05/13/12 — Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Roberts talks about time in newspapers

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Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Roberts talks about time in newspapers

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 13, 2012 1:50 AM

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Former News-Argus reporter Gene Roberts speaks at the Wayne County Museum on Saturday.

Gene Roberts doesn't come back to Goldsboro and Wayne County often, but he does carry with him fond memories of the place that got him started on a career that saw him cover the John F. Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, as well lead the Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzer Prizes.

But when he first walked in the door of the Goldsboro News-Argus in the 1950s, he had no idea he would one day be considered one of the country's preeminent journalists and the 1993 winner of the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award.

Speaking at the Wayne County Museum as part of its ongoing journalism exhibit Saturday, Roberts explained to the group gathered how he got his start.

He said that after growing up the son of a journalist and a teacher, he went to Mars Hill College and then the Army, with no intention at the time of entering the world of newspapers. Upon leaving the Army, though, he said he decided to apply for a job with the News-Argus, where his father had worked for several years before attempting to compete with an independent weekly product.

Roberts, a Pikeville native, said he was eventually offered the job as the farm reporter and given the opportunity to revive his father's old column, "Rambling in Rural Wayne County," in exchange for the handsome sum of $65 a week -- an offer he quickly accepted.

Roberts came from a newspaper family, though, and had a good idea of what it was going to take to make it under editor Gene Price and former editor and then-company vice president Henry Belk.

After all, he told the crowd, his father was the one who, while with the News-Argus, coined the phrase "Hoover cart," in reference to carts that were pulled by men rather than mules, and who organized the nation's first Hoover cart parade.

"It was one of the biggest events in Goldsboro history," he said.

Roberts also said that some of his early memories include helping his father feed paper into a printing press, one page at a time, for his small weekly publication, The Goldsboro Herald.

He explained that his father had started the publication in order to compete with the News-Argus by attempting to reach into the county's rural areas where he would often trade papers for produce.

"It was impossible for the News-Argus to deliver in most of the county on the same day," he said. "So we ate well all during the Depression."

The paper's success, however, ultimately contributed to its downfall, Roberts said. Because of the popularity of his father's "Rambling" column, which focused largely on the county's farmers and their goings-on, he was able to gain much of the farm-related advertising. This in turn caught the attention of the News-Argus, which released its own free weekly paper, The Transcript and Messenger, with cut-rate ads, driving him out of business.

"That scared the News-Argus and they declared war essentially," Roberts said.

But he continued, by the time he went to work for the Argus, it was owned by the Hal Tanner Sr. family and all of those actions were in the past. The biggest challenge, he said, was living up to standards set by Price and Belk.

Roberts said that Belk, who by that point was mostly blind, used to tell him, " ... I wasn't writing visually enough, and he would say, 'How can I see unless you make me see.'"

Eventually, Roberts said he moved into city and county government reporting where Price taught him to "write just about anything that was going on."

From there, he said, he eventually moved on to the Virginian-Pilot, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, where he was both reporter and managing editor, and eventually into teaching at the University of Maryland's Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.

It was at these larger papers where he got the opportunity to report on larger issues and conflicts.

"I came into journalism at a remarkable time. It was an exciting time to be in journalism," he said.

But throughout it all, he was reminded where he came from -- even while he was in Vietnam. And he told a story of how one time he was in an underground bunker preparing to interview a group of military advisers who had been rescued by American forces, and when he introduced himself, one of the men asked him if he'd written a column called "Rambling in Rural Wayne County."