no less than a dozen Italian newspapers. Outside, three locals, escaping the early morning sun, already had their papers out.

I am not making this stuff up; newspaper consumption here is prodigious and consistent – and downright encouraging to this old newsroom rat.

But there is something missing. Montepulciano itself has no hometown community newspaper.

To my way of thinking, a place without a paper is not a bad place; but it is an incomplete place. After years of study and observation (this ain’t rocket science, folks) it’s obvious that communities with local media function more effectively than places that are local media deserts.

Take Carrboro, for instance. Since the death of the Carrboro Citizen, (and with all due respect to Mark Schultz and the Chapel Hill News) there has been a precipitous drop-off in the coverage of local governmental and public affairs. For instance, when is the construction going to be finally finished on Smith Level Road leading to Carrboro High School? I have no earthly idea.

If Bubba Dickson’s newspaper were still with us, we would not only know exactly what is going on, we’d be informed of the backstory, the build-out as well as the blow by blow process.

How important is a hometown community newspaper to the successful functioning of a town?

In addition to about a dozen Italian newspapers, the local news stand carries papers from across Europe. (Jock Lauterer photo)

In addition to about a dozen Italian newspapers, the local news stand carries papers from across Europe. (Jock Lauterer photo)

An Italian Local Media Desert

One day last week, without any warning or advance notice, the town’s only grocery abruptly shut down. Townspeople and tourists alike walked past and gaped at a sign outside that read simply, “Store closed.”

What’s happened? Where will we shop? What will we do? What happened to our store? Why did it close? — all these questions and more buzzed from one person to another. This closing affected us all!

The nearest town with a grocery store is 20 minutes away by car or bus, down the mountain and over the valley.

What about all the elderly people of the town who walked daily to this market? What will they do?

How could a thing like this be allowed to happen? Did local government know anything about this in advance?

But because this little town does NOT have a community newspaper of its own, none of these questions could be answered. In short, we did not know what was going on, and long-time residents of this town were just as in the dark — uniformed and ignorant of the facts and the truth as were we tourists!

Montepulciano lacks its own hometown community newspaper, even though regional papers are very well read and re-purposed among multiple readers. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Montepulciano lacks its own hometown community newspaper, even though regional papers are very well read and re-purposed among multiple readers. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

The just in!

It occurs to me now that I haven’t seen a TV screen in over two weeks. Oh, it’s not that TVs aren’t around. But they just don’t dominate private lives like they do at home.

Additionally, in this ancient village, the self-proclaimed “Pearl of the 16th century,” the mere presence of the tube strikes me as anachronistic, completely out of place and an insult to the present.

But we do have breaking news in Montepulciano.

We have learned why the village’s only downtown supermarket closed last week.

At our favorite outdoor café yesterday, our regular wait staffer, Johnny, told us there had been a late-night electrical fire at the grocery store, and that the staff was working furiously to clean up the smoke damage so the store can re-open as soon as possible.

We are delighted with this news, not so much for ourselves, but for the townies who depend on the supermarket for its walkable easy access and chain store prices.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that for days we tourists went uninformed, and that when we did get the story, it came — neither from a newspaper, nor from TV — or even the town’s local web site (the latter of which had not a peep about the fire) — but from the most basic form of communication: old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

And being an old reporter, I corroborated Johnny’s story with another local we’ve befriended. Yes, the fire was started by an overheated WiFi router in the back of the store.

“Digital in Montepulciano,” Carmella tells us with a wry grin, “is a work-in-progress.”

Back at Caffe Stella, I finish my cappuccino and glance back at the table where the well-worn, much-read copy of La Nazione sits, awaiting its next set of eyes. In the last hour, that single copy has been read by no less than four people.

Newspapers in Italy, as in other parts of Europe, seem to be a part of the fabric of everyday life — more so than in the U.S.  (Jock Lauterer photo)

Newspapers in Italy, as in other parts of Europe, seem to be a part of the fabric of everyday life — more so than in the U.S. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

Mr Joke under the Tuscan sun

July 15th, 2015
Narrow alleys and high walls keep the blazing Tuscany sun at bay in Montepulciano. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Narrow alleys and high walls keep the blazing Tuscany sun at bay in Montepulciano. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

The Blue Highways Roadshow takes a turn to old Italy, where in Montepulciano, Italy, we find a fabulous hill town that has much to teach the frantic-paced American about what’s really important in life: living well, loving your family, and knowing where the vino is.

After two weeks in Italy, it takes no keen observer to count the two most popular books for Americans vacationing here.

In addition to the ubiquitous Rick Steves’ guide, the book that strikes the truest chord is Frances Mayes’, “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

For in this rainless month of Lulio (July), when the sky splashes Carolina Blue from dawn to dusk, that sun takes center stage in life.

