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‘Taking names, kicking butt and keeping everybody honest’: Retired Post editor looks back on 40 years in community journalism

By Natasha Townsend

N.C. Press Association

Elizabeth Cook sat in the White House pressroom. She wasn’t from The New York Times or The Washington Post. Yet her mission was to follow the high-profile Elizabeth Dole, who was Ronald Reagan’s public liaison during his presidency, in Washington for a day.

A story about the Salisbury native would be featured in Dole’s hometown newspaper, the Salisbury Post, and Elizabeth Cook, a reporter for the Post, would be the author.

Cook retired as editor of the Post at the end of 2018. As she looks back at her experiences, her day following Dole is one of the highlights of her 40-year career as a reporter and editor.

Cook is an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism school, where she graduated in 1977, but she knew what she wanted to be even before she became a Tar Heel. She loved creative writing, especially poetry. Cook remembers sitting in the counselor’s office as a middle school student when the counselor asked her the quintessential question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She wanted to be a writer. Her guidance counselor steered her toward journalism, and her mind was set. As a young journalist, she worked for school newspapers, setting her sights on the journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was the perfect major for her, Cook says.

“We all went in (to college) thinking we would work for The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and I found my niche in community journalism,” she says. “We went into journalism with a missionary spirit.

Throughout her career as a reporter and editor, she kept that spirit alive.

As soon as she graduated, she became a reporter for the Daily Independent in Kannapolis for three months, covering the agriculture beat. The Salisbury Post didn’t have an open position, but Cook was getting attention from the publication for her work at the Daily Independent. A position opened, and Cook began work at the Post in May 1978. She remained at the Post for about 40 continuous years and was named editor in 1993.

As editor, her goal was to publish the best paper every day while being a force for good in the community. She wanted to help people see the positive things that were happening and where improvements were needed, especially when it came to poverty, Cook says. Today, she is proud that the Post accomplished that achievement.

Cook was vice president of the North Carolina Press Association from 1999 to 2000, the year before she became president. That year, the NCPA was successful in getting the shield law passed, which is one of her prouder moments.

But it wasn’t until she became president that she succeeded in fulfilling what seemed to be an impossible goal. In 2000, the NCPA was honoring Dean Smith, the former UNC men’s basketball coach, as North Carolinian of the Year. The NCPA had tried for years to bring Smith to the annual awards ceremony to accept the honor. Cook sent Smith a letter asking him to accept the award on her behalf, and he accepted.

At the end of her tenure as president, Cook received a caricature of herself making a slam-dunk of Dean Smith into a basket.

“Being a Chapel Hill student and a basketball fan, that meant a lot to me,” she says.

After being an editor for 25 years, she misses the daily interactions with her co-workers with whom she shared an office for decades, she says. She also misses filling the pages of the Salisbury Post each day.

“Most of all, feeling like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the community and having the opportunity to guide the coverage of what’s going on,” she says. “Now, I get to be a spectator like everyone else.”

Being a spectator will take getting used to, as she often became an expert of the topics she reported on. She remembers working on a series about nursing home care and the shortage of nursing homes. She was reluctant to do the series at first, then realized how she could open people’s eyes through her stories and the importance of writing in-depth stories that mattered. It reignited her love for journalism.

“It’s hard for reporters to do in today’s climate because of the pressure. It’s hard to afford them the time to dig in deep into a subject. But still, I see newspapers doing that better than anyone else,” Cook says. “It’s such a vital role to keep newspapers alive.”

Her favorite part of every newspaper is the letters to the editor section because it’s a gathering place for different voices, she says. She thinks newspapers can still serve that purpose if they stay in touch with the community and help deliver the information it needs.

Despite the negative outlook on the industry and talk of the demise of newspapers, she wants reporters and editors to not be discouraged.

“We’re all so much more than newspapers,” she says. “We’re websites and social media, and I hope they still continue to serve the community because there’s such a need for the news and the access that newspapers give their communities.”

Throughout her career, Cook sent her staff to NCPA training on open records and public meetings law, which was a big help to the paper because “that’s what you want reporters to be experts on,” she says.

She also says the networking opportunities and seeing how other reporters and editors write helped broaden her scope and understand the big picture of the news industry in the state, not just in her corner of the world.

Cook says organizations that help newspapers should continue to offer training opportunities, especially regarding public records and meetings.

“It’s hard to be a watchdog when you don’t know what you do and don’t have the right to see or hear,” she says.

Although Cook has been retired for only a month, the Salisbury Post hasn’t seen her last byline. She plans to write columns and enterprise stories for the Post.

“I’ve enjoyed going back to the reporting I did in the beginning, and I’m ready to do more of that,” she says.

She looks forward to spending time with her family the most.

“The news cycle prints out every day, but your children and grandchildren only grow up once and you can miss a lot,” she says.

Josh Bergeron is Cook’s successor as editor. Cook remembers him working as a reporter for her not so long ago. She is excited about the directions Bergeron will take the Post, and true to a journalist, she is happy to be a part of a community with a paper that has a new, fresh voice.

Natasha Townsend is a communications intern with the North Carolina Press Association pursuing degrees in journalism and psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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