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Posts Tagged ‘small-town journalism’

Rarely has anyone asked me a question that I felt less certain about while answering.

Several times in the first week of the month, someone asked me the same question, and each time I felt the confidence swell up like a warm balloon inside of me. How dare they even ask? The answer was so obvious that I all but openly scoffed at the questioner.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked.

Pfft.

My eyes narrowed and the corners of my mouth rose into a slight, cynical grin. My back stiffened. I felt like a sage asked to impart wisdom upon the uneducated masses. I waited a moment, letting the pause settle to the ground between us, before answering in a tone as calm and placid as the surface of a lake on a windless day.

“No,” I said. “Or we might get snow, but there is no way – absolutely no way – we are getting anything like a foot of it.”

I cited the lower end of the forecast, which at the time was around 6 inches, and said I’d be happily surprised if we got that much.

That was all the wiggle room I left myself.

I could easily remember all the times forecasters predicted the possibility of calamity – whether hurricanes, floods or blizzards – that never materialized, and times when predictions of tiny weather events fell disastrously short of what happened, as with last month’s ice storm.

More than that, I remembered all the times I hoped for big snowstorms, only to be disappointed.

Those memories fueled my sense of certainty. Those forecasters. They weren’t going to get my hopes up this time.

Early in the week, the forecast shifted from day to day, and it further fueled my certainty.

The shifting more or less stopped by Thursday, but I was not deterred.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked me on Friday.

My eyes rolled so far back in my head I could see my brain pan.

“No,” I said, trying not to sneer, “certainly not 10 to 16 inches.”

And I added that since the highs were going to be in the 40s in the days before any snow fell, the ground would be warm and it would melt pretty quickly. There was no sense wringing hands about it.

I intentionally avoided the grocery store. I would not be held hostage in long lines of hysterics loading up for Snowmageddon.

My lone concession to the forecast was to agree it would be prudent to send last Sunday’s paper to press earlier than usual Saturday evening, just in case.

I woke after midnight that night and looked outside to see a dusting of snow on the grass, and a steady amount of new snow falling. I retrieved my News-Topic from the front sidewalk, shaking the snow from it, and went back to bed.

Several hours later I woke and looked outside to see that something close to 6 inches had fallen and piled up in the trees, and it was still snowing steadily. I checked my phone’s weather app, and it said there was a 100 percent chance of snow until early afternoon.

It appeared that I might have been wrong.

As the morning went on and the snow grew deeper, I began to worry about the amount of food in the refrigerator.

Around noon, when there clearly was much more than a foot of snow on the back patio, I worried about the power going out.

When the snow finally stopped, I went outside with an 18-inch ruler and pushed it down into the snow on my car. It sank to the tip.

I was wrong. Man, oh man, was I wrong.

You may ask, did I learn a lesson about acting so haughty?

Based on experience, I can answer with nearly absolute certainty, and I will be succinct: No, I learned nothing. No way.

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We have begun election season, and candidates should heed the advice of experienced political consultants that putting out a ton of yard signs doesn’t work.

The only thing it accomplishes is creating lots of visual clutter and post-election litter.

If you want voters to remember your name, there is solid evidence of where candidates get the most bang for their buck: in elevators.

The evidence comes in the form of a recent poll by Elon University testing how well registered voters know who their elected officials are.

Overall, voters’ knowledge is pretty bad.

People generally know the name of the president, vice president, and probably the governor and at least one U.S. senator, but after that, the poll shows, their knowledge goes off a cliff.

Only 22 percent can identify who represents them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Around here, that could be understandable. Destin Hall was first elected only a year and a half ago, and he’s young enough (31) that he hadn’t had much time to make a public impression before he ran for office.

Only 17 percent can identify who represents them in the state Senate. Again, around here that could be understandable, but for different reasons. Caldwell County keeps getting shifted to different Senate districts as the legislature and the courts tussle over redistricting maps. Until a few weeks ago, our senator was Deanna Ballard, who is from Watauga County and like Hall was first elected in 2016. Ballard replaced another Watauga County resident who resigned. (Nothing against Watauga County residents, but people are less likely to recognize the name of out-of-towners who show up mainly for ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies.) For the past few weeks our senator has been Warren Daniel of Burke County – who had been our senator before a previous round of redistricting.

Only 11 percent know the name of the president of the state Senate, who many observers convincingly argue is the most powerful politician in North Carolina at the moment. His name is Phil Berger, he is from Rockingham County, and if you were on the email list to receive his press releases you surely wouldn’t forget him because almost everything issued by his office is like digital napalm employed in a constant political war.

A big exception to this lack of knowledge about the state’s elected leaders, Elon’s poll said, is that 49 percent can identify the state’s commissioner of labor. That’s a slightly higher percentage than can identify their local sheriff.

