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Where Are They Now?

Voices from the days when the Observer had something to say


It wasn't always easy to track down some of these people: once when we called the Charlotte Observer newsroom to ask a writer's whereabouts, we got this response: "Who? She's not on our list." That's not surprising, said a few of our profilees; departed Observer writers and editors often are treated like Tony Soprano's disowned mother. "She's dead to me," Tony used to say, ending all conversation about the family matriarch.

Lucky for us, these former Observerites are very much alive, contributing their talents and experiences. Here's where they are now:

Jerry Bledsoe

New York Times best-selling author Jerry Bledsoe recently has begun an author's tour to promote his 17th book, Death by Journalism: One Teacher's Fateful Encounter with Political Correctness, a scathing true-life account of a man whose death may have been hastened by unfair media reporting. From 1977 to 1981, Bledsoe wrote folksy columns for the Observer about regular people, finding the unique and fascinating in each of their ordinary lives. He remembers his early days at the paper as great times.

"A lot of good people were there, a lot of good writers," Bledsoe says. "Not only could they write, they were what great journalists should be: sensitive people who cared about the truth, and about getting things right."

Within a few years, however, the newspaper industry became more "corporate," Bledsoe says, with increased emphasis on management and consultants. "With that 'team concept' mentality, everybody has to be a team player, everything gets done by committee. . .That's OK for making widgets, but not for writing. I can tell you, there's no writing that ever gets done by committee."

Bledsoe left, just six months short of being vested in the company retirement plan. "You get to the point where you can't take it anymore," he explains. "I loved the newspaper business early on, and was grateful to be a part of it. I think I loved it too much -- it's a mistake to love an institution, because it never loves you back."

Now living in Asheboro, Bledsoe has written one novel and 16 nonfiction books, specializing in true crime. His Bitter Blood became a Number 1 bestseller, made into two television movies.

Allen Cowan

Charlotte private investigator Allen Cowan was an Observer investigative reporter from 1974 to 1983, starting the investigation that would "tell all the world that (defrocked PTL leader) Jim Bakker was a crook," says Cowan. When Cowan came to Charlotte from the renowned independent St. Petersburg Times, he says, he was "stunned at the quality of journalists" at The Charlotte Observer. "The photo staff, the editing, the enthusiasm and dedication to quality writing and reporting -- it was amazing."

Slowly, however, the newspaper became "more interested in the corporate bottom dollar." In-depth investigative stories, such as those he wrote about the federal investigation into the Outlaws motorcycle gang, became less of a priority, he says, and he felt he needed to leave: "I was an investigative reporter at a paper committed to not doing any investigative reporting. . .I became dead wood as far as the Charlotte Observer was concerned."

In fact, when the newspaper won its second Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for its coverage of PTL -- and then published a special section about it -- Cowan wasn't even mentioned.

"My name doesn't appear once," he says, with more than a trace of bitterness. "That's revisionist history of the worst kind."

Since leaving the paper, Cowan has worked as a civilian reporter for the Stars and Stripes, winning a National Association of Realtors journalism award for a story about American companies selling worthless swampland to military families. Today he continues his investigative streak by investigating people and cases for Charlotte attorneys, assisting them in trial preparation.

Mark Ethridge

After starting as an investigative reporter with the Observer from 1972 to 1975, Ethridge stayed with the newspaper until 1988 as a projects editor and managing editor. During that time, he recalls, "our mandate was to do tough, good investigative reporting. . .so that every day, every week, [readers] were surprised and delighted to learn something (in the newspaper) that they wouldn't find anywhere else." He says he's most proud of being on the teams that won the paper's two Pulitzers, one on the Bakkers, the other on the investigation into the prevalence of brown lung disease in Carolinas textile workers. He also worked on the team that explored "Our Tobacco Dilemma": the moral conflict of the state's workers whose livelihood depended on a product that, when used as intended, could kill.

He remembers sending writers Frye Gaillard and Dot Jackson on an assignment to document the Catawba River -- to find the source, and follow it till it reached the sea. "Take as long as it takes," he told them; their stories eventually were produced in a special 32-page section, then bound into a hardback coffeetable book. "Can you imagine," he asks rhetorically, "the kind of reportorial and photographic resources that were involved?"