Maybe you’ve read the book or seen the movie, but there’s no substitute for BEING here, under that relentless blaze, feeling its intensity . From about 11 a.m. through 5 p.m., life in Tuscany revolves around surviving that heat, avoiding direct contact and just making it through the day.

Little wonder that the medieval walled hill town of Montepulciano, with its steep-sided narrow canyons of houses, shops, cafes and restaurants, was designed to keep the sun at bay, while at mid-day, life slows to a crawl, and many shops simply close until the cool of the evening descends like a benison, a blessing, with a light breeze that rises from the steep vineyard-lined valley on either side.

We family of runners and walkers, who usually hit the roads in late afternoon, find ourselves adapting by necessity, flip-flopping our lifestyle to adjust to the will of the Tuscan sun. Morning walk-runs have become a way of life here now, a tribute to the wilting power of the furnace in the sky.

 

And at night, the town is cool and delightful, a lovely place to wander on foot. (Jock Lauterer photo)

And at night, the town is cool and delightful, a lovely place to wander on foot. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

Back to the future, and the Eastern Wake News.

June 14th, 2015
I'm pointing to Spruce Pine, way back in the Blue Ridge, where Johnny Whitfield ran the Mitchell News-Journal when I started the Roadshow in 2001.

FROM MURPHY TO MANTEO: I’m pointing to Spruce Pine, N.C., way back in the Blue Ridge, where Johnny Whitfield ran the Mitchell News-Journal when I started the Roadshow in 2001. Every pin represents a town with a community newspaper where I’ve led a workshop. There should be 185 pins. (Photo by Allison Russell)

 

June 14, 2015

Welcome to the 15th Annual Johnny Appleseed, Charles Kuralt, James Taylor, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Robert Frost, Scott Peck, Woody Guthrie, William Least Heat Moon, ‘Possum-Dodgin’, Chigger-Slappin’ Summer Community Journalism … ROADSHOW!

When we launched the Roadshow 15 summers ago, I wanted to keep the project as informal and as unstuffy as possible — and so, in keeping with the playful spirit of summertime, we named the first Roadshow in honor of Johnny Appleseed, that 19th century semi-mythical wandering nurseryman who hiked the backroads planting apple trees wherever he went.

THAT WAS THEN…THIS IS NOW. Eastern Wake News Editor Johnny Whitfield holds a photo that I made at the very first Community Journalism Roadshow workshop 15 summers ago, June 2001, when Johnny was serving as editor of the Mitchell News-Journal in Spruce Pine.

THAT WAS THEN…THIS IS NOW. Eastern Wake News Editor Johnny Whitfield holds a photo that I made at the very first Community Journalism Roadshow workshop 15 summers ago, June 2001, when Johnny was serving as editor of the Mitchell News-Journal in Spruce Pine. (Jock Lauterer photos)

Then in 2002, the second year, I decided I’d have to add another new well-known figure whose persona related to that certain “roady-ness,” if you will. So, being a native Tar Heel, our own Charles Kuralt (CBS legend from the “On the Road” series) was the natural pick.

Subsequently, each year a new road-worthy literary or journalism figure was added to the ever-lengthening Roadshow handle.

Over time list of intrepid road warriors grew to include: James Taylor, (“Walkin’ Down a Country Road”); Jack Kerouac, (“On the Road”); Willie Nelson, (“On the Road Again); Johnny Cash, (“I’ve Been Everywhere, Man”); John Steinbeck, (“Travels with Charlie”); Robert Frost, (The Road Not Taken”); M. Scott Peck, (“The Road Less Traveled”); Woody Guthrie, (“Goin’ Down this Road Feelin’ Bad”); and William Least Heat Moon (“Blue Highways”).

Additional modifiers were offered up by friends and colleagues: “Chigger-Slappin’” (from Forest City Town Planner Danielle Withrow); and “’Possum Dodgin’” (from Hoke County News-Journal Publisher Robert “Bubba” Dickson).

Lest anyone think I am taking credit for the journalism roadshow concept, we owe our origin to former Kansas State University Professor (and classic pink ‘50s Nash Neapolitan aficionado) John Neibergall, who, in the late ‘80s, along with a stalwart band of fellow professors, started a state-wide community journalism extension program called the “Circuit-Riders,” harkening back to the 19th century frontier days of the horseback-riding preachers who traveled the backroads from one little rural church parish to another.

Though the KSU effort did not last, the KSU Circuit Riders inspired me to carry on their legacy at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, where in June 2001, we launched the Carolina Community Media Project — with the Roadshow being its signature initiative.

From the outset, I wanted the Roadshow to embrace the mantra of legendary former UNC President Edward Kidder Graham, whose statewide vision was embodied in his statement that the borders of the UNC campus should be co-terminus with those of the state.

In other words, not just from Franklin Street to the Dean Dome, but from Murphy to Manteo.

