What happens when an Observer becomes a participant-observer

August 6th, 2014

In the 14th year of the Community Journalism Roadshow, our latter-day Johnny Appleseed again wanders the “blue highways” of North Carolina — this summer from Lake Lure in the west to Ocracoke in the east — leading free, on-site workshops aimed at helping community newspapers do what they do best: tell the never-ending “relentlessly local” of Our Town. Today’s visit is to the Fayetteville Observer.

“You know there’s no good news in that thing.”

The passerby, a middle-aged woman and a total stranger,” grinned impishly as she walked past, pointing down at the copy of the Fayetteville Observer I was reading in the breakfast room of the Hampton Inn.

Publisher Charles Broadwell and the humongous modern press at the Fayetteville Observer. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Publisher Charles Broadwell and the humongous modern press at the Fayetteville Observer. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. The drive-by zinger had flummoxed this old newspaper geek, rendering me speechless. Where was the lighting-fast clever response to put her in her place?

Ah, there it is…but too late! A Charles Kuralt classic at that (and I paraphrase here):

“The only thing worse that hearing about all those awful things happening… is NOT BEING ALLOWED to hear about all those awful things happening.”

Having recently returned from China where much of the news is managed massaged, tweaked and redacted, I can be forgiven for being a little sensitive about this subject.  Whatever the faults of our media, at least we still have a free press.

 

THE TRUTH BE TOLD

As irony would have it, I was there in Fayetteville to lead a workshop on community journalism with a distinguished cohort of reporters, columnists and editors from what is arguably the best daily newspaper in North Carolina. (How I wish I could have dragged along that detractor from the motel!)

There's a state historical marker out in front of the Observer's office; the only one of its kind in N.C. (Photo by Jock Lauterer)

There’s a state historical marker out in front of the Observer’s office; the only one of its kind in N.C. (Photo by Jock Lauterer)

Founded in 1816, the Fayetteville Observer is the oldest continuously publishing newspaper in the state. It is also the largest independently owned daily in N.C., led by the indefatigable Charles Broadwell, the Observer’s fourth-generation publisher. The paper has won the General Excellence award from the NCPA three out of the last four years. Not too shabby.

Wait, there’s more. Housed in a spacious new (’99) single-story building, the F/O boasts the state’s best press, a six-story KBA German press that is a marvel of ink-on-paper technology, allowing the Observer to print full color on up to 48 pages.

Such precision printing has earned the F/O the printing business of the like of the Indy Week of Durham, the Wilmington Star-News and a host of smaller publications that keep the pressroom hopping.

FAYETTE-NAM?

That the state’s best daily is located in Fayetteville seems to surprise folks, many of whom may be thinking of that city in the past tense. Yes, it will always be a host city to Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, with its large, young, transient military population — but the town is light years ago way from the seamy steamy “Fayette-Nam” of the ‘70’s.

So as to get a feel for the new Fayetteville, I drove down a day in advance, and that evening wandered downtown in search of a cool place for dinner. What I found pleasantly surprised me. An ambitious downtown revitalization project had transformed the main street: charming up-scale European-style outdoor cafés under over-arching trees and old-fashioned light posts.

 

Executive Editor Michael Adams with Sunday's cover story in the year-long series, "Seeking Safety" (Jock Lauterer photo)

Executive Editor Michael Adams with Sunday’s cover story in the year-long series, “Seeking Safety” (Jock Lauterer photo)

THEY GET COMMUNITY JOURNALISM

So how can a roughly 60k-circulation daily that serves 10 counties actually DO community journalism? And the answer is: the Fayetteville Observe, which began as a humble weekly 198 years ago, attempts to keep that “weekly mindset.”

Explains Publisher Broadwell: “We’re just a weekly that comes out seven days a week.”

But the paper has the robust muscle of a community daily – and when they want to flex those journalistic muscles, the result can be transformational for the community.

That’s the case with the year-long project, “Seeking Safety” that attempts to understand and help solve crime in Fayetteville. I’m so impressed with this effort that I’m taking the liberty of re-posting Exec Editor Mike Adams’ introductory column from last November in its entirety.

At our workshop, Mike told me that tangible results have already grown out of the series, as city leaders from all walks of life have been drawn together by the series in sort of a community-wide think tank. There’s already been progress, he said, because the Observer chose to step off the sidelines and become an active participant in helping to grapple with the chanllenge. To my way of thinking, THIS is what true community journalism and community-building is all about.

ABOUT THE SERIES: “SEEKING SAFETY”

By Michael Adams, executive editor

For too long, living with crime and the fear that accompanies it has been the norm in Fayetteville.

Perhaps for most of us, the fear is little more than a nagging concern, enough to prompt us to install an alarm system, avoid certain parts of the city at certain times, even buy a gun for protection. For too many, though, it is a deeper worry that keeps us trapped in our homes, afraid and angry about what has happened to our community.

There was a time, maybe in our memory, maybe only in the stories told by our parents, when such fear barely existed. A time when we left our doors unlocked, when we didn’t worry about where our children were playing, when our schools didn’t need metal detectors.

But in the years since then, we have adjusted to the crime. We’ve accepted 4,000 break-ins, 8,000 thefts, 1,000 robberies and assaults a year as an unpleasant part of life in Fayetteville. We’ve shrugged and, with a survivor’s wry pride, called our home “Fayettenam.”

But it is increasingly clear that we are tired of adjusting. From the Police Department, from City Hall, from election campaigns and from community forums, we’ve heard a consistent message: We’re fed up with crime. We want answers.

Today, The Fayetteville Observer joins the search for solutions. We are calling our effort “Seeking Safety.” That’s what people really want, to feel safe in their own community.

Over the years, our staff has become adept at a particular type of reporting: We can dig into issues, expose problems, explain why things are broken.

We are, as our newspaper masthead suggests, an observer. It is a role we are proud of and which we will continue to play.

But this crime problem demands a new approach. We have to be willing to get off the sidelines, to do more than just report all the things that are wrong, that are creating Fayetteville’s climate of fear.