Today, "it's a different world" in terms of daily newspaper management and production, he continues: "We don't see that kind of journalism nearly as often as we did." He adds that the demand for publicly held companies (as many newspapers are) to grow their profits has changed the publishing landscape. "I'm not sure it's fair to compare" the atmosphere today to that of years ago, Ethridge says.

Ethridge went on to become publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal, then a group publisher for that newspaper's parent company, and president of a motorsports marketing company. He lives in Charlotte and is president of Carolina Parenting, Inc., a publisher of parenting magazines in Charlotte and the Triad and Triangle regions of North Carolina.

Frye Gaillard

Former CL columnist Frye Gaillard wore many hats at the Observer between 1972 and 1990, covering everything from music and entertainment, to religion, to education during the time of school busing. He worked on the PTL story, and was nominated for an award for his coverage of the unfair conviction of three Charlotte civil rights activists.

"It was a hungry newsroom," Gaillard recalls. "You knew there were some brilliant reporters, and you wanted to be just as good."

Over time, however, the newsroom became a different place, as were newsrooms industrywide. Gaillard stayed friendly with writers at other newspapers around the country, and saw that "changes were happening all over."

Feeling that he no longer fit in, he left in 1990 to pursue his dream of writing books. He has written 18 nonfiction books on topics ranging from stock car racing to school desegregation to country music, to Habitat for Humanity -- and has co-edited four anthologies. (Additionally, one novel was "published in obscurity," he laughs.) With CL contributor Amy Rogers, Gaillard founded Novello Festival Press, the publishing arm of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The press, "probably the most satisfying thing I've done professionally in a long time," says Gaillard, has published five books, with two more coming out this fall. In the meantime, Gaillard, an Alabama native now living in Indian Trail, has been commissioned by Auburn University and the University of Alabama Press to write a book about the civil rights movement in Alabama.

Dot Jackson

Enormously popular as a columnist during her years at the Observer, Dot Jackson describes that time (1967-1982) as "the joy of my youth."

The newsroom, she says, was "the happiest world there ever was -- we had crazy people in there!" With other writers she shared a cubbyhole called the "Bay of Pigs," where "the pigs had a lot of fun. . .Everyone was just as free-spirited as they could be -- and that's something you just don't find anymore." She remembers the paper's old building, with its balcony overlooking Tryon Street; from there, the writers and columnists often would "see who was going down the road" and write about their exploits.

The "beginning of the end" came when the paper merged into the Knight-Ridder publishing family, she says. Managers who didn't know the area's history were brought in, and certain "edicts" were issued. Coffee was prohibited in the newsroom. A guard was posted downstairs, prohibiting possible miscreants -- formerly, wonderful story fodder -- from coming upstairs. The Peanut Man was prohibited from coming up.

"I guess they didn't want us to get shells on the carpet," Jackson sighs. "It got to the point where you couldn't even keep a liquor bottle in your desk drawer anymore."

Jackson doesn't give out details about why she left the paper, only that she had a "severe disagreement with management" that led to a "knock-down, drag-out fight over something I would not do."

Now living in "a briar patch" 30 miles west of Greenville, SC, Jackson says she is "broke as a hat" but "free as a bird." She mostly edits other writers' books, and has written a handful of stories for Charlotte magazine, but nothing in the past couple of years. She has contracts on two books of her own; one is a biography, the other is a book about the music of Appalachia.

"They're going really slowly," she giggles. Within a couple of weeks, however, she's moving with a group of three other writers into a 177-year-old farmhouse at the foot of Table Rock Mountain, which they are going to renovate into an arts center for Pickens County, with rooms for studios and workshops. Jackson says she's hopeful that the facility will open in Spring 2003.

Jody Jaffe

Novelist Jody Jaffe started at the Observer in 1979 as a "reluctant" half-time fashion writer, and half-time feature writer, transitioning to entirely feature reporting. Those were the "salad days" of the paper, Jaffe says, "full of interesting, odd and quirky people. . .The Observer gave them all the room in the world" to grow, to explore, to write. "You could feel the creativity there. It was a fun place to work."

In the 1980s, the newsroom felt the budget pinch. "Profits became more important than product," Jaffe recalls, "and the news became much more homogenous."

What resulted, she says, was a "character pogrom," during which all the colorful people who contributed their individual styles and flavors were systemically "rooted out," disheartened to the point of feeling they had to leave. The managers were "fools" to let Frye Gaillard go, Jaffe adds, and never appreciated editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette "the way they should have." Stories became shorter, and middle management became "bigger and bigger and bigger," deciding story angles by committee. "It got to be a very unbearable place," says Jaffe.