My very first Roadshow visit was to the Blue Ridge mountain town of Spruce Pine and the Mitchell News-Journal, fully 200 miles and four hours due west of Chapel Hill. They had a UNC intern whose name I forget but whose face I cannot: he was a dead ringer for Opie from the “Andy Griffin Show.” And the paper was led by an earnest young man named Johnny Whitfield — if memory serves, in his first posting as an editor.

How fitting then, that 15 years later, we kick off this summer’s Roadshow with another visit to Johnny Whitfield. Here are some photos from that workshop in Zebulon on May 21.

 

THE LAY OF THE LAND. Staff writers Kara Bettis and Jonathan Alexander listen as Editor Johnny Whitfield discusses growth and development in their coverage area of Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon. They also produce the Garner-Cleveland Record. (Jock Lauterer photos)

THE LAY OF THE LAND. Staff writers Kara Bettis and Jonathan Alexander listen as Editor Johnny Whitfield discusses growth and development in their coverage area of Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon. They also produce the Garner-Cleveland Record. (Jock Lauterer photos)

 

A VISIT FROM THE DEAN. Joining the Roadshow for a day, Dean Susan King of the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication shares her insights on the growth of community media with Editor Whitfield.

A VISIT FROM THE DEAN. Joining the Roadshow for a day, Dean Susan King of the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication shares her insights on the growth of community media with Editor Whitfield.

 

 

 

See the Lightning, love the Lightning, want the Lightning

May 24th, 2015
Founding Editor-Publisher Bill Moss of the Hendersonville Lightning, team-teaching during our workshop on May 13. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Founding Editor-Publisher Bill Moss of the Hendersonville Lightning, team-teaching during our workshop on May 13. (Jock Lauterer photo)

ROADSHOW 15: In Which Mr. Joke Returns to His Roots 

Fresh from his adventures teaching community journalism in China, “Mr. Joke” (because many of my Chinese hosts could not pronounce “Jock” correctly) hits the blue highways of the Old North State with the 15th iteration of the Community Journalism Roadshow, a public service initiative of the Carolina Community Media Project at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication. First stop: Hendersonville.

 

Nothing makes an old newsroom rat (AKA: Mr. Joke) happier than to find himself in the midst of a bustling, happy and slightly gonzo newsroom – and in the good company of other enthusiastic newsies.

The 15th annual Community Journalism Roadshow kicked off with a memorable visit to the Hendersonville Lightning, veteran Tar Heel journalist Bill’s Moss’ 3-year-old start-up that has already turned heads and turned a profit — and won a boatload of awards.

With Johnny Cash crooning “I Walk the Line” in the background, I enter “the Trailer of Truth” to find Editor-Publisher-Founder-Chairman-Majority Stockholder-Janitor/Custodian Bill Moss shoving a noisy vacuum cleaner around the floor of the foyer — a fitting introduction to the realities of running your own paper.

Editor Moss is bracketed by his two summer intern-stringers, Emily Stanley, left, of Davidson; and Marissa Treible, right, of UNC-Chapel Hill. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Posing outside ‘the Trailer of Truth,” Editor Moss is bracketed by his two talented summer intern-stringers, Emily Stanley, left, of Davidson; and Marissa Treible, right, of UNC-Chapel Hill. (Jock Lauterer photo)

“I do it all,” the 60-year-old Moss declares, “including the fun part,” by which he means getting out there, pounding the pavement for stories.

And stories the man can crank out at a prodigious rate.

“I can write ten 500-word stories in an 8-hour shift, no problem,” he says matter-of-factly. Not bragging, just saying. “It’s what I do.”

The result fills the weekly 40-48 page tabloid pages of his lively, fearless, scrappy LIGHTNING, a name he hopes embodies the paper’s unique character of fearlessness, speed and accuracy.

Explaining the origin of the paper’s name, Moss says, “I don’t want (the paper) to be confused with all the Times and News and Chronicles and Observers…this community is a special community and deserves a special paper.”

Once you hear the name, you don’t forget it, Moss says. “People don’t call it ‘the paper.’ They say, ‘Oh, here comes the Lightning!’” And then he adds his own cheerleading mantra:

See the Lightning

 Love the Lightning

 Want the Lightning.

 

The Business Model

Running against the grain of most start-ups these days, the Lightning is a paid circulation paper. Moss explains his reasoning thusly: folks in the western part of the state tend to look with suspicion at items offered for free. Maybe it’s the Scot-Irish in the DNA, but the prevailing local wisdom up here is “you get what you pay for.”

Moss says simply, “We think it has value, so we think we should charge for it.”