So we are going to spend the next year looking at crime from a new angle. We will examine programs and efforts here and across the country, looking for strategies that are working. Our focus will be on finding real-world solutions that are applicable to Fayetteville. We will seek ideas from experts and from people who know what it is like to live in crime-ridden communities.

Our reporting will ask tough questions and challenge leaders when they talk about obstacles rather than opportunities.

One of the reasons I’ve spent 26 years – all of my adult working life – in newsrooms is that I believe newspapers can make a difference. Specifically, I believe our newspaper can make a difference in this community.

We are going to put that belief to the test over the next year. Because on this story, we are aiming to create momentum and action. We want to help drag that burden of fear off Fayetteville.

Greg Barnes, who has won numerous awards as a writer and an editor, will lead our reporting effort. He already has spent weeks talking to city leaders, police, school officials, mentors and crime victims, listening to their stories and ideas.

Today’s story, laying out the problem and the need for the community to come together to work on it, launches our project. Next month, he will have the first installment in our search for meaningful solutions.

Police reporter Nancy McCleary also will be a regular contributor to the project. Beginning in late November and every two weeks after that, she will be sharing tips on personal safety and ideas about how residents across the community can get involved in crime-prevention efforts.

We’re doing all of this in a partnership with WRAL-TV. That partnership will combine the best of both of our news organizations to share the search for solutions with a larger audience than either of us could do separately.

Love letter to an invisible newspaper: The Lake Lure Mountain Breeze

August 3rd, 2014

 

The more I study community newspapers, the more different types of papers I’m finding out there.

From Chapel Hill to China and from Murphy to Manteo, the variety of niche, hyper-local, print-based publications is both eyebrow-raising and encouraging to this unapologetic newspaper wonk.

Breeze Associate Janette Harvey with the Lake Lure Mountain Breeze, (Jock Lauterer photo)

Breeze Associate Janette Harvey with the Lake Lure Mountain Breeze, (Jock Lauterer photo)

Meet the Mountain Breeze of Lake Lure, N.C., which I’d label a “hobby newspaper,” or maybe a retirement newspaper — meaning that I suspect its owners never set out to make a fortune with the paper, but rather to serve the community and give its owners something to do.

I also call such publications, “invisible newspapers.” I use the term “invisible” not as a negative, but as an identifier: because the Breeze is not a member of the established press trade groups like the North Carolina Press Association or the National Newspaper Association; they don’t send their people to journalism workshops — nor have many professional journalists outside Rutherford County ever heard of the Breeze. They are not a part of the mainstream N.C. community press.

Be that as it may, as I travel these “blue highways,” I’m beginning to appreciate the community-building role played by such undocumented community newspapers, quietly plugging away out there, under the radar. (And I further suspect that every state contains dozens of such invisible community newspapers.)

For while in the big picture, the Breeze under the radar, in Lake Lure, the Breeze IS the radar.

 

Not your typical town

The Breeze is located in the historic N.C. mountain resort village of Lake Lure — nestled around an old hydroelectric project and under the deep shadows of “Rumbling Bald” and the cliffs of Hickory Nut Gorge and one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, Chimney Rock State Park.

Like many historic tourist destinations, Lake Lure is a lively mix of year-round locals, weekend day-trippers, aging bikers, country club and golf retirees (many from Florida and other points north) — all this making for interesting and lively times in local governance.

Back when I was running papers in this neck of the woods, Lake Lure was considered sort of poor-man’s Riviera, and blue collar get-away. Today, it is still an easy and convenient mountain daytrip from the sweltering flatlands east and south, so folks from Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., can get their mountain fix without trekking all the way to the high mountains farther to the west.

While location location location has always been in Lake Lure’s favor when it came to tourism, the Hickory Nut Gorge area’s relative isolation had a different effect on local media attention.

Deemed too far away to merit much news coverage from distant larger towns except in case of extreme disaster, Lake Lure went for decades without any local media outlet.

All that began to change in the mid-‘80s when Rumbling Bald Resort, a new golf community, launched an in-house and marketing newsletter named the Mountain Breeze.  It caught the eye of retired Gastonia Gazette editor Bill Williams and his wife, Betty, who in 1987, acquired the Breeze and began crafting it into a quarterly published community newspaper.

The current owners, David and Cathy Leestma, bought the paper in ’05, expanding it into a bi-monthly covering the Hickory Nut Gorge area communities of Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and Bat Cave. The Breeze went online in 2006 mountainbreezenews.com

 

Getting the scoop on the Breeze

To get the scoop on the Breeze, I meet Breeze Editor Janette Harvey at the best barbecue place in Western North Carolina, which happens to be a stone’s throw away from my cabin, just seven miles from Lake Lure.

Let it be noted that Janette doesn’t call herself the editor; I do.

She calls herself “Breeze associate” — but to me she’s the boots-on-the-ground manager, ad sales coordinator, circulation director and all-purpose utility infielder and one-woman band. The masthead lists owners David and Cathy Leestma as editor/publisher and advertising/business, respectively.

Content comes from a host of unpaid volunteer columnists who write on everything from fishing, books, the arts, health, real estate, home improvement, gardening, local history, birds, travel, faith, cars, genealogy, golf, and coin collecting.  Janette says many of these columnists have been writing for the Breeze for years.

As we are chowing down at Mike’s Cove Creek Barbecue on highway 64/74, Janette explains that the Breeze “isn’t news related, not political, nothing negative…it’s a change of pace from all the stuff going on the in the world — plane crashes and border crossings — but it is community related, You find out what’s going on here, so it helps bring the community together. Everybody loves this paper.”

Space is given to regular columns from the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor and the Town of Lake Lure’s environmental management officer.

The Breeze has a fairly consistent group of local advertisers, many of whom appear to be like barbecue magnate Mike who tells Janette, “Just keep the ad running until I tell you not to.”

Because it’s a bi-monthly, the Breeze has a long shelf life, she says, “It’s more like a magazine than a newspaper. People hang onto it, and don’t throw it away.”

The paper’s growth is reflected in its expansion this summer to a monthly. Editor/Publisher David Leestma writes by email, “…we went monthly for the summer this year to meet the high season demand and with excellent results, we plan to do so in the future.”

