Reporter celebrates 50 years on the job
February 1, 2012
It is hard to imagine a 50-year career in any profession. And even though Clara Cartrette reached that milestone in her journalism career last fall, she can’t believe it either.
“I think about 50 years, and I think, ‘my God; that’s a lifetime,’” she said. “Some days it feels like 100 years, and some days it feels like yesterday, you know.”
When Cartrette showed up at the News Reporter in Whiteville, NC, on Oct. 21, 1961, to see about a job, she thought the paper was seeking a secretary position. She was a 21-year-old mother of two, and never thought she’d become an instant reporter, let alone hold that job for a half-century.
Today, as news editor, she’s still going strong.
The News Reporter, founded in 1896, is a twice-weekly 10,000-circulation newspaper. The Thompson and High families have owned the paper since 1938. After Publisher Leslie S. Thompson’s death in 1959, his son-in-law, James C. High, became publisher and retains that post today.
Whiteville is a small but growing town in Columbus County in southeastern North Carolina.
That little corner of North Carolina, remote and isolated for many years, has had its share of scandals that made statewide headlines, and even national headlines. From an invasion by the KKK after which the News Reporter and the Tabor City Tribune shared the 1953 Pulitzer Gold Medal for their coverage, to a mid-1980s scandal called ColCor (Columbus County Corruption) that caused many high level officials to be indicted, including a county sheriff, two police chiefs, two county commissioners, a district court judge, two state senators, and even the state’s lieutenant governor.
A notorious murder in 1976 of the wife of a prominent minister engineered by a powerful businessman in a small community spawned a New York Times bestselling book “The Devil in Pew Number 7.”
Cartrette, a lifelong resident of Columbus County, has seen it all and has written about most of it.
No wonder she has never left.
She has won more awards than she can even count from the North Carolina Press Club, the National Federation of Press Women, the North Carolina Press Association and the National Newspaper Association. The North Carolina Press Club established the Clara Cartrette Excellence in High School Journalism Award, and in 2008, she won the National Federation of Press Women’s prestigious Communicator of Achievement award. The nearby Tabor City Chamber of Commerce named her Professional Woman of the Year in 2009.
Cartrette has covered murders, wrecks, scandals and lifestyles. She has accompanied deputies to bust up liquor stills, participated in drug raids—with skills honed razor sharp through a natural reporter’s instinct and on the job training.
She has cultivated sources so devoted that she has often shown up at the courthouse for breaking news before it even broke. She has withstood threats to her own life and to her family’s lives.
Sitting in the small newspaper’s morgue, Cartrette glances around at the stacks and stacks of heavily bound volumes of more than 100 years worth of news chronicled in The News Reporter. Her byline shows up thousands of times in 50 years worth of newspapers.
Here are some of the highlights.
ON BECOMING A REPORTER
“My college was the university of hard knocks. I had been working at the school in Tabor City. My husband and I had gotten married young with the plan that he was going to college at Appalachian State University on a football scholarship,” Cartrette said.
But ASU did not work out, and they returned to Columbus County.
Cartrette’s husband heard about a couple of jobs in Whiteville, and encouraged his wife to check them out. One was in the Clerk of Court’s office and the other was at the newspaper.
“I assumed the newspaper job was a secretarial job, but when Jim High (the publisher) started telling me what my job would be, I was like a deer caught in the headlights,” she said. “I had always loved writing. I tell people getting this job was the best mistake I ever made because I thought I was going to be a secretary and here I am a reporter. It has been a good ride for me and I wouldn’t trade it for any job that I know of.”
ON BEING A SINGLE MOM
COVERING CRIME IN A SMALL TOWN
Cartrette’s marriage ended and she was left a single mom, raising three children in the 1970s, an era when few women covered hard news.
“I raised my children on the back seat of the city hall,” she said. “I mean you know I didn’t always have a baby sitter when I would work these clandestine drug busts and things like that. I said ‘I gotta work tonight, and I won’t be at the office,’ and they knew, and they didn’t talk about it.
“But my Saturdays belonged to my children. When they were off, I took them to every ball game, all their dancing classes. I don’t know how I did that. I look back at where I was and what I was doing, and I don’t know how I could do all of that. I guess it was because I was young.”
ON COVERING CRIME
AND DEVELOPING SOURCES
“I handled the women’s news department from 1961 until 1972 or ’73, and I had been doing the police beat in my spare time,” Cartrette said. “And then in the summertime, when we would have a summer intern, I would dump that women’s department on whoever we got, and I would be free to do anything.”
One day, she told the publisher that she wanted to switch over to hard news.
“So I have done county and city government, police beat, fire department and everything,” she said.
