Look homeward, reporter

Published 8:28 am Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Special to the Daily News
Maybe not, Mr. Wolfe; maybe not. But if you can’t go home again, nor can you ever completely leave.
More than eight years have passed since my tenure ended at the Washington Daily News. I now devote myself to a different career, one that took me away from eastern North Carolina by 300 miles and change. But any time there’s danger that I might forget the role my hometown and its oldest newspaper — 100 years old this year — played in shaping my life … well, as Naked Eyes sang back in the big-hair 1980s, “there is always something there to remind me.”
Like the phone call I got the other day.
While working from home — which, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I usually do on Fridays — the phone rang, and the familiar voice of Brownie Futrell boomed out over the wires. We hadn’t spoken for about four years, so Brownie told me about the WDN’s centennial celebration and the series of columns from former staffers. I already knew about the project from the newspaper’s Web site, which I frequently observe.
The Internet was still unfamiliar terrain for small daily newspapers near the turn of the 21st century, and a lot of people weren’t sure they should go there. To determine if the WDN should formulate a Web site, Brownie encouraged me to serve on a new media committee the North Carolina Press Association had set up. I ended up going to Chapel Hill for several of the committee meetings and wrote reports of what other reporters, editors and publishers were saying. I learned a lot from that experience and passed on what I learned to the managers. And eventually, a Web site went up.
There are many other stories like that one I could tell. It’s one example of how my three years at the WDN — first as a staff reporter, then as news editor — turned out to be a cathartic opportunity to reconnect with my hometown.
I tell people this all the time, and I’m only half-joking: If you can make it at a small-town newspaper, you can make it just about anywhere. Newspaper work is about more than just writing, reporting, editing and photography. You have to learn how to write about a wide range of subjects — politics, business, law enforcement, culture, the arts — and report what happens accurately and knowledgeably. You have to learn how to organize your time (to meet tight deadlines) and your thoughts (to ensure readers get what they most need to know as clearly and quickly as possible). You learn a bit of public relations and customer service, too.
Working at the WDN wasn’t part of my plan when I moved back to Washington in 1996. Going to ECU and getting a technical-writing certificate was. But once I had done that, I found that I wasn’t quite ready to leave journalism behind. When, during a chance meeting with Brownie in summer 1997, I learned there was an opening in the newsroom, I applied — and quickly got the job.
It was like old home week. I found myself in the cubicle beside quite a few old friends and associates. And watching over us all was the living legend I never dared address as anything other than “Mr. Futrell” — a formidable yet genuinely humble man who had recorded half a century of Beaufort County history, helped make much of it and, oh, by the way, helped me get my first newspaper job when I graduated from college. Talk about coming full circle!
Other ghosts of Christmas past awaited me outside the newsroom as well, such as when I covered the East Carolina Wildlife Arts Festival and came face to face with my ninth-grade science teacher, a dedicated volunteer at the event.
It’s hard to explain how much things change when you’re reporting on your hometown, and this is the part of the WDN that I probably miss the most. The readers, who can seem distant and faceless (especially if you write for the Web), suddenly are your family, your old friends, your teachers and mentors.
At times, though, it was definitely not fun. One of my first assignments was reporting on the decline of the oyster industry in the eastern part of Beaufort County. It had sustained people for generations, and now, for reasons largely beyond their control, it was disappearing.
Then there was Hurricane Floyd.
My wife and I lived on East 12th Street at the time, which was not far from the WDN office. Good thing, too, because two days before Floyd hit, a flash flood totaled my car, leaving me with no other way to get to work except to walk. To make things even more interesting, we were shorthanded in the newsroom at the time, and for a couple of days, there was only Mike, Rusty Walker and me there to get the story and get the paper out.
Looking ahead to the next 100 years, my hope is that the WDN and the community it serves will continue to grow together and bring out the best in each other. It won’t always be easy or pleasant, nor will it produce universal agreement. Nothing ever does.
But a community that has the information it needs to make intelligent choices and an understanding of its shared heritage can weather all the Floyds — actual or metaphorical — that are thrown at it and move toward a better future. That Pulitzer Prize residing in the display case of the lobby at 217 N. Market St. is testament to the WDN’s historical commitment to just such a vision. I’m most proud to have been a small part of that legacy.
So, happy birthday and best wishes to the Washington Daily News. No matter how many more years pass, I hope the paper and its readers, in Bob Dylan’s words, “stay forever young.”
Oh, and for what it’s worth, I still think putting these columns online would be a great idea.
Russell Woolard is a senior writer/editor for MITRE Corp. in McLean, Va.