Mike's Cove Creek Barbecue has attracted the attention of BBQ lovers statewide. That's Mike there on the left accompanied by the Guv with a mouthful of pulled pork sandwich. (Photo courtesy of Mike's BBQ)

Mike’s Cove Creek Barbecue has attracted the attention of BBQ lovers statewide. That’s Mike there on the left accompanied by the Guv with a mouthful of pulled pork sandwich. (Photo courtesy of Mike’s BBQ)

The Breeze has a lean business model that relies heavily on the Web: Janette is the sole employee in Lake Lure and handles everything from home, including all her ad sales, most of which is done over phone or by e-mail. A reliable stable of long-time columnists email in their regular topical columns.  Production folks are spread all over the map: The Breeze webmaster lives in Charleston, S.C.; their layout person works from home in Belmont; the graphic artist is in Ellenboro; and owners David and Cathy Leestma work much of the year out of their in their primary home in California. Such an arrangement would have been untenable 20 years ago.

Technology allows the Breeze to be printed in distant Gastonia, where the Gazette presses run off 6,600-7,000 copies of the 48-page tabloid paper.

Janette and her strapping 15-year-old grandson, Henry Elmore, deliver the free papers to some 75 drop spots in and around the Hickory Nut Gorge area as well as to points east to Rutherfordton, Forest City and Ellenboro — a task she says she truly enjoys. “I like to go out and meet the people,” she says.

The Breeze has 20 primary high-traffic drop spots that Janette re-stocks every Friday, sometimes not being able to keep up with the demand, she says.

“I leave 150 papers at Ingles, and sometimes they’re gone by the end of the day. To me, that tells me people read it. This is the real thing.”

As the Breeze has grown, so has the community of Lake Lure. Janette points to a new doctor’s office, school, visitor center, state park, sporting activities, an annual dragon boat race, an annual “Polar Plunge” on New Year’s Day, and the 5th annual “Dirty Dancing” movie festival which celebrates the ‘80s cult movie filmed there, and the 10th annual Lake Lure Olympiad, a runner’s road race/triathlon that raises funds for local charities.

 

Going on their 28th year

With all its feel-good, non-watchdog, non-confrontational content, it would be easy to dismiss the Lake Lure Mountain Breeze as a tourist rag, a fluff-piece, a chamber of commerce mouthpiece.

But I’m not about to do that.  I live in Carrboro; so I know what a town is like when it has no newspaper. And I’ve seen how empty and incomplete a community feels when it loses that independent hyper-local voice.

Editor/Publisher David Leestma says it like this in an e-mail, “With a family history connected to Lake Lure since the ’60’s, Cathy and I are strongly invested in this community and believe, as do so many Breeze readers say, that The Mountain Breeze captures the spirit, essence and vitality of this beautiful region and its people.  We are committed to making that so for a very long time.”

Be it ever so humble, the Breeze serves a very real purpose, satisfying a need for local information and filling a niche in the business market.

As Janette Harvey says, “It’s been here going on 28 years. We must be doing something right.”

 

Here's the ol' perfesser doing his best Bob Garner impression. (Janette Harvey photo)

Friends have accused the Roadshow of targeting newspapers located near great places to eat. Imagine that. Here’s the ol’ perfesser doing his best Bob Garner impression. Next time y’all are in WNC, check out Mike’s Cove Creek Barbecue on NC Hwy 64-74 mid-way between Rutherfordton and Lake Lure. (Janette Harvey photo)

Watching those seedlings grow

July 29th, 2014
caption

The Sanford Herald heavy-hitters, left to right, Reporter Zach Potter, Editor R.V. Hight, and Publisher Bill Horner III, join the ol’ perfesser to display two new Chinese community journalism during a Roadshow visit to Sanford earlier this summer. (Photo by Chen Kai)

 

The greatest reward a teacher can get is seeing former students succeeding in the real world.

So it was with deep satisfaction that the Roadshow recently visited the Sanford Herald where long-time pals Publisher Bill Horner III and Editor R.V. Hight have just hired Zach Potter, my star graduate from the UNC J-school class of ’14.

This past spring semester, Zach served with distinction as co-editor of the Durham VOICE, our inner-city urban youth empowerment community newspaper.  But putting out a twice monthly is nothing like working full-time at a daily with a two-story-a-day quota.

Happily,  Zach has lived up to his clippings, so to speak.

His favorite story? Interviewing local D-Day vets, whose personal stories of the Normandy Beach invasion “blew my mind,” he confided, adding that after hearing about the hardships they endured  — never again would he complain about little things like a bad-hair day.

His toughest story? Walking the fine line of accuracy, objectivity and fairness on a local Rodney King-type story.

Zach’s growth makes the ol’ perfesser mighty proud.

The Sanford Herald, general excellent winner for the third year in a row in its category, deserved the best of my Community Journalism class.  Zach is that promising “cub reporter” now quickly growing into senior reporter status.

And a shout-out to Bill and R.V., who realize that a nurturing newsroom like theirs makes for the best graduate school of community journalism.

Onward and upward.

 

Think Globally; Report Locally

July 12th, 2014

 

Who you for? Argentina or Germany. Everybody has an answer.

Think Globally: Report Locally.

Even though the World Cup doesn’t involve their country’s team — and the games are quite literally on the other side of the world — one community newspaper in Finland found a way to make local the big game everyone in town is talking about.

Who are you for? Argentina? Or Germany?

They sent a photographer/writer to the local soccer field and posed this simple question. Then, using country flags as a prop, they shot photos of the kids and got responses from the youth soccer players.

Then they published the eye-catching results as a double-truck photo spread that’s fun to look at — even if you don’t speak Finno-Ugric!

Now, that’s what I call relentlessly local.

The Community Journalism Roadshow turns 14

July 9th, 2014
"Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end..." Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2014. Photo by Jock Lauterer

“Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…” Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2014. Photo by Jock Lauterer

Editor’s Note: Writing about home while afar brings a ring of truth to the narrative. Truth be told, I am writing this while seated at an outdoor café in Old Town, Vilnius, Lithuania, with the poignant strains of the Beatle’s “Yesterday” play hauntingly on accordion by a street busker.

 

In this, the 14th  year of the Johnny Appleseed Community Journalism Roadshow, we are repainting the Golden Gate Bridge.