In addition to the income garnered from the weekly circulation of 2,150 (including roughly 600 in steady rack sales), as a paid circulation newspaper, the Lightning qualifies to carry legal ads and public notices, which Moss asserts is important reading for anyone closely following his/her community. In short, “legals,” in the jargon, generate revenue and readership — a win-win for the Lightning.

When it comes to circulation, the paper hits the streets early Wednesday morning (Another Moss-ism: “On the street! First light!”) and goes to readers at home through the local post office — thus eliminating the bother and worry of route carriers.

 

A Journeyman Newspaperman

A Chapel Hill native and a 1976 grad of the J-School, Moss’ career trajectory followed that of the classic journeyman newspaperman: to get where he is today he paid his dues — with stints at the Marshville Home News, the Thomasville Times, the Salisbury Post, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the St. Pete Times and the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald before coming to Hendersonville in 1998 as executive editor of the daily Times-News — a New York Times regional paper at the time.

During his tenure at the Times-News, Moss raised the bar and elevated the paper to the best of its class in North Carolina. No matter, in 2010, the charismatic leader and self-proclaimed “aggressive editor” got downsized, to put it politely.

Moss knocked around, working a couple of different journalism jobs for a year or so, until a group of Hendersonville thought-leaders approached him, convincing him to “come back and take over” (my words; not his.)

After taking a short course at a local community college on business planning for a start-up, Moss marshaled his investors and launched the Lightning, first online in April 2012, and then in print the following month.

 

A David and Goliath Scenario

All this in the face of formidable competition. The town’s legacy publication, the daily Times-News, is now owned by the Gatehouse chain, which includes 300 papers, Moss notes with some respect.

So how can a start-up indie weekly compete with an established group-owned daily? According to Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, “David and Goliath,” the little guy has a lot of unseen advantages.

And Moss knows that. The Lightning is a relentless local government watchdog with a style, intensity and level of coverage he thinks the competition can’t match. Taking full advantage of his 17 years experience covering Henderson County politics, you can bet your old green eyeshade this veteran city hall reporter knows where all the skeletons are hidden.

The Lightning also boasts a robust online presence. Moss estimates, “3.9 new postings every day since we started.”

Articulating the paper’s role and character, Moss reasons like this: the newspaper shouldn’t be like an all-loving, all-forgiving mother…but rather like “your loving but stern father.”

It’s that kind of insight and institutional wisdom that his readers have come to expect and value.

In last year’s NCPA newspaper contest, the Lightning won 10 awards. “The second most in my division,” Moss notes with satisfaction, adding, “And what did every winner have in common? They were all independent, family–owned!”

Long live community journalism.

NC Community Journalism Roadshow enters 15th summer

May 17th, 2015
ENCPA2.May15

Meeting at Atlantic Beach, May 15-16, members, spouses and guests of the Eastern North Carolina Press Association assemble for a good-natured group photo. The ENCPA is celebrating its 69th anniversary. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

ROADSHOW 15: In Which Mr. Joke Returns to His Roots

Fresh from his adventures teaching community journalism in China, “Mr. Joke” (because many of my Chinese hosts could not pronounce “Jock” correctly) hits the blue highways of the Old North State with the 15th iteration of the Community Journalism Roadshow, a public service initiative of the Carolina Community Media Project at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

A Letter to a Very Young Reporter

This summer’s Roadshow began with a May 13 visit to the Hendersonville Lightning, a three-year-old start-up launched by veteran N.C. journalist Bill Moss, who told me he wanted me to speak to two very green cub reporters — both college students who have never before worked at a community paper. The opportunity gave me reason to dig deep and try and say something fundamental about our core mission, the so-called DNA of community journalism. This is what I told them.

 

To my fine young friends at the Hendersonville Lightning.

This morning as I sat on the deck of my old log cabin, listening to bird song and creek chortle, I thought about what I wanted to say to you.

And this is something of a Community Journalism Manifesto.

First, I am an unapologetic and unrepentant champion of community newspapers – small local-angle dailies and weeklies — especially locally owned and operated independent community papers, most of which are weeklies, like the Lightning.

Today my message to you is that of assurance and hope.

Community Journalism is alive and well out there on the Blue Highways.

For the last 15 summers I have crisscrossed the Old North State, giving free, on-site workshops at community papers from Murphy to Manteo, literally from Wolf Creek to Whalebone. From the Cherokee Scout to the Outer Banks Sentinel.

And I can tell you with utter confidence that after visits to 185 papers that the doom and gloomers, the professional mourners, sadly prognosticating the death of newspapers, well, they need to get out of their offices and beyond the Beltline.

They need to spend a day in a robust newsroom — like that of the Pilot of Southern Pines, the Transylvania Times of Brevard, or the Sanford Herald — and grab a cup of joe while talking shop with a fourth generation independent publisher like Charles Broadwell of the Fayetteville Observer.

