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  • Places: American Tobacco Campus

    When my oldest son moved to North Carolina as a toddler, we lived less than a mile from the American Tobacco Company plant. Today, Nicholas still lives in North Carolina, just a mile from the place that was home to the cigarette maker’s primary headquarters.

    But times have changed greatly over the last two decades for everyone involved, in oh so many ways.

    For me, the move from my native Texas to Reidsville, N.C., in 1993 represented a huge personal and career risk. Over the eight years I lived there, life as I knew it took a series of seismic shifts. I got a divorce, met the love of my life, remarried, had three kids in a calendar year, bought a house, changed careers and found lifelong friends.

    I also saw a town and region face a series of seismic shifts of its own, as its economic drivers — mainly textiles and tobacco — left either gradually or almost entirely during that time.

    A few months after I took over as managing editor at The Reidsville Review, the town’s largest employer was sold by its parent company. More than 1,000 employees — almost 10 percent of Reidsville’s population — lost their jobs because the American Tobacco Company was no more. Today, the plant that once employed more than 1,500 people and dominated the northern part of the town is only a shell of itself, with only a handful of workers plying their trade for a company that sells cigarettes in foreign markets.

    ••••••

    Several years earlier, in 1987, American Brands closed the American Tobacco factory on Blackwell Street in downtown Durham. This, combined with declines in the textile industry, was a huge blow to the town on many levels; the company had been founded by the Duke family after which the university nearby is named.

    For more than a decade, the tobacco campus remained vacant, a gigantic hole in the center of town. But in 2004, the Capitol Broadcasting Company started a $200 million renovation effort that has led to both an economic and cultural renaissance in the city’s downtown area.

    The American Tobacco Campus, as it is now known, is home to office space, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, one of the nicest minor league baseball stadiums in the country, is adjacent to the campus, as is the Durham Performing Arts Center, the largest of its kind in North or South Carolina. The area attracts more than 2 million visitors a year.

    Today, small businesses form a strong restaurant and entertainment district throughout the downtown area, luring back 20-somethings like my oldest son and his girlfriend to Durham, where they live in a converted textile factory about a mile from the American Tobacco campus.

    Durham is cool — not Kool — again.

    ••••••

    The past two decades have not been as kind to Reidsville, located in a rural area just north of Greensboro about 60 miles from Durham. Like many former factory communities across the nation, Rockingham County has struggled economically, and is facing a population decline.

    The tale is all too familiar. Within a decade after the Reidsville plant was sold, The Review was a shell of itself as well. Started in 1888, around the same time that American Tobacco came into being, it has been sold twice since 1997, consolidated with two other community newspapers, and seen its frequency cut from daily to twice a week.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve gone back through Reidsville during my trips to North Carolina. On one recent trip, I went past The Review building and the former American Tobacco plant and thought again of how their fates — caused by an almost simultaneous explosion of the Internet and the new global economy — seemed intertwined and in some ways interchangeable.

    Say what you will about big tobacco, and there’s plenty to say about that, but there’s no denying that the collateral damage caused by any major industry going through rapid decline has generational impacts. I’ve seen this first hand in journalism, my chosen field, with overworked staffs in small and midsized newspapers being sliced to the bone as the institutions that served communities for decades consolidated or closed entirely. Too many of my colleagues, hard working people with an invested interest in their community’s future, present and past, have found themselves out of work and scrambling to make ends meet.

    When I moved to North Carolina, I took some time to revisit You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, the state’s most famous author. I thought again of that book as I drove by the three houses and apartment where I lived, marveling at the snail’s pace in which small towns change, and recalling the tumultuous times that so dramatically changed my path.

    It is a place, like my hometown, that will always be part of my history. And my son’s.

    To see more photos from this essay, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Promoting 'Newsies' in DC

    Look at what was on the cover of the Washington Post’s Weekend section — the picture of Ben dancing in “Newsies.” In the other photo, the boy is shown with Mark Aldrich, another D.C. area native who performed in “Ragtime” with Ben and has been in “Newsies” since it started at Paper Mill Playhouse three years ago.