But the reason people stand about a 50-50 chance of identifying her is the unofficial title people give her: “Elevator Lady.”

Cherie Berry’s name and photograph appear in the little window every elevator in the state has for displaying its inspection certificate.

Berry was the first N.C. labor commissioner to put her photo with her signature on the certificates. Critics complained, but clearly the tactic worked. She has now been in office for 25 years.

The conclusion we can draw, then, is that constant exposure to a candidate’s name on signs displayed in residential yards and in the medians of heavily traveled roads does little to sway voters. But putting a person’s name and face in the line of sight where people will spend a few quiet moments riding in awkward silence, scanning the walls for anything to divert their attention from the strangers around them, creates a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, Caldwell County does not have many elevators. This leaves local candidates with just one real option: Spend most of the campaign riding up and down inside Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

I promise you, candidates, it will have an effect: The hospital has the county’s highest elevator, therefore the longest rides, and the added awkwardness of the hospital setting will make you and your steady smile truly unforgettable to each voter you encounter.

And those of us who don’t visit the hospital will appreciate the respite from campaigning.

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Poor Mrs. Jarvis will be sweating it out in these final hours before Christmas. I can imagine the questions tumbling through her head that will keep her awake.

Do elves get angry?

If so, how angry?

Are elves snitches?

How protective of his elves is Santa Claus?

Does Santa hold grudges?

Could an otherwise well behaved, nice teacher wind up on the naughty list because of a single day’s unfortunate interactions with an elf?

If you read the letters to Santa that the News-Topic published in Thursday’s paper, you may have noticed a thread through a number of the letters that came from children in a Gamewell Elementary School classroom. Apparently there was a mishap with an Elf on the Shelf who was helping the teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, watch over the children. The details weren’t clear, but it seems that Mrs. Jarvis went to get a map, and the elf was knocked to the floor — the first of at least two elf-involved incidents that day.

Some of the children seemed concerned that Santa would blame Mrs. Jarvis and eke out some form of punishment — perhaps no presents, or even coal in her stocking.

One girl wrote (and this is the actual pre-school spelling), “Mrs Jarvis atditl nock the elf on the shelf ples dot be mad at her She wus geted a big map owt but the elf wus on the map She is so so so sorry it wus a crasy day but we mae it work the elf she sorry.”

One even took collective responsibility for the whole class to protect Mrs. Jarvis: “I am so sorry that weve been droping your elf.”

But some of the children, while seeming to ask Santa for understanding, didn’t seem to have their heart in it, plunging straight from saying it was an accident into what was really on their minds.

“Mrs. Jarvis is Sorry for nocking your elf down and I want a iphone8 for Christmas and can I pretty please have it. I think I can have it. Here is how I’ve been good I’ve helped people I’ve sometimes been good and at home I’ve helped my sister and feed the cats,” one boy wrote.

Another wrote, “Mrs. Jarvis did not mean to make the elf fall of the shelf. She said she is really sorry and this is what I want a PS4 for chrismas I help my brother clean the house.”

But one girl seemed to relish playing informant. She didn’t even ask Santa for anything, she just dished on the elf’s mistreatment: “It was Mrs. Jarvis who kept on droping our elf on the shelf. Before lunch Mrs. Jarvis hung our elf with a wooden cloths pin. When we was at lunch me and Jaylyn had a prediction that the elf would be getting ready crawl out the door or already be out of the room.”

Another girl added the detail that Mrs. Jarvis tried at one point to use two clothes pins to hold the elf “so he would not go away and Leave a note.”

Elf, held against his will, pinned so he can’t escape. Elf-napping!

If, in fact, elves get mad and Santa holds grudges, whether that happens in this case probably hangs on such details of the elf’s treatment. It would not be because Mrs. Jarvis “axidintly droped the Elf” in the first place, it would be because she double-pinned him, or (as a couple of others wrote) after the first drop she pinned him up by his hat alone, the hat being insufficiently attached to his head to bear his weight, so that during lunch break the elf tumbled again to the floor.

The indignity.

Do elves feel pride? Humiliation?

Mrs. Jarvis, as she lies in bed tonight listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves on the roof, surely will wonder.

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I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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Sitting under a tiki-decorated patio umbrella in the early evening heat Wednesday at downtown Lenoir’s Hogwaller Stage, my wife and I chatted with a 50-something Caldwell County native as we waited for the sun to drop behind the county office building and a band to begin playing.

This is the third summer that you can find outdoor music with your dinner and drinks one or more evenings a week at Hogwaller, which is on Church Street directly behind 1841 Café, but our friend said he wasn’t even aware there was a stage there until just a couple of weeks ago.

He had a friend he had asked to meet him there. While we were talking to him, she texted him a question: Where is Hogwaller?

