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AMERICANA

OKAY, YOU’VE HEARD all the doom-and-gloom talk attached to today’s newspaper industry. Circulation dropping like a rock, costs rising, reporters being laid off, bankruptcy filings, doors closing, presses shut down. The day is fast coming, warn the analysts, when we’ll no longer have a paper to read with our morning coffee. Your faithful delivery boy may soon be applying for the early shift down at Snack-on-a-Bun.

If you buy into this dark forecast but are still curious about what’s going on, you’re told that you’d best get ready to head to the Internet or tune in to 24/7 television and radio. That printed paper you folded into your briefcase and carried on the plane with you is a tired old dinosaur sadly limping away to its dying place.

All to which I say “Balderdash!” So does University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism lecturer Jock Lauterer. And we’ve got the solution.

Just remember: You read it here first.

All the bean counters and ivory-tower execs need to do is take a quick lesson from Horace Carter (pictured below) and the little Tabor City Tribune, which he founded in 1946 with $4,000 he’d saved while serving in the Navy. “Carter spent his life practicing the art of community journalism,” says Lauterer. “It worked then and is still working today.”

It is because of the trail blazed by Carter and others like him that Lauterer is “not only optimistic but bullish” about the future of newspapers in America. “So long as they offer their readers something they can’t get anywhere else — news of what’s going on in their corner of the world — the hold-and-fold paper will remain,” insists Lauterer, the author of a best-selling textbook, Community Journalism: the Personal Approach.

Before his death, Carter had spent more than a half century writing news stories, editorials, and columns that kept the residents of his southeastern North Carolina farming community informed, engaged, and entertained. He regularly produced a product that adhered to those golden rules of a good newspaper’s function.

In so doing, he won a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service, journalism’s highest award.

What Carter instinctively knew long before the galloping arrival of the computer age was that neither the Internet, the networks, nor cable news would ever bother to alert folks to the fact that a new Yam Festival Queen had been crowned or how the city council of his community of 2,500 planned to solve a trash-pickup controversy. Where else are you going to find the menus for school lunches or learn who made the honor roll, got married, just became an Eagle Scout, or scored the winning touchdown during the homecoming game? Or that the downtown Hill Supermarket has boneless rib eyes on sale for $4.99 a pound?

At age 25, Carter launched his paper with insight belying his years. His job as the sole member of the Tribune staff was to chronicle the life and times of the community he called home. “The role of a newspaper,” Carter would later reflect in a 1990 speech at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater, “is to help mold attitudes and actions for what we perceive as good, right, and proper for the people of the community.” And, man, did he live by those words.

On a summer evening in 1950, a motorcade of armed Ku Klux Klan members wearing white robes and hoods arrived in Tabor City determined to resurrect the local presence of their hate-spewing group. In the face of constant threats against his family and business, publisher/editor Carter went to work, writing editorials and front-page articles that decried the Klan’s presence and practices. In time, his courageous writings resulted in the convictions of more than 100 Klansmen for the kidnapping and flogging of members of Tabor City’s black community.

And for his efforts, he and the Tribune received the Pulitzer in 1953, the first time a weekly newspaper had ever been awarded the prestigious prize.

While Carter was in New York picking up his gold medallion, a mayoral election was held back home; he won by a landslide.

Throughout his career, his paper caused generations of Tabor City readers to look anxiously to each week’s edition. Rusty Carter, writing in the space occupied by his father for 63 years, recently noted, “Some [of my father’s] columns were serious, some were funny … they served a public good, contributed to community goodwill, got after the bad guys, stood up for America and offered a lot of laughs.”

Carter even managed to have a final say posthumously, writing his own fill-in-the-blanks obituary:

“I died on September 16, 2009, at 3 p.m. I was 88 years old,” it began. “Believe me, although I lived a long and some would say productive life, I would like to have hung around a few more years.”

So, give me a few more Horace Carters devoted to the concept of hard-hitting and helpful community news with a chuckle or two along the way, and I’ll stand convinced that all this doomsday gibberish will fall silent. Problem solved.