The story never dies: thoughts on editing the Charlotte News

I prepare my weekly lesson plan for the freshman writing course I teach at the University of Minnesota every Sunday. An integral part of the Ph.D. in English Literature program, teaching the basics of writing and research to students majoring in economics, agriculture and biochemistry can be an exercise in dues-paying, the kind of academic scrub work meant to inspire us to become scholars qualified to teach literature courses. The vacant looks my students give me manifest the skepticism I confront: Why do I need to know about credible sources? The bored expression on their faces convey. Who cares about writing and reading? This class doesn’t matter to my major anyway. 

Then I tell them about Pete O’Connor, a luthier I profiled in the Charlotte News when I served as editor in chief of the paper from 2012 to 2014. O’Connor was building guitars at his home on Greenbush when I wrote the story in 2013, and I still recall the way he talked about the guitars he built as he held one, how he used it to show me how a cut that’s off even 1/64 of an inch can taint the sound of the instrument.  

“Trying to get all those little things worked out is knocking down the barriers between what is preventing the player from falling into those moments of deep bliss,” O’Connor told me. “I’d like to share with people a guitar that has no barriers between them and exactly what they want to be hearing and playing.”

This is why we write, I tell my students. Because words, carefully chosen and mindfully written, can break down barriers within us and among us. This is how we make stories last.

I wrote that piece five years ago. Four years have passed since I served as editor in chief of the News and two years have passed since I left Vermont for Minnesota. Still, the stories I wrote and the people I knew and Charlotte itself linger with me, as present and immediate as the computer keys that record these words. 

There’s the story about Dirk Bergquist creating new signs for Martha Perkins and the Pie Ladies after vandals stole them. 

There’s the story about Bunky Bernstein’s retirement from Charlotte Family Health Center after 38 years of healing town residents.

There’s the story of Caroline Cole playing “Taps” at nearly 300 military funerals using a trumpet that once belonged to her grandfather, a WWII vet. 

There’s stories about businesses opening and closing, the Tractor Parade and Community Beach Party, and numerous school and Selectboard budget discussions. Something of all of these stories lingers with me. 

Of course, the lows of the position have stayed with me as well—the errors I made, the readers I vexed, the spelling mistakes I missed. (And I can still remember Larry Hamilton, Charlotte’s former Tree Warden, chiding me for the length of my stories.) No editor or writer is perfect—a lesson I try to impart to my students. We do our best and hope our readers trust us to keep telling stories.

When you oversee a community newspaper, you tend to think of time differently. Time normally adds distance between days; memories collapse into generalities and flickers of remembrance. But, in my experience, the ink from each issue might as well be printed from the proverbial blood, sweat and tears of the editor and the staff. Even when the paper is relegated to the recycling bin, there’s still some quintessence of the people who created the issue and the stories they tell in its pages. 

All this is to say that each issue of the News serves to flatten the ridges of time, connecting Charlotters to the people and events and ideas across the last 60 years. Charlotters may forget a story, or an event, or a person, but the News won’t—this paper keeps the history of this town alive in its pages. 

This week, I’m teaching my students about media literacy. I plan to cite a recent article by journalist Sandra Fish. “Frankly,” she writes, “virtually any journalist who works at a for-profit operation [remains] at the mercy of the bottom line. It’s profits first, news last. That’s bad not just for journalists, but for citizens who need a reliable source of information more than ever before in our democracy.” 

I’ll certainly reference the News when I discuss this article with my students. I believe strongly that this paper’s mission and model represent the future of newspaper publishing in rural communities: nonprofit, hyper-local, published by readers for the benefit of the community. 

It’s why, I’ll tell my students, I believe the News will continue to tell Charlotte’s stories for the next 60 years.