January 6 marks one year for me as Managing Editor at the News of Orange County. In the 12 months prior to my arrival, the paper had seen four different editors, although one of them — Adam Powell — was keeping the ship afloat until I started. He returned to his duties as Editor at the Mebane Enterprise after I began.
The News of Orange subscribers were immediately welcoming, albeit with cynicism. “How long before you leave?” someone would joke. “Who’s going to be editor next week?” another would say. Even Bob Burtman from WHUP FM would introduce me as the “News of Orange Editor, for now.”
Here’s the thing: If I’m enjoying myself and feel like I’m making a positive difference and getting good feedback, I’m going to stick with it. In my career, I’ve basically had two full-time jobs: I was with the first one — the News & Record — for 10 years and the second — the Triad Business Journal — for 20 years. Staying with a job is my specialty.
Regardless of that, I was nervous about this venture. For most of my 30-year-career in newspapers I was a graphic designer who did some writing. I was now going to do most or all of the writing and page design, along with many other functions.
On my first day, I met my lone co-worker, Kim Cates. She introduced me to my computer, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in almost a decade. Management Decision No. 1: Switch to my laptop.
One advantage of being a one-person newsroom is that you have an immediate impact. I wanted to tweak the appearance of the paper; go with feature stories with bold headlines and large photos. I wanted to be more active on social media and put more personality into it. I wanted this newsroom of one to appear bigger than it is.
I remember talking with my wife that night and wondering how I was going to fill the paper. Where would I get stories? There wasn’t much of a runway to get myself up to speed. I was responsible for the next issue.
The next day in Hillsborough, I took a short walk up King Street where construction was going on at what would become Nomad. I talked with a few people there, and just like that, I had a story. By the time I got back to the office, I had an email about a local couple that traveled the country filling in as pastors for churches. I also had an email about the adoption process for a group of dogs that had been recovered from a puppy mill in Chapel Hill. I was up to three stories and I knew I could do this.
I estimate I’ve written about 175 stories for print and/or online over the past year. I would wager the word ‘COVID’ was my most-used.
I love to hear when people call to subscribe or renew their subscription. I also enjoy hearing when businesses want to advertise in the News of Orange. One of my proudest achievements was hiring Emilie Bennett as a salesperson. She’s done an impressive job (during a pandemic, no less) of establishing and topping sales goals, boosting the paper’s revenue and providing consistency. Emilie has been on staff since June, and that’s remarkable, too.
Running a community paper is unlike anything I’ve done before. I’ve never been so engaged with the readers, for better or worse. I get complaints, and I try to personally email or call to hear them out, and see what I can do to make things better going forward. If I make a mistake, I want to fix it. I have to. This is the community I serve and for which I care.
I had a call from a subscriber who was upset that a classified ad he ran was incorrect. He yelled at me, threatened to sue, and threatened other things. I wasn’t frightened for myself. But I was concerned about him. I knew he was elderly and alone. His speech was off and he was stuttering and getting stuck on words. After getting off the phone, I called the Hillsborough Police Department to ask if someone could check on him.
They did, and, ultimately, he was fine. He really was just angry. His wife had passed years earlier, and he hadn't handling things well since. But I was worried about him, and wanted to be certain he was OK.
Some highlights of the past year:
• Being called John Malkovich by Orange County Chief Deputy Jamie Sykes;
• Watching a group of Cameron Park Elementary teachers kiss a pig;
• Working with Sascha Godfrey, a high school intern who has done a fantastic job writing stories from time to time;
• Strolling through the “Chalk Out” protest in downtown Hillsborough;
• Watching high school teachers dance to Michael Jackson songs at a drive-thru graduation ceremony;
• Seeing a group of second graders get the opportunity to learn to swim at the Sportsplex;
• Making Bob Burtman laugh during one of his shows;
• Talking with Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett in February, and feeling like this small-town paper had gotten the jump on the bigger news outlets;
• and, touring the Colonial Inn after it re-opened.
I still commute from Greensboro each day, and did so during the shelter-in-place order. I have put more than 21,000 miles on my car. In the past year, on the sides of the interstate, I have seen a couch, a highchair (it was there for a month), countless cushions, a child’s battery-powered jeep, mattresses, a side table, a coffee table and a couple of wing-back chairs. I also once saw a stove sitting on the side of the highway and wondered how something that very likely took several people to load onto the back of a truck, could fall off and no one notice.
The News of Orange Facebook following has grown by more than 400; Twitter following has grown by 185; Instagram following has grown 500.
I look forward to the next year and learning even more about this fantastic community and town. I hope to grow the paper and its circulation. I look forward to experiencing some of the area’s traditions that have been postponed because of the pandemic.
Thank you for making my first year memorable in a ton of different ways.