She had never heard of it either, though the name “hogwaller” in relation to that spot downtown long predates either of them.

In fact, this man — born and raised here, never lived anywhere else, and active in the community — had never even heard of 1841 until that first trip. He didn’t know that right across Main Street from it was another restaurant, the Side Street Pour House, with 40 beer taps and full bar.

We didn’t talk about it, but I would wager that if he didn’t know about all that, he didn’t know that a couple of blocks west is Loe’s Brewing, serving craft beer with gourmet burgers, pasta and sometimes a few other things, or just a little farther west Joan’s Sourdough Bread (fresh bread plus lunch), or Essie and Olive (known for popsicles but also serving lunch), or the Corner Creamery (ice cream!), or J&A General Store, or the soon-to-open Fercott Fermentables (home brewing supplies, beer and wine). I could go on.

I’ll assume he knows of the downtown antique stores, as well as Piccolo’s Pizza, which has been downtown since he was a young man.

This is something I keep encountering.

A few years ago a woman who grew up in Happy Valley and lived here all her life said she had no idea what was in downtown Lenoir or even what the streets were — she had never been.

When Lenoir had its first-ever beer garden at a street festival a couple of years ago, a woman who lives in Lenoir was irritated to find out about it only after the fact.

Last year a man who moved to Gamewell a number of years ago from another state said he didn’t even know how to get to downtown Lenoir — even though he had been to the U.S. Post Office there many times. He just went straight to the Post Office and then straight back out again. After I told him to just go another block or so farther west than he had before, suddenly he discovered Piccolo’s, his new favorite pizza place.

“Love the layout,” he wrote to me, “feel like I’m on a set for the TV show American Pickers!”

Similarly, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s program “Hired Education,” in which a set of 30 local teachers get a three-day immersion in the local economy, consistently prompts expressions of surprise among its participants: They toured companies they never heard of before, or saw machines they never dreamed existed in buildings they pass every day, and involving jobs they had no idea anyone in Caldwell County held.

A man walked into the lobby of the News-Topic a couple of weeks ago and asked if there’s a shoe-repair place in town. Yes, about three blocks from our office.

Need I point out that all of these places and businesses have been in the newspaper within the past few years?

No one is more acutely aware of how much smaller newspaper staffs are than they used to be, and how much less they are able to cover than they once could, than a newspaper editor is. But there still is a lot of local knowledge missed by people who don’t regularly read the paper, whether on paper or on our website. It doesn’t cross their personal experience or their Facebook feed. It’s information that won’t seek you out. You have to look for it, without knowing for sure what you’re looking for. That’s one thing the newspaper is still good for, and it’s not a small thing.

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People who ask me where I grew up sometimes then ask, after hearing my long answer, whether I’m an Army brat.

Those people may not be aware of where military bases are, or maybe they can’t think of any other reason for someone to have such a nomadic history.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio; when I was 2 my family moved to Blacksburg, Virginia; when I was 5 we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina; when I was 9, after my parents divorced, we moved to Durham; when I was 11 we moved to Phoenix, Arizona. For college I moved back to North Carolina. After college my jobs took me to Lenoir, then to Wilmington, to Florida, back to North Carolina in North Wilkesboro, to Winston-Salem, to Virginia and back to Lenoir again.

I’m not rudderless, but my rudder shudders.

So the past four a half years here in Lenoir, the same place where my first job was, from mid-1987 to early 1988, has been a bit of a revelation to me. For the first time in my life, I am learning what it’s like to have a personally experienced sense of history in a single place. It’s much different than the sense that comes from just visiting a place where I used to live. When I visit, I don’t feel a part of that place, I feel apart from it, like I stepped into the frame of someone else’s photo.

So on Thursday after work, as the News-Topic newsroom staff lined up in downtown Lenoir for a group photo on the next-to-last day at work for one of our reporters – Briana Adhikusuma, who is getting married in two weeks and moving to southeastern Virginia – I felt pangs of memory. I looked back at a similar photo from nearly 30 years earlier, and I found myself thinking about the lives of not just the people in the photo but people here in Caldwell County who grew up here and every day are confronted with reminders of their past, what has changed and how they fit into it.

In the 1987 photo, seven members of the News-Topic’s newsroom staff stand atop a stone wall in downtown Blowing Rock in front of what used to be Tijuana Fats, where we sometimes went on Fridays after work. I’m on the far right, the most junior reporter on the staff, just a few months out of college. Second from the far left is the editor, Lee Barnes. I have long hair, combed to the side but hanging down over my forehead. It’s a black-and-white photo – our press couldn’t print color, so the staff photographer shot only black-and-white film – but if it were in color my beard would be rust-colored. I’m skinny.

