Co-Editors Herald a Small Town Revolution

Article excerpt

For three years, the editor of The Sylva Herald & Ruralite, a 7,000- circulation North Carolina weekly, commuted to work from a city 40 miles away. Editorials, when they ran, were lifted from The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Local coverage and staff morale sagged.

Then came a two-woman revolution.

"We ran a little CIA-type campaign," says 48-year-old Lynn Hotaling.

Her sidekick, Lisa Majors-Duff, 29, adds, "We had many long conversations about the paper."

Lunching at Andretti's Pizzeria or the City Lights Cafe, they discussed the Herald's solid paid circulation, advertiser support, ample news holes, and enormous ignored potential.

They agreed local editorials in each issue ranked top priority. "And all newspeople should be on the street," Hotaling says, "no one sitting at a desk telling the rest what to do."

The Herald -- a 56-year-old weekly based in a town nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina -- could be a great community newspaper, they agreed.

And it would, with them as co-editors.

In early 1996, the editor unexpectedly resigned. Lynn and Lisa immediately arranged a meeting with publisher Jim Gray, 71 and semiretired, who had followed his father as owner. "I can remember during the Depression, Dad taking in chickens and bags of potatoes in exchange for ads and subscriptions," Gray told E&P. "Now we gross $1.3 million a year. I pay the bills and watch the checkbook."

Gray heard the proposed co-editor plan and agreed on a three-month trial. That has since stretched into three years. "It's working real well," Gray says. "They've made some big improvements, including departmentalizing the news. We've heard a lot of reader compliments."

With the issue of April 18, 1996, the new era began.

"Lynn dummied ads onto pages the night before," says Majors-Duff. "We finished pasting up by noon on press day, unheard of until then. The ad people were amazed. Several said the paper never looked so good."

Hotaling grimaces at the old ways of "people throwing the paper together, randomly slapping down ads and copy any mishmash way."

To settle on a weekly editorial topic, Majors-Duff explains, "We go to lunch on Tuesdays with one agenda -- pick a subject. We talk school board antics, current town problems, community accomplishments."

Hotaling adds, "From this variety of issues, all of a sudden one just seems to dominate our thinking. It becomes the theme -- whether we like it or not."

Hotaling, a natural editorialist, does the writing. Her favorite so far focused on a major glitch in last fall's $350,000 downtown renewal project.

"Members of the water and sewer authority were refusing to cooperate," she says, "telling SPiP [Sylva Partners in Progress] people they couldn't replace the water line under Main Street. Their hands were tied. Besides, nobody had asked them ahead of time."

Hotaling attacked head-on:

"Streetscape planners' vision calls for upgrading all utilities, burying power lines, adding attractive lighting -- all before Main Street is repaved. DOT [Department of Transportation] is willing, Natahala Power and Light is willing, but TWSA [Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority], so far, is not.

"If nobody sent TWSA an engraved invitation to streetscape discussions, that's unfortunate. But the authority is a public utility, formed with public funds to do the public good. A busier, more vital Sylva is definitely in the best interest of all of Jackson County.

"The water authority needs to get with the program. …