It is Wednesday, and Susan and I are with Lolita Huckaby at Marker 244 — a bistro at the foot of the bridge in Port Royal. We’re sitting at the bar enjoying a “big pour” of Chardonnay, trading rumors and talking politics. Lolita is a journalist and long time resident of Beaufort. She has covered, transcribed and edited the news in Beaufort County for almost 40 years.
Lolita was born in Rowland, N.C. —population 1,075 — within sight of the large, illuminated sombrero that marks the location of South of the Border. Her father was a farmer and she grew up surrounded by tobacco, curing barns and auction houses where the local Bright Leaf variety was graded and auctioned to the buyers down from Raleigh.
On particularly cold and clear nights she, I like to think, would climb to the top of the sombrero looking out at the distant lights (Dillon, S.C.) wondering if those lights promised a bright future.
Lolita started her career (along with Magistrate Richard Brooks) at the Savannah Morning News. Then she went to the Beaufort Gazette where she covered the School Board, County Council, Beaufort City Council and any other board that was making decisions. I got to know Lolita when I served on the Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.
In those long gone days, the Authority was expanding and Lolita’s coverage was as important as the pipes and lift stations that were being built as quickly as developers could re-purpose the pine forests that then characterized Beaufort County. In fact, our Board Chairman would sometimes delay the start of the meeting if Lolita was running late.
Lolita’s writing was detailed or, as some would now say, granular. She would listen to the debate, record the votes and then ask meaningful follow-up questions. She could do this because she knew the members, the history of the County and was able to get information that had not been forthcoming during the general public discussion. She did this almost every night and kept Beaufort informed on a level that is impossible to understand today.
Everyone who is sentient knows that the small town newspaper is an endangered species and likely to go extinct. When these papers lost their advertisers to Craig’s List, the first casualties were the reporting staff and, by extension, the newsroom. The Los Angeles Times says the number of reporters has dropped by 60 percent (since 2000) largely because the internet demolished the traditional sources of revenue.
In an effort to survive, many of these papers turned to Wall Street investors in general and hedge funds in particular. These financial people make no apologies about “maximizing profits” and “reducing inefficiencies” which usually lead to the use of wire service stories, long form essays and abandoning coverage of local government.
These hollowed-out newspapers know the value of a car crash, (local) sports reporting and, or course, understand that printed obituaries are important. But for the most part school boards, town councils, development commissions and water authorities now legislate in relative obscurity. It is estimated that half of the daily newspapers across the country are owned by hedge funds.
When a local newspaper dies, the oversight of elected officials dies with them. In many small cities newspapers are the first to discover corruption or reveal fiscal incompetence. Without young, curious reporters and their youthful idealism, conspiracy theories take root and eventually people look to rumors and hearsay for information. It is argued that when local newsrooms are gutted there is lower voter turnout, increased polarization and general erosion in civic participation.
Lolita now writes a column — called Lowcountry Lowdown — which is a weekly recap of what is happening on County Council, Design Review Board and other local governments. Lolita tells us that 878 apartment units are slated for an area near the Cross Creek Shopping Center.
Lolita says that none of these proposed apartments will be deemed affordable housing notwithstanding the fact that there are at least 100 homeless people in Beaufort and 765 people in the “housing insecure” category. Lolita then brings us current on the proposed Bay Point “eco-resort” and the fact that a single, 4,200 square foot villa has been permitted. She tells us that the Open Land Trust has acquired 88 acres on St. Helena Island and will hold a conservation easement on that acreage.
This is the kind of fundamental reporting that keeps the community current, informed and engaged. This is the gift that Lolita Huckaby continues to give Beaufort County.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.