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In college, I took a class in community journalism, or what you and I might call the weekly newspaper business.
Jim Shumaker, who had been a highly regarded community newspaper editor, taught the class, which maybe had 20 students, many of whom just wanted to be able to say they had taken a classroom under Shumaker, the model for the comic strip character “Shoe.”
Early in the class, Shumaker asked his students which of us planned to work in the community newspaper business after graduation. I raised my hand, as did my college roommate, whose dad owned a community paper north of Charlotte. No one else raised a hand, as best as I recall; the rest of my classmates wanted to work for daily newspapers, and they went on to do so.
Don’t get me wrong, I love daily newspapers; my parents subscribed to two of them when I was growing up. But the idea of writing for a daily newspaper never appealed to me. Especially when I was younger and daily newspapers were flush with cash, they had lots of reporters, and those reporters had narrowly defined beats, say, education or politics or crime and courts.
But I never really wanted to know a lot about one thing. I’d rather know a little about a lot of things, and the weekly newspaper business gave me that opportunity.
In my first job in Johnston County, as editor of the Benson Review and Four Oaks News, I covered town government, cops, schools, churches, business and people, pretty much every aspect of a community.
I liked to joke that working for a community paper made me a better conversationalist at dinner parties, because I could talk a little about a lot of things. But you get the idea: weekly newspaper reporters learn the ins and outs of their communities.
Beyond that, I have almost sways lived in the communities that I covered, a habit that is true of many folks in the community newspaper business. What that means, in part, is that you get to know the people you cover because they’re your neighbors, not just subjects in stories. Just as important, people who write for community newspapers get to cover things they care about, things that matter to them because those things are integral parts of their lives.
I am a resident of both Four Oaks and Johnston County, so I care about the town and county taxes I pay and about the quality of services the town and county provide.
My wife is retired from the Johnston County schools, and our daughter, now a teacher herself, grew up in the county’s schools, so I care about teachers and their students.
I want to know also about new businesses in Johnston County, especially new restaurants, because the Bolejacks shop and dine in this county. I have vested interest too in local projects, like Smithfield’s Booker Dairy Road, because I want to know how to better get around my county.
In my last months with the newspaper chain McClatchy, I was a reporter for the News & Observer, covering western Wake County. I like to think I did a good job because I’m conscientious, but I wonder if I would have done a better job if I had lived in western Wake County, if had shopped there, dined there, sent a child to school there, commuted to and from work on the roads there.
After I got laid off from the N&O, I worked part-time for the Four Oaks-Benson News in Review, the same place where I got my Johnston County start in 1984. It was good to be home again.
Now, in late 2019, I find myself the editor and a reporter for the Johnstonian News, a newspaper covering the county where I live, work and play. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnston News. Email him at email@example.com.