Journalism at Wrightsville Beach: A working vacation

by Brian Clarey

In Wrightsville Beach the sun burns hot behind a thin sheen of cloud cover that does little to suppress the heat. After toughing out the swelter for ten minutes my sweat glands have nothing left to give.

I’m at the Holiday Inn on the north end of the island, sitting on a hidden terrace and watching the coastal scene unfold before me ‘— a decent swell of waves rolling in from the east; peals of laughter rising from the hotel’s pool deck, dancing above the soft roar of the surf; my 6-year-old finally and laboriously learning to swim with the aid of inflatable swimmies and my 3-year-old coming to terms with his fear of sharks, which he’s sure are lurking somewhere underneath the undulating surface of the salt-water pool.

They’re not used to this. Me, I grew up on an island, though with all the shopping malls, the parkways and the big-haired, gum-chewing girls who say, ‘“Yeah, yeah, yeah’” it didn’t always seem like one. But I could swim before I could ride a bike and I knew how to handle myself in the ocean before I started first grade. The sun-dappled stretch of sea that reaches to the horizon is familiar to me, and I can see for miles.

It’s comforting.

We’re in town ‘— I’m in town ‘— for the 133rd annual NC Press Association Convention, and though they’ve been holding this thing since just after the Civil War it is my first time. At the meetings and meals I’m surrounded by editors and publishers from daily newspapers big and small, journalism professors, media lawyers and also representatives from the community papers that make up the bulk of print journalism in our state.

I’m something of an outsider here, and not just because I work for an alternative weekly. I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy from Long Island in the group. I didn’t get my journalism degree in Chapel Hill. And I came to my position in a roundabout way, through magazine work and freelance gigs cobbled together to make a living. I’ve never held a staff position at a daily newspaper and much of my body of work has gone unnoticed, unrecognized and unheralded by the larger journalism community.

Yet I’m part of the tapestry, though it sometimes feels like I’m crashing this party of publishers and editors, many who know each other from past conventions and previously-held jobs or work on The Daily Tar Heel.

I have been out here before though’… several times, actually, on assignments for Our State (I did a piece on Middle of the Isle, a breakfast joint just over the line from Wilmington) and several times for NCBoatingLifestyle, where I wrote about various boat owners with fabulous homes on the water. Back then I stayed at the cheapest motel in Wrightsville, a two-story cinderblock crash pad a half a block from the pier, and let me tell you that it felt good to drive right past it on my way to the Holiday Inn, where there’s a restaurant and five pools and a giant parrot who brings milk and cookies to my kids at bedtime each night.

And there are some familiar faces. One belongs to Jock Lauterer, the notorious journalism professor from UNC with his trademark bald head shaved so close you can see your reflection in it and enough energy coming from his internal machine to light up the sky with brilliance. I attended his column writing symposium a few months ago in Chapel Hill, and today at this conference I peeked over his shoulder and saw he’d written the word ‘“Transparency’” in his notebook with a capital ‘“T.’” That’s all I could decipher from the unlined page of black ink scrawl before he flipped the notebook shut and snapped a rubber band around it.

Transparency ‘— the disclosure of how and what newspapers do and why they do it ‘— is one of the things we’re all here to talk about, along with the things daily newspapers can do to maintain their advertising revenue in the face of competition from the internet, direct mail, local cable television, urinal billboards and a hundred other outlets that include, I’ll sheepishly admit, alternative weekly papers.

It’s one of the things I’m thinking about as I turn out this column from my perch on the hotel veranda, but also I’m watching the poolside action, the strollers on the sand and the surfers as they struggle out against the onrush of waves to catch the sweet breaks as they rise 50 yards or so offshore.

And I watch my kids, squealing and splashing in the shallows as they get comfortable in the water for the very first time.

Seeing them reminds me of the other purpose of my trip, and I shut the computer down so I can throw on my bathing suit and join the fun.

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