Let me explain. I’ve been told that at San Francisco’s most famous bridge, there’s a painting crew with a permanent work order.

But it’s such a tall order (pun intended) that by the time the crew gets done going one direction, they must turn around and start painting back toward the opposite shore.

So even though I may have done a workshop previously at a specific newspaper, after 10 or more years, many in the staff may have turned over. Or certainly there are new green cub reporters who have never participated in a free, on-site workshop from Mr. Joke at the J-School.

Which brings me to Greenville and the Daily Reflector.  Or I should say, brings me back. Recapping the Roadshow visit two weeks ago: This time around I get to meet reporters, editors and photographers serving the Cooke Communications-owned weekly newspapers in Ayden, Grifton, Fountain, Snow Hill, Winterville, Kenansville — places that perhaps you’ve never heard of. Places one might call the “middle of nowhere.”

But, as any good community journalist knows, “The middle of nowhere is the center of someone else’s universe.” (Please forgive, dear reader, I am quoting myself.)

I come here not so much to teach as to reinforce and to authenticate what these good people are doing, day in and day out.

My take is that these community newspapers are the heartbeat of American journalism.

For though the story about the annual Collard Festival may not stir your juices, to the folks in Ayden, it’s a really big deal, affecting thousands of lives and fortunes, and thus noble and worth a lot of ink, in its own right.

And in return, I am taught. The lessons come in narrative form, of course, for these people are born storytellers.

Like the Hurricane Floyd story one reporter told: how a priceless Steinway piano was saved from the rising flood waters when parishioners rallied around and winched the musical treasure up through a hole cut in the ceiling to dry safety above.

Or the newly transplanted New York City reporter who admitted wearing “four-inch heels into the blueberry patch” on her first interview with a local farmer.

And thanks to Editor Al Clark for hosting the Roadshow in Greenville. What a pleasure it was also to re-connect with recent JOMC grads Sarah Cowell and Abby Bennett, both working at the Daily Reflector.

On to Ocracoke, Sanford, Lake Lure, Spring Hope, Mebane, Fayetteville and Cherokee.

The Roadshow carries on.

During an interactive part of the Roadshow Workshop at the Greenville Daily Reflector, veteran reporter Michael Abramowitz , center, instructs Cora  Taft, right, on the finer points of Greenville goegraphy, other staffers from Cooke newspapers work on their "story-mapping" projects.  (Jock Lauterer photo)

During an interactive part of the Roadshow Workshop at the Greenville Daily Reflector, veteran reporter Michael Abramowitz, center, instructs Cora Taft, right, on the finer points of Greenville geography, as other staffers from Cooke newspapers work on their “story-mapping” projects. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

At the VOICE: Why we do what we do

July 5th, 2014
In which Mr. Joke gets to meet the new cohort from Partners for Youth in Durham. (Chen Kai photo)

In which Mr. Joke gets to meet the new cohort from Partners for Youth in Durham. (Chen Kai photo)

The electric blue lights from multiple police cars flashed ominously down South Fayetteville Street, sending a clear message: someone was in a heap of trouble.

As I drove past, my worst fears were confirmed.  Five cop cars surrounded a single older vehicle; a dozen white police officers milled about. Below them on the curbside, all in white T-shirts, sat four black teenage boys, heads hung down, sullen and stone-faced. Busted.

Six years ago — before the murder of Eve Carson — my reaction would have been: Good for the cops.

But not any more.

I want those guys, I heard myself saying.

Those kids on the curbside should be in the teen newsroom of the Durham VOICE. They should be in the good hands of Partners for Youth Opportunity (PYO).

That take-down scene represents a tragic example of a failed community, and it hurts me to witness such a social melt-down. If we all don’t step up to help our at-risk kids, who on earth will?

That’s why I’m excited about this fall’s plan to strengthen the bond between the VOICE and PYO. The VOICE is blessed to have such a great organization with which to work. Executive Director Julie Wells and Teen Mentoring Carlton Koonce share our goal of youth development and civic engagement.

Later than same morning, I got to meet the first cohort of next year’s Partners for Youth Opportunity.  See that photo of me and the kids? When you look at these faces, how can you not be excited for the coming fall — and hopeful for these youth?

But I’m still haunted by the memory of that sad scene down on South Fayetteville Street — and those lost boys.

In which Mr. Joke goes to Lithuania

July 4th, 2014
The challenge in one image: an elderly European newspaper reader juxtaposed with a younger online consumer at the Frankfort, Germany, airport.  (Jock Lauterer photo)

The challenge in one image: an elderly European newspaper reader juxtaposed with a younger online consumer at the Frankfort, Germany, airport. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Newspapers are thriving.

Maybe the professional mourners need to get outside the beltway more often.

I surely saw community newspapers “growing like Topsy” — especially in China on my teaching/research junket earlier this summer.

A mother and daughter engrossed in the same newspaper story.

A mother and daughter engrossed in the same newspaper story.

And newspapers are still the dominant communication form in Europe — if observation in the Frankfort international airport is an early indicator. Racks and racks of multi-language newspapers are for sale (and in some cases free) and are snatched up by information-hungry Europeans.

I observed with pleasure folks gobbling up not one, but several papers, at a single sitting. The papers are well-printed, wide and visually sophisticated. It felt like being back in the ‘80s in the U.S. before the big metro dailies got into their own self-induced tailspin.

Now I’m here in Vilnius, Lithuania, serving as a “trailing spouse” to my wife as she attends and presents at an international conference on children with reading difficulties. It’s a good opportunity to observe media consumption in yet another culture.

Note: I don’t hear much radio. TV is rarely on in bars, and if it is — it’s tuned to sports, not the news. Oddly, I don’t see that much mobile — nor the omnipresent texting and screen-addiction of U.S. youth. I do see lots and lots of newspapers.  And people reading ‘em! Whodda thunk it. What do they know that we don’t know? Or are the Europeans hopelessly quaint and behind the times?