She left in 1990, when she and then-husband Charles Shepard moved to Boston, where Shepard accepted one of journalism's prestigious Nieman Fellowships. Jaffe's first book, a mystery titled Horse of a Different Killer, was nominated for a "Best First Novel" Agatha award. Her next book, partly set in Charlotte, is due in the spring of 2003. Co-written with her new beau, John Muncie, arts and entertainment editor of The Baltimore Sun, Thief of Words is a contemporary love story about a couple that courts through e-mail, and is written under the pseudonym "John Jaffe." Jaffe now lives in Silver Springs, MD.

Doug Marlette

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Doug Marlette began drawing cartoons for the Observer in 1972, the same year he graduated from college. Back then, says Marlette, the pay wasn't great, but the atmosphere was.

"There was lots of talent and great leadership," Marlette recalls. "The people were a heady mix, a gumbo of neuroses and humanness." By the time Marlette left Charlotte in 1987 for a job offered to him by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the bureaucratization of journalism was going full throttle.

"Corporations work like hell to beat the life out of places like that," he says wryly, "and that (bureaucratic) process tends to drive out talent."

For two years, he felt he had escaped to a journalistic Camelot in Atlanta, where he won his Pulitzer, but then "the forces of darkness surrounded it, too." He joined New York Newsday in 1989, and still draws cartoons for it, as well as the daily Kudzu strip in syndication. He has thrice received the National Headliners Award for Consistently Outstanding Editorial Cartoons, twice received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for editorial cartooning and First Prize in the John Fischetti Memorial Cartoon Competition, and was awarded a Nieman Fellowship. Now living in Hillsborough, Marlette has been on an extensive author tour, promoting his first novel, The Bridge, which will be published in paperback this fall. He's teaching an editorial cartooning course at UNC as a distinguished visiting professor, and also working on his next novel, set in the civil rights period in Mississippi. All of this, while creating Kudzu seven days a week, and editorial cartoons five days a week. Quips Marlette: "I don't need any hobbies, that's for sure."

Henry Scott

Former City Hall reporter Henry Scott also wrote features and investigative reports, and edited the business section during his Observer tenure from 1977 to 1982. His favorite memories include the time when he surreptitiously emptied a trash can at City Hall, took the garbage back to the office and pieced it together to break a story. He covered the election of Mayor Ken Harris, allegations of corruption in the police department, and what he calls "the" Beltway. ("What? There's another one?" he replied recently, when asked if he were describing I-277 or I-485. "When I was there, there was only the one, and it was a big deal.")

Now living in New York City, Scott says he had a "fantastic time" at the Observer. The camaraderie was truly wonderful, he says, adding that the group "worked together, played together, slept with one another -- it was pretty incestuous in all respects."

He butted heads with management more than once, especially when writing a story that criticized the newspaper or city leadership. In one, he debunked several myths that Charlotte leaders used to promote the city: that there were more Presbyterian churches here than anywhere else (false), and that there were more cars per capita in Charlotte than any other city east of the Mississippi (ditto, although it often seems the case nowadays, especially at rush hour).

Scott says he was unhappy with the city more than the newspaper: "Charlotte always seemed to be a city full of people eager to get somewhere else. It had an intrinsic inferiority complex. Everyone kept saying it was a wonderful place, as if they thought that if they said it enough, they'd start to believe it."

Scott left to became the features editor at the Hartford (CT) Courant, then moved to what he calls "the dark side" when asked to become the publisher's assistant. Around this time, his marriage dissolved, he came out as a gay man, then moved to New York to join the New York Times. In late 1995, he became the president of Out magazine, a lifestyle magazine for gays and lesbians. When the magazine was sold 2-1/2 years ago, Scott set up his current consulting business, and now also serves as an advisor to a media venture capital firm. He's working on a nonfiction manuscript for Pantheon Books, to be published in Fall 2003, about the country's first scandal magazine, Confidential.

Charles E. Shepard

Shepard was an Observer investigative reporter from 1977 to 1990, when he moved to Boston to accept his Nieman Fellowship. He turned his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the PTL story into the book Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. Like other writers of that era, Shepard enjoyed working with the quirky personalities in the newsroom.