If those circling buzzards would only accompany me on the Community Journalism Roadshow, they would see that the demise of newspapers, most especially, COMMUNITY newspapers, has been like Mark Twain’s premature obituary…”to which the great Twain is said to have responded: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

In fact, a new book, titled thus, “Greatly Exaggerated,” has just been published, and author and professor Marc Edge points to how newspapers have changed, shifted, morphed and shrunk in the case of big dailies – but most importantly, they have ADAPTED AND SURVIVED.

He notes that a so-called Newspaper Death Watch launched in ’07 hasn’t added any dailies since 2009.

Prof Edge is mostly concerned with big dailies, which,  according to me, were already in trouble back in the early ‘90s, (before the Internet), when I wrote the first edition of Community Journalism, the Personal Approach, now in its 4th edition, the last one, 2014, in Mandarin.

The Heartbeat of American Journalism

To my way of thinking, community newspapers,  the heartbeat of American journalism, have been the saving grace, the silver lining of an otherwise volatile media landscape after the bottom fell out in ’08.

Community papers endured, weathered, survived — and in many cases thrived.

Don’t you wonder, why is that? What are the community newspapers doing right that the big guys are missing?

I’ll come to that in a minute.

First, what were many of the big guys doing wrong?

Raleigh News & Observer opinion editor Ned Barnette, writing in the May 3rd N & O, under the headline (Newspapers shrink, but survive), notes how large media companies (his parent company, McClatchy, included) got underwater in the early 2000s saddled by corporate debt — and I would add: investor greed.

Big newspapers made and make money, but much of it went – and still goes – to paying down debts, and to mollify out-of-town investors who don’t give a fig about the communities these newspapers serve.

Which brings us to our main message, the so-called “nut graph.”

Community newspapers survived, are surviving and will survive – because they serve, because small is beautiful and because local is the only game in town.

Got milk?

Got LOCAL?

And weeklies, so called non-dailies, can pack their pages with all local news, photos, features, arts and entertainment, obits, weddings, engagements, first birthdays, check presentations, opinions, and ads – and never leave the community.

Community newspapers survive and thrive because of the SERVICE IMPERATIVE, a core working principal of their business plan, not an afterthought or add-on.

So take heart, young friends. You are entering a noble profession. No, you will not likely get rich doing community journalism; much like teaching, it is a calling, some call a sacred calling.

But you will be rich in experience, rich in meaningful relationships, and rich in the satisfaction of seeing how one person – you  – can make a powerful difference for good in this sad old fractured world of ours.

You will see that when you help people tell their stories, when you give them a VOICE, that you are helping to build COMMUNITY, that most valued, elusive and precious of assets that a healthy society can possess.

For then, residents become citizens, strangers become friends, and people become stakeholders, engaged in the maintenance of their own civic affairs.

“Our most important job,” one enlightened community newspaper publisher told me,”…is to convince ordinary people that their lives matter!”

Let me close with another great quite, this one from the late great speaker of the house Sam Rayburn who said,

“Any mule can kick down his barn. It takes a carpenter to BUILD one.

Long live, community journalism!

Let’s get busy.

Mr. Joke’s China photo album

March 23rd, 2015

UNC-CH Senior Lecturer Jock Lauterer is back from his fourth trip to China in as many years, after documenting a whirlwind two-week teaching gig to four cities in China where he advised community newspaper start-ups and helped to launch a community journalism program at a university in Foshan in the southern province of Guangdong. His latest book, the revised fourth edition of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” was published last summer in Mandarin. This blog was written expressly for his photo and community journalism students back at UNC-Chapel Hill, with whom he Skyped a class last week.

Editor Li of Foshan tries to show Mr. Joke some Tai Chi moves. (Photo courtesy of Editor Li)

Editor Li of Foshan tries to show Mr. Joke some Tai Chi moves. (Photo courtesy of Editor Li)

At a Guangzhou open-air market a butcher prepares his wares. (Jock Lauterer photo)

At a Guangzhou open-air market a butcher prepares his wares. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The elderly Chinese make a point of staying fit. These winter swimmers impressed me, since I had on gloves when i shot this image in Beijing. (Jock lauterer photo)

The elderly Chinese make a point of staying fit. These winter swimmers impressed me, since I had on gloves when i shot this image in Beijing. (Jock lauterer photo)

Beijing traffic clogs the 4th Ring Road, contributing to the smog. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Beijing traffic clogs the 4th Ring Road, contributing to the smog. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Intricate rockwork in an ancient Chinese village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Intricate rockwork in an ancient Chinese village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

In a friendly alley in old Wenzhou, a family enjoys each other's company. Here I definitely felt a sense of community. (Jock Lauterer photo)

In a friendly alley in old Wenzhou, a family enjoys each other’s company. Here I definitely felt a sense of community. (Jock Lauterer photo)