Proving yet again that teens are the same the world over: a selfie in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Proving yet again that teens are the same the world over: a selfie in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Connecting the dots from Guangdong, China, to Southern Pines, N.C., U.S. of A

June 22nd, 2014
The handsome cover of one of the Open Daily editions. The Pilot staff cranked out 14 issues of the 64-page tabloid — in ADDITION to putting out their four-section broadsheet twice-weekly. Amazing work for a semi-weekly community newspaper, by anyone’s standards. (Jock Lauterer photos)

The handsome cover of one of the Open Daily editions. The Pilot staff cranked out 14 issues of the 64-page tabloid — in ADDITION to putting out their four-section broadsheet twice-weekly. Amazing work for a semi-weekly community newspaper, by anyone’s standards. (Jock Lauterer photos)

 

The Community Journalism Summer Roadshow, now in its 14th summer, returns today to The Pilot of Southern Pines for my fourth U.S. Open golf championship.

I’ve spent three U.S. Opens out in the field, toting cameras and shooting the action on and off the greens.  But this time around, I’m letting the younger shooters schlep those heavy professional cameras around 18 holes in the 90 degree heat.

And besides, I’d never spent a day as a participant-observer behind the front lines — in the newsroom where it all comes together.

What I am seeing is both gratifying and reinforcing. Community newspapers are not vanishing; they are changing and adapting and innovating. The Pilot is a good example of one such visionary community paper.

As a self-professed “latter-day Johnny Appleseed,” I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to visit 185 North Carolina towns and their community newspapers since hitting the road back in the summer of 2001.

If I were king, I’d make it mandatory for journalism professors to spend part of their summers out in the field.

As any UNC faculty or staff member lucky enough to take part in the old Tar Heel Bus Tour knows, there is such a cultural richness out there. “North Carolina 101” should be a pre-requisite for teaching at UNC; you shed your cap and gown, jettison the ivy-covered halls, evacuate the Chapel Hill bubble and hit those less-traveled “Blue Highways.”

And you return to Chapel Hill with a greater understanding of and appreciation for the Old North State – and for what Carolina means to North Carolina.

Out there also I think you’ll find the real North Carolina — and to my way of thinking, the real United States.

 

The system is down, but the newsroom remains up. Early on during the men’s U.S. Open competition, staffers at The Pilot soldier on in spite of technical speed bumps, left to right, Ted Natt, Martha J. Henderson, David Sinclair, Tom Embrey, John Lentz and Hunter Chase.

The system is down, but the newsroom remains up. Early on during the men’s U.S. Open competition, staffers at The Pilot soldier on in spite of technical speed bumps.

 

It’s Tuesday at the U.S. Open Golf Championship; I’m a fly-on-the-wall visitor at the newsroom of the best golf daily in North Carolina: the Open Daily, published by the twice-weekly Pilot of Southern Pines.

But there is a crisis in this newsroom.

The server has crashed; the system is down. They are dead in the water.

Of course it would happen today. They can’t get the Internet, can’t download stuff, can’t lay out pages. Hopefully, Zonker “Z” Harris, their tech guy, is on the way from Raleigh to figure out the problem.

“That’s what makes it fun and exciting!” Senior Writer TomEmbrey calls out in mock merriment.

The tension is palpable, but this veteran crew has done this before.

In this open-air, cubicle-free newsroom, folks holler messages and instructions and jollity and good cheer at each other.

‘Martha, you’re the queen!” someone hollers when Design Editor Martha Henderson solves a problem.

“She’s not a queen!” Someone else shouts.”

“How about diva?!” another rejoins.

 

What’s not to love? In this ‘cubicle-free’ newsroom, folks can and do just plain talk to/holler at/chat with each other.  I honestly think that ‘open newsroom’ ambiance is one of the things that contribute to staff well-being and retention. Here, long-time staffers Faye Dasen (features editor) confers with Steve Bouser, former editor and present opinion editor. (As many J-schoolers know, Bouser has also distinguished himself recently as a beloved and respected journalism lecturer at Carroll Hall).

What’s not to love? In this ‘cubicle-free’ newsroom, folks can and do just plain talk to/holler at/chat with each other. I honestly think that ‘open newsroom’ ambiance is one of the things that contribute to staff well-being and retention. Here, long-time staffers Faye Dasen (features editor) confers with Steve Bouser, former editor and present opinion editor. (As many J-schoolers know, Bouser has also distinguished himself recently as a beloved and respected journalism lecturer at Carroll Hall).

***                               ***                               ***                               ***

Just over a week ago, I was embedded in another newsroom, on another continent, 9,000 miles away, talking to journalists about community journalism in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Today, almost recovered from jet lag, I am hanging out at one of my favorite community paper newsrooms in the state. Being here reminds me of why I love community journalism, why it’s important and why it’s the brand of journalism with the best chance of surviving far into the future.

As the old saying goes, “You can tell it’s a community newspaper if there are kids or dogs in the newsroom.” Exhibit A: While Editor John Nagy works at his desk, his 7-year-old son, Ayden, checks out a video game. (Jock Lauterer photo)

As the old saying goes, “You can tell it’s a community newspaper if there are kids or dogs in the newsroom.” Exhibit A: While Editor John Nagy works at his desk, his 7-year-old son, Ayden, checks out a video game. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

***                               ***                               ***                               ***

Hey, Zonker comes through! The system is back up. Life goes on at the Pilot newsroom.

Newsroom chatter turns decidedly more upbeat.

“Good catch, Mary!” Editor John Nagy hollers from his office – loud enough for proofreader Mary Novitsky and the entire newsroom to hear.

At about that exact moment, over WUNC-FM radio, we hear Frank Stacio on “The State of Thing,” interviewing UNC-CH Professor Penny Abernathy about her groundbreaking new book,” Saving Community Journalism.”

Is this a coincidence?  Here I am today at what is arguably North Carolina’s best semi-weekly community newspaper. In addition to going daily for the U.S. Open, this innovative crowd at the Pilot also puts out phone books, launched a trio of highly successful glossy city magazines…oh, and they also own the local bookstore.

This merry band is led by their irrepressible publisher David Woronoff, who says FUN is one of his core working principals – and that if you’re not having fun (while working hard), then…go sell shoes!

Woronoff’s other dictum worth memorizing has to do with dealing with competition.

“Figure out what the competition is doing.

