In Centurions

By Bill Thompson

The day I stopped by the office of The Bladen Journal in downtown Elizabethtown, there was a sense of urgency as people rushed around preparing for Hurricane Matthew. A newspaper office is often hectic, but when there is a warning of imminent disaster, there is an added rush to get the news out.

The Bladen Journal has been recording local events since it began publication as The Bladen Express in 1898 in Clarkton, 13 miles south of Elizabethtown. Like most community newspapers, its history includes sporadic publication, ownership changes and changing printing technology. But its purpose remains unchanged: To inform the 34,000 people of Bladen County.

What began as a daily bulletin transformed into a daily newspaper and is now published twice a week. Curt Vincent, general manager and editor, follows in the shoes of original editor J.D. Currie. Various owners and editors had different approaches, “but we still print everything, as long as it’s the truth,” Vincent says.

The Bladen Express became The Bladen Journal about 1911 and moved to Elizabethtown about 1927. As a native of adjoining Columbus County, I have known many of its editors and reporters. The story of The Bladen Journal is much like the stories it prints: It’s full of personalities.

Probably the most notable editor was Jessie Lee Sugg McCulloch, one of the state’s first woman newspaper editors. She oversaw the paper from 1929 until 1974, recording and influencing tremendous changes in her community and the South.

During her tenure, in the mid-1950s, a mysterious animal was blamed for the death of several dogs in the area. The Beast of Bladenboro remains an unsolved mystery that has sparked an annual festival.

“Folks around here look forward to getting the Journal because it is about them and their neighbors,” Vincent says. “They get their national news from television mostly, but we tell them about local politics, schools, local recreation and church activities, and how national events will affect us locally. One of the most important areas of our paper is the obituaries — something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Former Journal editor Mike Simmons told me many years ago that legal notices and classified ads would keep community newspapers alive. The paper is now owned by Davidson-based Civitas Media, a holding of Philadelphia private-equity group Versa Capital Management LLC. Civitas operates more than 100 publications in 12 states. The Journal’s staff includes four full-time employees and many volunteer reporters. The most popular section is the letters to the editor, Vincent says. “Our editorial voice is pretty much a direct line from our readers.”

The little office on Broad Street doesn’t conjure an image of The Front Page, the 1931 movie that romanticized the industry. It’s small and cramped, with no shouting copy boy, no cigarette smoke floating over typewriters. It’s a modern newspaper office run by competent, qualified people. It plays a special role in the community.

As I was writing this, I had just come from the hospital where my wife had undergone surgery. (She is now feeling well.) It was then that I realized a community newspaper is a lot like a cardiograph: It may not be the heartbeat of the community, but it records it, one personal beat at a time.

Illustration by Harry Blair

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