By the Pearl River in Guangzhou we are greeted by a water buffalo. (Jock Lauterer photo)

By the Pearl River in Guangzhou we are greeted by a water buffalo. (Jock Lauterer photo)

At mama Ying's for an authentic Wenzhou breakfast, I am greeted like family. While grandfather Ying Shao Xiong tends to little Ying Mohan, mama Ying cooks up a batch of egg rice noodles in a broth filled with tiny shrimp, clams, fried egg  and fresh cilantro, onions and spinach from their garden. (Jock Lauterer photo)

At mama Ying’s for an authentic Wenzhou breakfast, I am greeted like family. While grandfather Ying Shao Xiong tends to little Ying Mohan, mama Ying cooks up a batch of egg rice noodles in a broth filled with tiny shrimp, clams, fried egg and fresh cilantro, onions and spinach from their garden. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Lunch at mama Ying's: they served homemade elderberry wine for lunch. Center is a reporter named "Fanny," who, at 24, fears she will be a "left-over woman." At far left is another reporter for the paper. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Lunch at mama Ying’s: they served homemade elderberry wine for lunch. Center is a reporter named “Fanny,” who, at 24, fears she will be a “left-over woman.” At far left is another reporter for the paper. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I am not special — this is everyperson’s story

March 19th, 2015
No toilets, no HVAC, no phone, no refrigerator, no washer-dryer. No problem. It's the way most Chinese of Chen Kai and Professor Li's generation grew up. (Jock Lauterer photo)

No toilets, no HVAC, no phone, no refrigerator, no washer-dryer. No problem. It’s the way most Chinese of Chen Kai and Professor Li’s generation grew up. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

You don’t really know someone until you’ve visited his or her childhood home. The pilgrimage to the place where Chen Kai was raised has left me sobered. And a little stunned by my own naivety. The meteoric rise of the Chinese people from poverty to middle class has never been more graphically displayed to me than here today.

Leading me down narrow alleys in Wenzhou, she turned without preamble into a cavernous tunnel gateway that led into the courtyard. There, a stout gray-haired 83-year-old woman spotted Chen Kai and began shrieking a greeting and trotted over to hug us both.

Me, she practically dragged to her favorite chair and shoved me down, hands on both shoulders. I gazed about in shock.

An open air compound, two stories tall that looks like it could be the set for a Chinese version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: colorful and exotic — but primitive, shabby, dilapidated, squalid, mean, dusty — like a scenario out of another decade, or century. No heat, no central plumbing, old electric wires strung haphazardly overhead.

In Chen Kai’s youth four families with the average of 10 people shared this cramped dingy space and “Everybody knew what everybody else had for dinner…there was no privacy…when the neighbors had a fight, everybody knew what it was about,” she told me.

What must it have been like to grow up here, I wondered? What other amenities of basic American life did this place lack?

Chen Kai ticked them off: no refrigerator, no clothes washer, certainly no clothes dryer or dish washer, no TV, no phone, no hot water and no toilet.

I am pole-axed. I ask for an explanation. I almost wish I hadn’t. They used what used to be called a “slop bucket,” which required daily emptying, or else someone came around occasionally to collect the raw sewage.

For bathing, the weekly bath required taking turns, and a trek to fetch the hot water from a public hot water station 200 meters out the door and down the alley, toting that water all the way back to the compound where she’d take her bath in a big wooden tub. Repeat: a wooden tub.

They did have running water and a coal-fired cook stove, but all the same, growing up here must have been like camping out in a big wooden tent.

When Chen Kai observed my slack-jawed amazement, she said with force, “You cannot imagine how poor we were at that time in China. You cannot imagine!”

Then this: “But I am not special. This is everyperson’s story in China.”

***                               ***                               ***

When my pal, Professor Li Ren of Chongqing, arrived for the conference, I got to corroborate Chen Kai’s story with him. Li, 43, was raised in the Southwest city of Chongqing, which at the time had the gritty, grungy but scrappy look and reputation of old Pittsburgh, Pa., back in the steel days of the ‘50s.

He agreed with everything Chen Kai said, telling me that his family did not have indoor plumbing until 1992. Then he offered this narrative. “I remember when my parents got their first TV. A tiny little black and white TV. The only one in the neighborhood, and all the neighbors crowded in and watched, every night.”

 

Traffic on the 4th Ring Road clogs Beijing's roadways. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Traffic on the 4th Ring Road clogs Beijing’s roadways. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

The discovery of Prof Chen Kai’s rise from such poverty is an eye-opener. And it explained her life’s perspective too. An eco-friendly activist, she becomes visibly upset when she sees what she considered wasteful energy practices — like for instance how most American office buildings (including the J-School) keep their AC cranked up to near freezing temperatures, according to her.

I take notes on Chen Kai’s passionate eco-rant.