And then, figure out what they aren’t doing…

            What they can’t do,

            And what they won’t do…

            And then…DO IT.”      

 

And that, concisely put, is why the Pilot is out-covering, out-hustling, out-classing, out-selling and out-doing every other golf publication at this year’s U.S. Opens.

How’s that for a business model?

Community journalism — saved.

***                               ***                               ***                               ***

Intern Ashlen Renner displays The Pilot’s website. The rising senior J-major at UNC-Chapel Hill is a Pinehurst native and says, “It’s always been my dream to work here.”

Intern Ashlen Renner displays The Pilot’s website. The rising senior J-major at UNC-Chapel Hill is a Pinehurst native and says, “It’s always been my dream to work here.”

 

 

“Kerchew!”

When I sneeze, all eight journalists in The Pilot newsroom respond as one: “BLESS YOU!”

What a sound of homecoming that is. No, really! In China, you sneeze in silence. A largely secular society, China has no such tradition. So I have to mention this little cultural factoid to the newsroom.

So I holler out to the crew, “Y’all know that in China, when you sneeze, they don’t say $#!+”

To which, the ever-quick Tom Embrey responds, “Well then, next time you sneeze, we’ll say $#!+”

Taking the bait, I fake a good stage sneeze: “Ker-CHEW!”

Which is met with a robust and raucous chorus of “$#!+!” — followed by a hearty peal of laughter.

Later that day, with the newsroom nose-to-the-computer screen to get out that day’s edition of the Open Daily, I get a wonderful tribute from Tom when he says, “You kept us entertained.”

Glad to be of service.

***                               ***                               ***                               ***

The rest of the Pilot newsroom deserves a shout-out too: first off, Publisher David Woronoff was out at on the course doing his publisher thing, so I’ll just recognize my old pals and veteran staffers, Steve Bouser, former editor and now the opinions editor; and Faye Dasen, long-time features editor.

Then, the rest of the merry band of pranksters includes John Nagy, editor; David Sinclair, managing editor; Hunter Chase, sports editor, Ted Natt, staff writer; John Lentz, staff writer; Glenn Sides, chief photographer; F.W. Manning, staff writer; and Tom Bryant, outdoor writer.

Onward and upward.

 

Working in the color-coordinated magazine center at The Pilot,  graphic designer Brianna Rolfe Cunningham is part of the team that has created award-winning layouts for slick city magazines for Pinehurst, (Pinestraw); Greensboro (O’Henry); and Wilmington (Salt). Brianna, a 2013 UNC J-school grad, is also a veteran of my Community Journalism class, where she worked on the Durham VOICE.    --30--

Working in the color-coordinated magazine center at The Pilot, graphic designer Brianna Rolfe Cunningham is part of the team that has created award-winning layouts for slick city magazines for Pinehurst, (Pinestraw); Greensboro (O’Henry); and Wilmington (Salt). Brianna, a 2013 UNC J-school grad, is also a veteran of my Community Journalism class, where she worked on the Durham VOICE.

In which Editor Li gets it right

June 7th, 2014
Editor Li meets his readers in Foshan. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Editor Li meets his readers in Foshan. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

Jock Lauterer, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has returned to China for a third summer to teach Community Journalism at workshops from Beijing to Chongqing to Guangzhou. His latest book, “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” was released on May 28 in Shenzhen, after being revised and translated into Mandarin Chinese. Because of the difficulty of pronouncing the name “Jock,” our man in China was often introduced as “Mr. Joke.”

 

Of all the encounters I have been privileged to experience in China, my very favorite has been with Li GuoChen, or simply Editor Li — my “brother from another mother” in the city of Foshan in the southern province of Guangdong.

“Older Brother Joke,” he calls me.

We met last year at a community journalism conference in the city of Hefei, and the connection was instant and mutual.  A tall lanky man of constant motion, salt-and-pepper black hair and a set of merry eyes — Li is fiercely enthusiastic about local newspapering, won’t take no for an answer, and is a man after my own heart.

His English is halting; my Chinese is non-existent. Yet we communicate.  I feel like Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves,” struggling to communicate with his new Lakota Indian friends, Kicking Bird or Wind in His Hair — we get very close, lock eyes, wave our hands and find one common word we can both understand — then, “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Li cries in delight, when he gets it.

With his irrepressible good cheer, boundless energy, and utter sincerity, Editor Li is not to be denied. No wonder his eight community newspaper start-ups have been so successful. He gets it: community journalism is all about social capital and relationship building and maintenance.

I think to myself, Editor Li would be fun to work for – fun to work WITH.

In fact, that just might happen.

He has a vision of creating the first-ever Chinese academic program in Community Journalism at his local university, and appears to have the support of the academic leaders at Foshan University.

On the way to one a town-hall style meeting with readers, he turns from the steering wheel and challenges, “Want to join me!?”  Almost driving off the road with childish excitement. Only a fool would refuse my irrepressible younger Chinese brother.

IN THE TRENCHES

When we walk into the room at the Luo Cun Community Newspaper, a crowd of about 30 elderly readers leap to their feet and began applauding, hands held over their heads to clap. (Now, when’s the last time I saw a newspaper publisher get that kind of reception?)

But Editor Li is not there to accept their adulation. He introduces me as “the godfather of Chinese community journalism.”

Can I put that on my vita?

He’s there to get feedback about the new community weekly he started earlier this year. The seniors are led by a Mr. Zhou, a 60-something articulate retiree, who tells us, that prior to the new newspaper, the neighborhood had felt ignored.

“Your newspaper is a pioneer, and gives us a voice,” he says. And he requests help from the paper in organizing more activities for the seniors…some sort of a dance club or sports team, he suggests.

“I will find the money for you!” Editor Li responds. “You organize it, and we’ll help.” And he continues, “We should put all our resources together to make you happier to live in this community. If you have good ideas, maybe we can publish it in the newspaper, and other people will want to help.”

Little wonder Ed. Li’s paper is so popular. Mr. Zhou praises the young women reporters: “They work a lot in the community. They dig out the news. They make friend with the seniors. They are not arrogant. When they see me, they say things like ‘Hello, Uncle Zhou!’”