In the 2017 color photo, we stand near the square in downtown Lenoir. I’m on the far left, now the editor of the same newspaper where I started. Everyone else in the photo is at least 25 years younger than I am. My hair isn’t as long (I need a haircut), it’s graying, and it’s swept back from my forehead. My beard is gray.

Looking at the two photos together, I feel the presence of the many dozens of people who have passed through this newsroom during the intervening 30 years, though I never met most of them.

I think about where the people in the 1987 photo have gone – Lee to Florida; the sports editor to far western North Carolina; the city reporter to the Charlotte area; the city editor to South Carolina; the lifestyle editor to New York; the photographer, who took that photo but wasn’t in it, also to New York. The education reporter died a few years ago. Most have changed careers.

I think about where the people in the 2017 photo might be in a few years. One just left and drives off Saturday with her fiancé, and I already miss her.

Reflecting on it too long, as I write this column about it, I feel a creeping sense of mortality that blends with the permanence of this place, like standing waist-deep in the ocean as the rushing current pulls at you. It takes effort to hold your place, and though where you are is the same as when you got there, everything about it is moving, swirling, shifting, even the grains of sand under your heels.

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What was it about May 9, 1917, that made Zenith Wilson tuck the day’s copy of The Lenoir Topic away in a box and keep it for the rest of his life?

There are too many A1 headlines to list, but the ones at the top of the page:

Mr. Cilley Volunteers

The Tunnel Method of Keeping Sweet Potatoes

Give the Children Some Patches of Their Own This Year

STRONG EVIDENCE / Is the Statement of This Lenoir Woman (this was on an ad for kidney pills)

TAX LISTING

Notice of Sale

Perusing the local items, presumably written by editor W.M. Moore, because none carry a byline but are written in a personal style, again nothing much stands out. Perhaps this one, which has some history:

“Mr. Frank Osborn, of Mortimer, visited our home the other night. He made the trip in a very short time as it was the first automobile that ever visited this section.”

But it’s not circled, and it’s on an inside page. If that’s all he wanted, he could have just cut it out, or saved just the page.

Other local news is more pedestrian:

“The bond issue for road improvement in Caldwell lost yesterday by a small majority. Watauga is reported to have voted for good roads by a majority of about 400. All the counties adjoining Caldwell have either already built good roads or have arranged for their construction at an early date. This leaves our good county temporarily alone in the mud.”

Under the all-capital-letters headline “FREE TYPHOID VACCINATION”:

“A matter of very great importance to the people of Caldwell was passed upon Monday by our board of county commissioners when they decided to wage a campaign this summer against typhoid, offering free vaccination to everyone for thirty days. The date of the campaign will be announced later. In the meantime, every one is asked to co-operate heartily with the authorities in their efforts to prevent the ravages of this terrible disease which costs many lives and much sickness every year.”

Maybe it was page 6, which was entirely wire service stories about preparations for World War I, including the new military draft. One of the stories described “the first war army organized under the selective draft bill,” more than 528,000 men.

Another dealt with Congress’ war preparations, including the U.S. House passing “an omnibus emergency war bill carrying nearly $3,000,000,000” that doubled the pay for enlisted men from $15 a month to $30.

Or maybe it was nothing at all, just a personal aversion to throwing anything away. There’s evidence for the latter – Mr. Wilson folded the paper over to one-sixth its full, open size and tucked it inside an old wooden box containing many other kinds of papers. Over time more and more accumulated – an 1854 property deed, receipts for over 30 years of subscriptions to the Lenoir Topic (one year’s subscription in 1904 cost $1), a century-old sheriff’s office burglary report, the user’s manual for a circa-1920 water pump, an 1898 copy of North Carolina road rules, a 1918 car registration, and the minutes from 1888 to 1950 of the Caldwell Baptist Association, to name a few.

That box of accumulation was but one small part of a lifetime of accumulation, and all of it came up for sale last May. That’s when Gary Wieland came across it at an estate sale.

Wieland, who moved to Lenoir in late 2015 after retiring from a job in Texas, bought the old wooden box almost on a lark. It was $50.

The box turned out to be a field desk from the Civil War era. Wieland has since sold it.

He has also sold other items. Now he’s going through what’s left and giving them away to people who might appreciate them, such as the burglary report, which he took to the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, and the May 9, 1917, newspaper, still fairly supple and not nearly as yellow as you would expect, which has been in my drawer the past two weeks but soon will make its way to the Caldwell Heritage Museum. So too may the plastic bag of Lenoir Topic receipts, the oldest of which is dated April 16, 1904, for a subscription sold to Monroe Wilson by George Kincaid of the Topic.

Wieland said it has been entertaining to look through all the old papers that were in that box. But Wieland lacks Mr. Wilson’s instinct to hold on to things.

“I figured all they’re doing is sitting in a drawer now,” he said.

He bought them, he read them, and then he felt he had an obligation to share them.

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