A cooler full of soft drinks and his photographer’s vest in the trunk, Jock Lauterer begins every other Friday dispensing wisdom to his students during a one-hour car ride east to Spring Hope, N.C., where they have become reporter-photographers on a rescue mission. “Let me tell you something about teachers,” he begins. Or, “In my day…”

During this particular Friday in early October 2007, as Lauterer pulls onto the main strip of the tiny town of Spring Hope — a place he calls “real North Carolina” — he has more specific advice for the students in his community journalism class. Carolina senior Kendal Walters will cover a pumpkin-recipe contest, part of the two-day pumpkin festival during which the town’s population of twelve hundred will swell to twenty thousand. Lauterer says, “Make sure to get tons of names of local people and find out where they’re from.” He’s sending sophomore Sam Giffin to a soap-making demonstration at Doug’s Antique Store. “Emphasize the people, not the process,” Lauterer says.

“I still want to know how they make soap,” Walters says.

“We’ll slip it in there,” Lauterer assures him.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Rob Matteson; ©2008 Endeavors.

This fall, Lauterer has turned his class into a bucket brigade. They’re responding to a small-town newspaper in crisis — the veteran editor-publisher of the town’s weekly paper, the Enterprise, has been in and out of the hospital for several months getting both his hips replaced. Despite his condition, Ken Ripley has been putting the paper together from his hospital bed and home while the staff of four sells ads and reports local news. Adding Lauterer’s eager undergraduates into the mix, the newspaper’s staff has grown to ten. The students take photos and write feature stories.

The welfare of one of the state’s 192 small newspapers matters, says Lauterer, who calls all-local newspapers like the Enterprise “the heartbeat of American journalism.”

In May 2007, Lauterer saw a news report on the devastating Greensburg, Kansas, tornado. A former publisher and editor of a small newspaper himself, Lauterer watched as the editor of the Kiowa County Signal described the tornado’s effects. “He was almost in tears, and he said, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m going to put out a paper next week’,” Lauterer says. He realized how natural disasters or other emergencies could prevent community news from getting out.

That got Lauterer thinking about how he could form an emergency response team of community journalists for North Carolina. But he needed a more predictable disaster than a tornado. It just so happened that Ripley, a Carolina alum and regular guest lecturer in Lauterer’s class, needed his help.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Vicki Ripley, ©2008 Endeavors.

The idea that outsiders can parachute in and become community journalists seems like a contradiction, Lauterer admits. But before dropping into town, his students prepared for several weeks, learning the names and latest news in Spring Hope. Even after all the studying, it’s been a steep learning curve, he says. When the students first showed up in the tiny newsroom, Ken Ripley had left them a short list of story ideas. Each idea was only a few words: “agriculture education at Southern Nash High School,” “Momeyer Ruritan chicken barbecue,” and “Grand Marshals of Pumpkin Parade,” to name a few. “We were kind of confused and bewildered,” Giffin remembers.

This early October Friday is no exception. As Kendal Walters arrives at the pumpkin-recipe contest and looks at the goods, she wonders what a “pumpkin jack” is. Turns out it’s just like a turnover, she says. But one of the contestants pokes a bit of fun at her — “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Walters makes her way around the room, taking names and getting comments from the contestants about their pumpkin dishes, while Lauterer snaps a few photos and gets ideas for captions. Then he does a daring thing: he asks Lottie Lou — the lady in charge of fussing over the entries — her age, so he can include it in a caption.

Lottie Lou gives him her age — eighty-two — and then laughs and says to him, “Why, you’re still a teenager.” Lauterer, sixty-two, loves it.

As Lauterer totes his camera back to the newsroom, he tells Lottie Lou’s age to a reporter. Then, for the first time in months, Ripley arrives at the newsroom; he is equipped with one new hip. A cane in each hand, he gingerly steps out of his blue Chevy and walks painstakingly into his newsroom. “Hurry up, Ripley!” Lauterer jokes.

When Ripley gets his second hip and makes a gradual transition back to the newsroom, Lauterer will have to find another community paper in crisis. Lauterer says that at least thirty community papers are within a one-hour radius of Chapel Hill, and he knows newspapers all over the state. He just received a two-year grant from the Carolina Center for Public Service to help fund future bucket brigades.

Meanwhile, the students learn some new lessons that go beyond journalism. Giffin says that people in Spring Hope are focused on the little joys in life. While Giffin covered soap-making, two women showed him how to make soap and told him about their families and ties with the town. “Understanding that I was an outsider, they were patient with me about learning some of the traditions of Spring Hope,” he says. “I learned that there’s so much more to small towns than I gave them credit for.”

Until Ripley gets his second hip — which he expects to happen in early December 2007 — he runs the paper from home. He’s glad Lauterer’s students have helped. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says. “And you can quote me on that.”

Kelly Rae Chi was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Jock Lauterer teaches community journalism, photojournalism, and newswriting classes in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is the founding director of the Carolina Community Media Project and writes occasional columns for the Carrboro Citizen. The third edition of his textbook, Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local, was published in January 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press.