“It would take four earths if we Chinese lives like you Americans,” she exclaims, as if this is Jock Lauterer’s fault.

“You waste so much! You use so much land and water! It is an unsustainable lifestyle!” (The exclamation points here do not do her outbursts justice.)

“You always say China is the number one polluter. But we sacrifice to live as humbly as possible! (She scores a point here; Chinese, even the well-off, rarely own clothes dryers.) And off she goes again. “We are the number one population. You can imagine if everyone had a dishwasher or clothes dryer!”

And then the zinger: “If we don’t pollute as much as we do, how can we support so many people?”

While I’m trying to get my head around the logic of that curve ball, she concludes with finality, “Pollution is the price we have to pay for our development.”

By now, we are back in the car, driving in 10 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I can’t see half a mile in the smog — the filthy air the Chinese call “a cloudy day.”

Most urban Chinese live in these high-rise apartment towers, a vast improvement from village life, but a great lose in the sense of place and community identity. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Most urban Chinese live in these high-rise apartment towers, a vast improvement over the hardships of village life, but a great loss of the sense of place and community identity. (Jock Lauterer photo)

In which teacher Zhu gets his day

March 17th, 2015

 

Editor Ying is all smiles as middle school teacher Zhu Yin, center, tells the conference how he has integrated the community newspaper into his class curriculum. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Editor Ying is all smiles as middle school teacher Zhu Yin, center, tells the conference how he has integrated the community newspaper into his class curriculum. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

It will be nearly impossible to describe last night with Mr. Kong, the benevolent government publicity director of Liu Shi. It is he who came up with the idea to create the Liu Shi Today newspaper, and it is he who must take responsibility for it, should it fail. But by all accounts, his risk has been worth the venture. And our conference has been hailed a great success.

Suffice it to say, the evening banquet following the conference was awash in toasts and counter-toasts in the time-honored Chinese tradition of “gambei,” which translates as “bottoms up” — but really signals a bout of competitive drinking.

Had the day’s conference not been such a big success, the evening’s jollity would not have been so, well…jolly.

However, my take on the day is slightly more nuanced. Here’s the back story.

Following my morning “lecture” there followed a meet-and-greet lunch, and then a four-hour editors’ roundtable, attended by about 40 folks (men mostly) who all took turns speaking.

But the moderator skipped one attendee, Zhu Yin, a middle school teacher who has integrated the Liu Shi Today newspaper into his class curriculum, sort of like the U.S. version of Newspapers in Education. But what so impressed me about teacher Zhu was this: he did this entirely on his own, without any external vision or leadership.

At the invitation of Liu Shi Today director Ying Yu Zhi, teacher Zhu was attending the conference to share his work, but the moderator ignored him. Skipped right over him and went to the next person at the table on the far side of the teacher.

I was stunned.

Realizing my power as “the panda,” (aka the out-of-town so-called expert) I knew if I had the mic again, I could slide into an introduction of the exemplary teacher, and then pass the mic to him.

After all, Here was a reader, a volunteer, a fan, and real person offering solid personal evidence as to why community journalism was valuable, worthwhile and deserving of his support as a citizen.

Teacher Zhu, a handsome, 40-something man with intense dark eyes and a lock of hair that kept falling charmingly across his forehead, took the mic with the confidence of a man comfortable in his own skin. “I have used the newspaper to enrich my class,” he began.

“I care about my community and the people around me,” he said, “It’s like an instinct.”

He said the newspaper helps him create class exercises, like test questions from local current events. He awards free KFC coupons to students for every mistake they find in the paper. And Zhu encourages them to pick a photograph and come up with a title, or a headline.

A student survey revealed what his kids liked the most about the paper (the photo pages) and the least (the fact that the weather page recently got cut), and what they wanted more of (more local school coverage).

Teacher Zhu feels so strongly about his newspaper that he serves as a volunteer photographer and delivery person. When the paper’s management tried to pay him for delivering papers, he refused, insisting that he was just doing his part for the greater good.

Editor Ying told me later that his newspaper’s two most valuable resources were Mr. Kong with his benevolent, open-minded leadership, and teacher Zhu, whose devotion personifies the loyal readership.

As a result of Zhu’s comments, the paper’s leadership promised to restore the weather page and give the schools more coverage.

Teacher’s Zhu’s testimony was a game-changer, convincing the leaders in attendance of the importance of this town’s new community newspaper.

Score one for the home team.

 

Middle school teacher Zhu Yin and his class from Liu Shi. The local newspaper has "enriched my class," he says.  (Jock Lauterer photos)

Middle school teacher Zhu Yin and his class from Liu Shi. The local newspaper has “enriched my class,” he says. (Jock Lauterer photos)

Old China, new China — never far apart

March 15th, 2015

 

Forge and anvil, hammer and tongs, the old blacksmith appears out of another century. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Forge and anvil, hammer and tongs, the old blacksmith appears out of another century. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The distance between old China and new China is as thin as one of one of Mama Ying’s almost porous, transparent crepes.