"They were some really talented folks," he recalls. "But over time, the characters seemed to leave or got weeded out. . .Some got fed up with the company; and with others, the company got fed up with them."

He fondly remembers his years at the Observer, when the company provided "ample resources for good quality journalism, with less regard to the stock market." The company's objective to offer a "more consistent product" while requiring "more consistent behavior" from its staff, led to the "homogenization" of the newspaper, Shepard says.

Upon leaving Boston, he joined the investigative staff of the Washington Post, where he helped to break the stories of the United Way scandal and of Senator Bob Packwood's infamous sexual misconduct. He briefly taught a journalism class at Georgetown University and served as the online manager for the Post's website.

Now working as a "consultant, dad and husband" in Washington, DC, Shepard is a 2000 graduate of the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He says that time has softened his view of the changes that took place at the Observer. "In retrospect, I can understand that from a business perspective, they were trying to make it a healthy enterprise that will endure over the years. And that's what helps journalism endure."

Mark Sluder

Photographer Mark Sluder won numerous awards while at the Observer from 1976 to 1998, including the National Motorsports Press Photographer of the Year (two years in a row) and National Motorsports Photojournalist of the Year (twice). He was a runner-up for NC Press Photographer of the Year, and worked on the teams that won the Observer's two Pulitzer Prizes. An occasional writer, Sluder gained the Bakkers' trust during the PTL scandal, and was permitted to interview them for an exclusive front-page story about their "next move" after they emerged from seclusion.

At first, working at the Observer was incredible, Sluder says. "It was like living in a movie." He was sent, for instance, to places like Egypt and Paris, to cover stories that had a Charlotte connection.

Over the years, however, the newspaper started heading "in a business direction, away from journalism." Sluder was disappointed when the newspaper wouldn't allow him to accept an invitation to South Africa from Bishop Desmond Tutu. "We don't think this is something our readers are interested in," Sluder recalls being told. A week before he was scheduled to cover Billy Graham's trip to the crumbling Berlin Wall, the editors told him they were going to send only a writer, and use photos from a wire service. Sluder couldn't believe it: "You have Billy Graham standing in front of all these people, and the Berlin Wall coming down. . . what visual is that not?" He grabbed his East German credentials and his passport, and went anyway -- using his vacation time.

He decided it was time to leave the paper when he couldn't take it anymore: "I was being told by people who knew less about what I was doing. . .that I was shooting on a 'beginner' level. After 20 years (in the business), I didn't need to hear that."

Without another job, Sluder simply cleaned out his locker one night, packed his equipment, and wrote his letter of resignation. "I all but heard a voice," he recalls. "It said, 'It's time to go. This is your last night here.'" He now is the director of photography for the national weekly Sports Business Journal magazine, based in Charlotte.

Paige Williams

Freelance writer Paige Williams, now living in Atlanta, says she learned everything she knows about writing during her years at the Observer, from 1989 to 1999. She started in the Statesville bureau, covering Iredell County news, then moved downtown to become a general assignment, features and projects reporter.

She says that although she missed the Observer's "heyday," she had great respect for the journalists with whom she worked. "There were fabulous people there. . .smart, funny, wildly talented writers."

Some of her most challenging investigations ("we didn't call them 'exposes,'" she says) included series about the state of nursing homes and foster care. Another memorable piece was a report from Montana, where she investigated the claims of Charles Kuralt's longtime female companion during the settlement of his estate.

She hasn't been back to the newsroom since she left, saying she doesn't recall her latter days at the paper fondly. "It became more corporate in nature, moving away from journalism and toward the bottom line. The publisher just didn't seem to get it -- he didn't seem to get what we did and why we did it. . .I'd been there 10 years, and it was just time (for me) to go."

For one year, Williams taught journalism as a visiting professor at her alma mater, Ole Miss, but found that she missed writing. Recently, she has contributed stories to Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Men's Journal and Reader's Digest. A Nieman Fellow (class of 1997), Williams is a member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

One Last Note By the way, we did try to reach reclusive bestselling novelist Patricia Cornwell, to talk to her about her days in Charlotte. We went through her agent, who sent us a concise e-mail reply: "I'm sorry Ms. Cornwell is writing her new book about Jack the Ripper." We're hopeful the agent meant she was sorry that Cornwell couldn't be bothered, not that she's sorry that Cornwell is writing a new book about Jack the Ripper. *

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