    As the D.C. run of Newsies begins, the boy has been doing a great deal of press for the show. He’s featured in a Washington Times interview with other cast members as well as a Fairfax Times piece that focuses on Ben and Mark. Another story, written for Northern Virginia magazine, also is expected the next week.

    The best of the interviews, though, is this Q&A on the D.C. Metro Theater Arts website. It delves extensively into the boy’s background in D.C. theater, alludes to the Stage Dad column I wrote during his Billy Elliot days, and compares that show’s dancing to what you can see on stage in "Newsies." Check it out.

  • The Story So Far

    My professional career can be broken down into several distinct phases: nomadic gypsy, professional workaholic, and leader of “Transitions ‘r Us.”

    The first went from just after high school until the early 1990s. I started working for my hometown newspaper just after graduation, and never really stopped. Working my way through college, I took classes in the morning and spent nights chasing and covering cops, municipal governments, and anything else that came down the line.

    Today, I sometimes mourn the fact that I did not have a traditional college experience (although I’m thankful that the parental pay-as-you-go plan meant that I didn’t have any student loans), but in many ways it was the best professional development I could have sought. I loathed the low pay and the long hours, but loved the variety and the learning that took place.

    It took eight years to get a four-year degree, but when I finished college, I had eight years experience at three different newspapers in three different cities, and I was ready to move to the next phase. At this point in my mid 20s, professional boredom was akin to death for me; I gave as much as I could to each job, took as much as I could from it, and moved on.

    What I didn’t realize was the life/work conundrum I would face when I embarked on my first two management positions. Anxious to succeed, I worked tremendously long hours under conditions that weren’t exactly family friendly. By the mid 1990s, I had seen a marriage implode under a major relocation from Texas to North Carolina.

    Cue career shift, moving from the day-to-day newspaper grind into the communications world working for a recently merged school district. It was an opportunity to build something from the ground up, to do some things that had never been done.

    I was extremely fortunate to be in an environment that fostered and supported my creativity. The people I worked for did not understand the nuts and bolts of my work, and they were smart enough not to cast judgment about me personally when we did not agree.

    Jill, the kids, and I left North Carolina and moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 2001 for a variety of reasons. Kate, Emma, and Ben were little — Nicholas, then in elementary school, lived with his mom in Greensboro — and we wanted them to have the experience of living in an area rich in opportunities. The position I accepted allowed me to return to editing and writing — in many respects my first loves — as well as the chance to work for a national publication focused on education.

    At this point, I had worked for almost 18 years, and had been in no position longer than 4½. When I took the position, I never expected to work for the same organization for 12 years. Of course, I never expected the profession I trained in to implode, either.

    The first five years provided a broad palate of opportunities to learn the world of magazine publishing in a non-profit environment. When I became editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal in 2006, I felt prepared to take on the publishing world.

    And we did, for a while, winning awards and accolades for a publication that continues to be highly respected in the industry. But respect can get you only so far when the money stops coming in. The business model for publishing — especially print publishing — eroded steadily over the past seven years. At times, it has felt like death by a thousand paper cuts.

    During the “Transitions ’r Us” phase, we trimmed and cut and eventually slashed expenses and positions to protect the core product amid some of the most difficult economic times we’ve ever seen. Eventually, the transitions caught up with me, and now I’m entering another phase of my career.

    Looking for a job is not like riding a bicycle. You can’t just hop back on and think you’ll pick up right were you left off. I had not updated my resume in seven years, and had not sent out more than a couple in almost a decade. During that period, like many things influenced by the Internet, the job search market has turned upside down.

    Today, job hunting is about making connections, networking, and connecting the diverse dots in a compressed and flattened world. It’s as much about the social — the world of LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and the Web — as it is about the skill set.

    I’ve always said I’m good at selling others, but not myself. I’m learning how to do that now.

    On to the next phase.