Cartrette started attending seminars for reporters to learn how the legal system works from the inside. Called “Bar, Bench, Press” forums, she learned how to develop sources inside the legal system.
At one of these conferences, a police chief once told her that the best way to develop a source is to be a friend.
“He said, ‘You can’t just walk into police headquarters and grab what you need from an officer. You have to let that officer know that he is a human being and that you respect him or her,’” Cartrette recounts. “And I found that to be true. I knew these officers’ wives, and I knew who their girlfriends were. They shared things with me they probably wouldn’t tell their best friends, because they would have to cut my tongue out before I would repeat it.”
She also made officers feel special when they joined the local forces.
“Every time we got a new officer, I would do maybe a one column picture, and maybe a story or it might be just a cutline,” she said. “I would introduce that officer to the public through the newspaper. I really didn’t know at the time how proud it made that new officer feel and the public felt like they knew that officer.”
Among Cartrette’s sources was an FBI agent who helped her report on a notorious murder-for-hire case. A police department source tipped her off in advance of drug busts, and a jailer friend at the courthouse gave her so much insider information, courthouse personnel thought she had the place wired.
WHY SHE HAS STAYED SO LONG
Cartrette believes she married her job when she and her husband separated. She has had a few job offers and opportunities to leave, but she always chose to stay.
“I don’t know of a place I would rather have worked than The News Reporter. It’s like family. Not only is the paper like a family; the community is like a family,” she said.
With careful and diligent reporting came numerous awards.
“When I started winning awards, people started paying attention, because women weren’t doing the kinds of things I was doing, and people paid attention to that and said well, why don’t you move up to a daily paper?’
“Why do you think that would be moving up if I went to work for the Charlotte Observer or the Fayetteville Observer, or whatever? I would have a beat, and I would do one thing all the time and I would be bored to death.
“Here (at The News Reporter) I might be drinking tea with the little old ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution one day, and the next minute I’d be on a murder scene, or get called out at 4 in the morning to help blow up a liquor still.
“I just like being involved in all of it.
“When you get older you start analyzing things. I was thinking about the fact that I have loved this job, and I think I have been successful at it.”
Name of Publication: The News Reporter
News Editor: Clara Cartrette
Frequency of publication: Bi-weekly, Mondays and Thursdays.
Circulation: About 10,000.
How old were you when you first started as a reporter at The News Reporter? 21.
What were your biggest challenges as a female reporter when you first started out? I had always enjoyed writing, but I had to change from creative writing to a journalistic style.
What has kept you going for such a long time? I love my job and the people I get to meet daily. I’m happiest when I’m working and interacting with people. Working for a newspaper provides diversity, stumbling onto something new every day. It keeps you in touch with the entire community.
What do you love hearing from readers? “I read everything you write.”
What do you hate to hear from readers? I can’t think of anything I hate hearing from readers, but sometimes I get aggravated when people want you to do things that you can’t do (example: please don’t put my name in the paper about that wreck, or police charge, etc.) After a couple of years I figured out how to stop that. I would tell them they were asking me to do something that could make me lose my job, that the rules are that everyone gets treated alike and no one’s name gets held out of a story if it is what we normally do for everyone else. That pretty much stopped the requests. Another thing that sets me on edge is an occasional complainer who treats you as if you work for them, making certain demands. But after thinking about it, that is a compliment for readers to think you work for them, because we do.
What are you most proud of? That I have covered every “beat” on the paper except sports, and if state and national awards are a measure, I guess I’ve had a good measure of success.
How do you view The News Reporter’s role in your community? It is the “eyes and ears” for the people. If not us, who will inform them about what our elected officials are doing with our tax dollars? Can you imagine what government officials would do if they didn’t have our newspaper’s “eyes and ears looking and listening?” Radio and TV stations just don’t do it; they sweep in for the scandals but hardly ever dig for the everyday news stories that are so important to everyone. Also, I consider feature stories a resource for helping people get to know others who live in the community and discover what their interests and activities are. The News Reporter provides the “refrigerator journalism” that families love, i.e., children’s photos, honor rolls, Little League sports, school, church and community activities that get clipped from the paper and stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet.
Any advice for other young women starting out as reporters? Be willing to take on any assignment. Work hard, write, rewrite, and rewrite until you’re satisfied with your story. And you probably won’t get rich, but there are rewards in every story well done. If you love the excitement of getting to know people, telling their stories and informing the public about everything that is happening in the community, it’s a great life. If you don’t like working long hours, weekends, getting called out in the middle of the night and spending hours behind a computer, reporting is not for you.
Phone: 910-642-4104, ext. 226