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That little business at the newspaper 

A former Herald-Sun columnist says thanks, farewell--and I'll still be around

It's been a quiet start to the new year, Bull City. A couple more teenagers were shot, the school board was under fire, a murder suspect went out on bail. Guess Road was blocked up at the I-85 bridge. Citizens hollered to the feds there was discrimination in the schools and a long-awaited park hit a rock and a hard place to the tune of $500,000.

Just business as usual in the Friendly City of Industry and Education.

And then there was that little business at the newspaper.

Your correspondent normally employs the editorial "we," because he is traditionalist and because, frankly, he finds it a comfortable schtick. From his point of view, however, the last 10 days have been everything but comfortable, traditional or normal. So this time out, I am getting personal.

I am one of those former employees of the Durham newspaper who were escorted off the premises last week.

'Nuff said. Because, in the first minutes afterward, and now as I write this several days afterward, in my mind my 23-plus years with the Durham Herald Co. are bookended by two actions I recall with great fondness.

The first was Sept. 4, 1981, when then-Features Editor Jack Adams and then-Managing Editor Mike Rouse accommodated a jobseeker more desperate than they knew with an interview on a Saturday morning--opening day of dove season, to boot--and offered me a job on the spot.

The other was last week, just before the old regime passed. A basket of flowers showed up for my wife in the hospital (she's home doing fine now) bearing the message: "Get well soon. The H-S Newsroom." The flowers are still pretty. They always will be.

As another of last week's casualties, computer guru Andy Minnis, put it once when I thanked him for some favor: "It's what we do for each other."

Pardon if that sounds sappy. I am not making any of this up. Those three instances do represent my experience on the Durham paper's payroll. Their sharp contrast with more recent actions speaks for itself.

Those sorts of actions are pretty common. These last days, people have shared many stories similar to mine--and worse. Nor were summary firings previously unknown at the paper. It had its office politics, jealousies, grudges, conspiracy theories. It was, after all, a place of work.

And it is a business, though as a lady said to me the other day, when you're a reader you don't think of it that way. You're not supposed to if the paper is doing its job.

The local paper provides your companion for morning coffee, ready reference for what's on TV, a potty for the puppy. Aggravating, comforting, the local paper is most of all just reliably there--part of your day, part of the landscape, like the neighbor's trash can.

As an organ of the press, the paper is accorded by the First Amendment with very special privilege and obligation in our republic. Some people may not believe it, but it was my experience that, in its news space, the Durham paper's staff bent over backward to be as objective, fair and inclusive as people can be.

That said, however much journalists may regard themselves as outside the fray, they are inherent to it. The press, to a large extent, determines what the news is by what it chooses to report and comment upon. A local paper goes a long way in establishing the local agenda.

Thus, there is reason for some public concern when the local paper becomes ultimately answerable to decision-makers far away. Just as with the local bank--not to mention when the local hot-dog stand and pizza joint are replaced by generic institutions indistinguishable one from another from Manteo to Malibu. Those sorts of actions are pretty common, too.

As place-specific elements go, a community loses a character of its own, its Sense of Place. As everywhere becomes anywhere we end up nowhere.

The fact speaks for itself--that several hundreds of years' worth of experience in and service to this place have been literally wasted.

But enough of pompous ramblings. Let's remember character: the late Harry Hollingsworth, an old-timer complete with puffing pipe and green eyeshade; the late art director John Sink, determined to prove there are but two primary colors; reporter Paul Brown, holding my firstborn on his lap while she patted the computer keys; religion writer Flo Johnston, the caustic church lady; David Newton of the Elvis Shrine; a bunch of us giving a departing editor's house a marketable paint job.

Years ago, I wrote an unflattering review of a "Durham Follies" show. There was considerable irate reaction. While that was going on, owner E.T. Rollins stopped by my desk and said, "They've been giving you a hard time, but we have to call them like we see them, don't we?"

As long as I am of sound mind, I'll appreciate that. And I'll appreciate my fellow casualty of last week, Bill Hawkins, for the opportunity and encouragement to immerse myself in Durham's past and develop a voice to write about it; and for standing by me through some hard times, professional and personal both.

I've still got my cap and T-shirt from our BullsHitters softball team of 1983. They still fit, too.

These last 10 days, friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, former competitors and perfect strangers have called, written and stopped me on the street to offer condolences and goodwill. It's been a deeply gratifying, affirming and humbling experience. Thanks. They say it's times like these you find out who your friends are; I didn't know I had so many.

I'm much obliged, too, to the Independent for the opportunity to use its space this way.

We carry on: The City Council is charging ahead with a dubious refinancing scheme (some of us remember a 21-percent prime rate), but at least some people still want to be city manager, and justice was served in the case of an overexposed car dealership.

Even more than death and taxes, change is a fact of life; but, figuratively and literally, our paths are going to keep on crossing. Durham is home and your correspondent means to reside, observe, comment upon and participate in it as fully as opportunity allows for quite some time to come.

Be seeing you.

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