Buddha, Li and Jock in Guangdong. (Prof Chen Kai photo)

Buddha, Li and Jock in Guangdong. (Prof Chen Kai photo)

Then Mr. Zhou says the most remarkable thing: “The best thing about this community newspaper is that you can constructively criticize the government. The party newspaper — it’s a mouthpiece, and we don’t care about it. But we like this newspaper because it talks about us! We read every page!”

Asked to give a specific example of how the newspaper had helped, Mr. Zhaou recalls how he had complained to the local government about a huge pothole in the road. Nothing happened. After two to three months with no response, he gave up and called the paper. Within two days of the story’s publication, the pothole was fixed.

And here’s the really good thing: Prof Chen Kai explains that in the more progressive and liberal southern province of Guangdong, “local government here is not offended when the newspaper is critical.”

Ed Li is pleased. “I want to use my heart to do something useful for the citizens, to help resolve some of their problems….that’s my slogan.”

Mr. Yang underlines in red pen every story he reads and likes. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Mr. Yang underlines in red pen every story he reads and likes. (Jock Lauterer photo)

We hear the same themes at a visit to a second start-up of 2014, the Qiao Shan News, where the local government leader, introduced to me as “Mr. Dragon,” says local government donated office space so that “citizens can come talk with journalists…to help collect residents’ demands, because the government has to listen to the concerns of the citizens, and that makes the government more effective when it makes decisions.”

I’m starting to get it now. Under the Chinese system, the ponderous multi-leveled local governmental bureaucracy gets in the way of documenting feedback from just plain folks.

“The community newspaper serves as a conduit for collecting public opinion,” Mr. Dragon tells me, and this is a very important and valuable function.

Disgruntled citizens can even talk to reporters about “sensitive issues…that might be too sensitive to be published,” — the American equivalent of “deep background,”  which, though “off the record,” still needs to be passed on and documented.

Editor Li agrees. “We want the newspaper to be a bridge between the citizens and the government.”

We meet Mr. Yang, a 77-year-old former government worker, who serves as a “citizen journalist” for the paper — as a trusted source and tipster. After he complained to the paper about the lack of bus stops in Qiao Shan, two more bus stops were added.

***   ***   ***

Later that day, we are joined at Starbucks by Tang Wan, a 42-year-old editor- in-chief of Editor Li’s group of eight papers. Before joining Editor Li’s team, she’d worked for years on the big metro dailies; she likes community journalism better, she tells us. And, most importantly, she buys into Li’s vision for the future of journalism in China.

“We feel as if Editor Li can see into the future,” she tell us over cappuccino, “This is the appropriate time to introduce Community Journalism into our society…though our papers are small in size, they are not at all small in their influence in their communities.”

To be sure, these Chinese newspapers get their start-up and some operating capital from the government, a fact of life here that wouldn’t fly in the good old U.S. of A. Be that as it may, after three years of marginal success, last year Li’s papers began raking in serious local advertising dollars – good old fashioned capitalism. The newspapers, (tabloid, 16 pages, free weekly, average circulation of 50k) are “100 percent local and very profitable.”

When I asked her if she sees Ed. Li as a pathfinder, she demurred, “Ask him yourself.”

So I did. And Li, ever the humble Chinese, said this: “We are confident in our strengths; but we will never name ourselves as the leader.”

Prof. Chen Kai was more forthright: “He sets a good example for what Chinese Community Journalism should be. Your first priority is to serve your community. And THEN money will come. You have to be patient!”

At a town hall meeting with his readers, Editor Li gets an earful -- and a hug. (Prof Chen Kai photo)

At a town hall meeting with his readers, Editor Li gets an earful — and a hug. (Prof Chen Kai photo)

 

*** *** ***

At the end of the day, I’m thinking, so here’s a publisher who puts people first and profits second. Here’s a publisher who wants to serve the greater good. Yes, he does work with and takes money from the government, after having convincing them of the value of community journalism Does that make him a lapdog?

Me, the hard-core First Amendment wonk, is thinking: This ain’t exactly watchdog journalism. But, as I am repeatedly told, “This is China!” So this is progress.  I keep going back to the rhetorical question posed by my lifelong buddy and journalism professor, Steven Knowlton of Dublin City University. And Prof. Knowlton is speaking specifically of China here when he ponders:  “How do you do good journalism if you don’t have a free press? The answer, of course, is, eventually, Community Journalism.”

A memorable moment for any author: embarrassing and gratifying all at once. (Duan YiFei photo)

A memorable moment for any author: embarrassing and gratifying all at once. (Duan YiFei photo)

My 15 seconds of fame: ‘Ta-Da!” in Chinese

In a large convention hall are seated about 125 Chinese reporters, photographers, ad people, editors and newspaper directors (the latter being the equivalent of our publishers).

They are from all across China — from Beijing in the north, from Hefei in the east and Chongqing in the far southwest to Shenzhen in the far south, where we are now.

They have come here to this community journalism conference (sponsored by the Southern Metro Daily of Guangdong) to share their best practices and learn from others — and to celebrate the dynamic growth of community journalism in China, a relatively new media phenomenon here. “It’s still very primitive,” says one publisher.

At each place setting, a copy of my just-off-the-presses book rests on dark green velvet. Each conference-goer gets a free copy, and before the speechifying begins, I am besieged by journalists humbly seeking my signature — a moment for any author to treasure, no matter how many times it happens.

Then, when our time comes, Prof. Chen Kai and I do our best program, playing tag-team with translations in front of a jumbo-tron — very high tech and state-of-the-art, the likes of which this ink-dabbler has never seen. Our PowerPoint looked to be the size of a basketball court.

My favorite part of this convention: as each speaker is being introduced, and then walks to the podium, the PA system blasts martial music, what can only be called epic heroic, reminding me of the Olympic-style John Williams fanfare…so that you arrive at the podium to give your little speech feeling like you’ve just won gold!

I might copy that theme music and use it for my entrance into my classes back at UNC.