Just around the corner from the Western style mall with Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut, you will stumble down some alley and encounter an 80-year-old blacksmith plying his craft — forge and anvil, hammer and tongs — state of the art 15th century.

Just when you think you’ve in the middle of nowhere, around the bend in the road will appear a gleaming new steel and glass Land Rover/Jaguar dealership.

Or, like today you could take to the misty mountain switchbacks on the way to an ancient village one thousand years old, accompanied on the car radio playing Chinese hip-hop music.

The view of the village descending the switchbacks. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The view of the village descending the switchbacks. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I am constantly reminded of China’s ironic juxtapositions at every turn. A trendy 24-year-year-old reporter from the local paper, along for the ride, tells me, a little lorlornly, “I am a ‘left-over woman,’” (The Chinese term for an unmarried woman of a certain age).

Conceding that matchmaking is still very much still the custom here, she says, “Mama will find me a nice man, but I don’t like that way.” And with a trace of defiance, she declares, “ I want to find my own true love.”

At the 1,000-year-old village of Huang Tan Dong, nestled snugly along the banks of the steep valley’s rushing mountain stream, they have Wifi. But the 50-some residents cook on wood-burning stoves.

A woodburning stove serves them well. (Jock Lauterer photo)

A woodburning stove serves them well. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Clear stream water graces the ancient mountain village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Clear stream water graces the ancient mountain village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

On her way to wash clothes, she invites us to her home. (Jock Lauterer photo)

On her way to wash clothes, she invites us to her home. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Villagers greet us with genuine affection, inviting us in to visit, with no expectation of recompense. I am touched by this authenticity and wonder if I would be so generous if some curious Chinese visitors were wandering through my neighborhood back in Chapel Hill.

Village men enjoy a local version of Mah-jong. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Village men enjoy a local version of Mah-jong. (Jock Lauterer photo)

If you could smell this photograph, your mouth would be watering. (Jock Lauterer photo)

If you could smell this photograph, your mouth would be watering. (Jock Lauterer photo)

At lunch, cooked on giant wood-fired stoves with oversized woks, I am treated to chicken paws, hog ears and mutton soup.

I could be dining in the 17th century. Except… across the table, two of my hosts bend over a smart phone playing a video game, while the “left-over woman” busily We-Chats her friends back in town.

The digital world, never far away — even in this ancient village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The digital world, never far away — even in this ancient village. (Jock Lauterer photo)

In which Mr. Joke becomes a panda

March 15th, 2015
The city of Liu Shi,  with 600,000 souls, is considered small in China. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The city of Liu Shi, with 600,000 souls, is considered small in China. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I have just come from an experience no self-respecting American journalist should ever have to endure: a command performance with the assigned topic of “The Role of Newspapers and the Government.”

That would be a simple enough topic were I speaking to an American college audience at an American campus. But here…in CHINA…with a state-run media system…at a conference put on BY the local government…a government which two years ago started the city’s newspaper…and the government which invited Mr. Joke to be the international keynoter at this conference attended by 75 city and media leaders.

I fumbled and stumbled and mumbled my way through 30 minutes of claptrap, obfuscation and horse-puckey which my poor translator was forced to make sense of.

If I don’t get the “1st Annual Henry Kissinger International Award for
Sino-US Diplomacy and BS,” I want to know why.

Consoling me afterward, my host said it didn’t matter what I said. “You are our panda. They have come here just to look at you.”

Damned by faint praise.

That was quite possibly the single worst lecture I’ve ever given, of which I’m not the least bit proud. Now I need to go back to the New Joyful Hotel and wash my hands.

But then…a parable of redemption.

On the way back to the hotel, my driver — a big burly fellow with a gold chain and spikey hair, who looked as if he might double as a late-night bouncer — sat stoically steering through town for ten minutes without looking at or speaking to me. He neither spoke English nor wanted to. Two grown men, sitting 20 inches apart without acknowledging each other.

Until I noticed on the car’s audio system, in English, the words, “We Will Rock You.”

I pointed to the title. The driver glanced at me sideways and then reached over and hit the button. Suddenly the car was filled with the singer’s plaintive wail.

And spontaneously, the Chinese driver/bouncer and I burst into voice in unison.

“…mud on your face…a big disgrace…” and a rousing chorus of, “We will, we will…ROCK YOU!”

Exiting the car, we grinned at each other, exchanging fist-bumps.

Which proves once again, it’s not governments that matter; it’s the people.

Next day in the Liu Shi Today newspaper the headline above the story about our conference read: AMERICAN EXPERT STARTS BRAINSTORM.

Maybe I did rock them after all.