The more things change, the more they remain the same
When reporters, editors and publishers from all over North Carolina gather each year to hand out awards for the best work in the state, the talk inevitably turns to what is shop talk in this industry: the stories we’ve covered, the relationship with local officials back home, the challenges the industry faces as we’re all transforming our business models to accommodate changing reader habits.
That’s exactly what happened last Thursday in Raleigh as the N.C. Press Association held its annual awards banquet. We’ve listed all the awards our staff on our website, and I’ve got to tell you I’m darned proud of what SMN employees accomplished. We were awarded the General Excellence prize in our category, which means our staff — writers, editors, designers, ad salespeople — were judged to be the best of the large non-daily newspapers in the state. Hell yeah!
As I was writing this column on Monday afternoon, I got a text from my son who’s in school in Raleigh. An active shooter was loose on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. He had already contacted my niece and his cousin, who is a UNC freshman, and assured us she was safe. Police later took a man into custody for killing his professor. Not much else is known at this time.
And so my mind went back. It was January 26, 1995, I was editor at The Mountaineer, and we were in Chapel Hill for the same event, the N.C. Press Association awards ceremony. We’d heard there had been a random shooting in Chapel Hill, but then my publisher Ken Wilson called and informed me the shooter was from the Haywood County community of Clyde.
Wendell Williamson, a 26-year-old former UNC law school student, had used a World War II vintage rifle and began shooting random people in downtown Chapel Hill at around 2 p.m. that afternoon. Two died, two were wounded. It was before the age where mass shootings were commonplace. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity but sentenced to Dorothea Dix until he can prove he’s not dangerous to society. I don’t even know if he’s still there.
For our staff members down in Chapel Hill, any thoughts of a party to celebrate the awards ended the moment Ken told us what was going on. We jumped into gear, which in 1995 was very different than now. I sent reporters out to gather information while I went to the nearest Kinko’s Copies. Securing permission to use the store’s phones, reporters called in their information. I typed up a story, we faxed it to the newspaper office in Waynesville where it was re-typeset and published in the next edition.
Yeah, there’s a thrill, an adrenaline rush to chasing a story as it’s happening and trying to get it done with a deadline bearing down on you. That aspect of this business is the same as it was almost 30 years ago. Minutes after the shooting on Monday, reporters from various outlets were out there getting the job done.
Because that’s what newspaper people do. “The media” is much maligned these days, but at local newspapers throughout this country you’ll find reporters dedicated to informing their community as best they can under almost any circumstances. Our reporters aren’t out there chasing awards, they’re chasing information and facts and explanatory quotes and background and context so they can write understandable stories that will hopefully help all of us navigate the crazy world in which we live. And that is the same now as it ever was.
Congrats to the newspaper folks across the state for the what they do, whether they’re award winners or not. It’s important work.