I'm listening as Prof Chen Kai translates. (Duan YiFei photo)

I’m listening as Prof Chen Kai translates. (Duan YiFei photo)

A China portfolio

June 3rd, 2014

Jock Lauterer, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has returned to China for a third summer to teach Community Journalism at workshops from Beijing to Chongqing to Guangzhou. His latest book, “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” was released on May 28 in Shenzhen, after being revised and translated into Mandarin Chinese.

 

(Dylan Wang photo)

(Duan YiFei photo)

His English wasn’t that good, but we spoke another common language fluently. The photographer from the Southern Metro Daily, Zhao (“Jacky”) Yan Xiong, had been sent to take my picture for the morning paper. But after getting his shots, the slim, bright-eyed 30-year-old was more interested in sharing his passion for documentary photojournalism with a kindred spirit. For the last nine years he’s been documenting “the Green Trains,” the narrow-gauge steam locomotives that serve the farmers living in vast rural expanses of China. But the Middle Kingdom, in its dizzying vault to modernity, is retiring the Green Trains in favor of the speedier bullet trains. To my new friend, this is a travesty, and a reason to capture their fleeting images before it is too late. A way of life is disappearing, and with it, part of old China. “On the high speed train, it goes so fast, people don’t talk to each other,” he tells me. “You just play with your cell phone. But on the Green Train, you can talk to strangers, and especially in the mountains lands, where the high speed trains by-pass, the people must use the Green Train to get to market.” Then he tells me something surprising: when he’s shooting the trains, he puts aside his state-of-the-art digital camera in favor of a classic, 35-mm. Leica that uses film. Repeat: FILM — a medium that is as sweet, authentic and as disciplined as the narrow-gauge, steam driven engines Jacky is trying to help preserve visually. Showing me some of his photographs he has stored on his smart phone, he tells me modestly that he hopes to publish his portfolio some day as a book. I promise to help. And I mean it. “When I am out shooting the trains,” Jacky says with satisfaction, “I can put my whole heart into it.”

Juxtaposition:

(Jock Lauterer photo)

When photographing in China, I am constantly fascinated by the ironic juxtaposition of icons from America slipping into my camera’s viewfinder. There are those ever-present apartment towers, where hundreds of people live for years without ever knowing their neighbors, I’m told by residents. And then there’s that quintessentially American golden arches sign poking its head up, as if to say: “It doesn’t matter where you wander in this wide world — would you like fries with that?”

(Jock Lauterer photo)

(Jock Lauterer photo)

She didn’t have an English name, so could I please come up with one? And while I was at it, how about her son? Sitting out in public in Chongqing, where Westerners are few, I was often approached by passers-by who wanted to practice their English on me. But this was a first. Getting to give someone a name? And not just one someone — but two! First, I said, I need to know your real name. The young mother obliged. “Bountiful Autumn Harvest,” she told me. Well then, you’re Dawn, and your son is Luke. Hearing that, she threw her arms around my neck. Pulled back with a blush, uttered a quick thank you, and ran lightly away. Dawn and Luke. Where on earth did I get that?

 

(Jock Lauterer photo)

(Jock Lauterer photo)

Every night in the Huixing neighborhood of Chongqing, a back alley comes alive. Known as “Food Street” to the college kids from the nearby university, it is a mélange of food, filth, smells beyond cataloguing and every manner of mouth-searing, tongue-numbing, eye-watering, nose-running Sichuan street cooking you could desire. If they had a health department, they’d shut the place down in a heartbeat. But, “this is China,” as I am told repeatedly, several times a day. As if that justifies almost anything.

(Chen Kai photo)

(Chen Kai photo)

You’ve surely of the classic “three pillars of journalism:” Smokin,’ cussin’ and drinkin’. In the case of the latter, the Chinese journalists are second to no one. They start at lunch with their Tsingtao brewskies, and you’d better rise to the occasion when they begin toasting you because frankly it is a test of your manhood. Oh hey! Or your womanhood, should that be the case. Luckily for yr hmbl svt, I was well-trained by “Shu,” a hard-drinking, expletive-deleted, smoke-puffing journalist who could peel paint off the walls with his critique of your sloppy work. So I impressed my Chinese buddies with my hollow leg. And they impressed me right back; did you know you can open a beer bottle with chopsticks?!

(Jock Lauterer photo)

(Jock Lauterer photo)

About 300 years before Jesus was born, some farmers in China came up with the bright idea of decorating boats like dragons and racing them. Now, some 2,300 years later, the annual Dragon Boat Race Festival in late May is a knock-down-drag-out intercity donnybrook, with teams competing for yearly bragging rights. I’m shooting this race in Shenzhen down in the southern province of Guangdong, and I learn that the longest and best-decorated boat gets buried in the owner’s irrigation canal in hopes that the boat’s good luck will rub off on the local harvest. At year’s end, the boat is exhumed, dried out and re-purposed. Notice the coxswain beating the drum. Maybe the UNC crew team should try that.

 

(Jock Lauterer photo)

(Jock Lauterer photo)

You can’t help but be impressed by how physically active the elderly of China are. At every turn, I’d see old folks out dancing, stretching, exercising, doing Tai Chi — or in the case of this old dude, chugging along every morning in spite of the foul air. Which leads me to wonder: aren’t people dropping like flies from the egregious air pollution? Twice now I’ve returned from 3-4 week stays in China with a mysterious skin ailment, which, upon return, dissipates rapidly. Is it just that I’m not acclimatized to the filth those poor people have to live in? On one particularly wretched gray day in Chongqing, when I asked my host to rate the air pollution (from “Terrible, to Moderate to Acceptable”), he chose “moderate.” I responded by telling him if Americans woke up one morning to such a “moderate” day, we’d be marching in the streets in protest. “This is China,” I am told. Ah yes.

YamGreens

(Jock Lauterer photo)

Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to find a treasure in your own backyard. I had no idea the leaves of the sweet potato could be eaten. Turns out the greens of the good old yam are delicious when cooked with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, canola and sesame oils. Coming from the Old North State where the yam is grown in great quantity and where, in Tabor City, they have the annual Yam Festival, it struck me as downright humorous that I had to have a Chinese photojournalist  from Guangdong Province be the one to show me how to prepare the dish. Now that I’m home, you can bet I’ll be on the hunt for some yam greens next time I go to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Who knew?