A Personal Perspective on Journalism in the 20th Century

July 17, 2020

Betty Debnam created and edited the Mini Page, a nationally syndicated newspaper supplement that ran from 1969 to 2007. Inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 1999, her journalistic efforts introduced children to forms of news and ignited their curiosity. In this Humanities Moment, Debnam reflects on both her familial ties to the industry and her vision for civic engagement through literacy.

Transcript

Well, we used to read the newspaper a lot, and that sounds silly, but we read, other than the comic pages. We would look over the news, and we were always interested in the news, ’cause my father eventually went on the radio and television. We always listened to him, so that was important. There was somebody that was very important for me, was my grandmother who, at the age of 55, her husband died, and he had started a newspaper in Snow Hill, North Carolina, and it’s still going today, which is amazing. The name of it is the Standard Laconic, which is not a Pitt County word. It sounded unusual. I was reading in [inaudible] I think, funny name.

But anyhow, she took over the newspaper after her husband died and became the editor and publisher and ran it for many years. I used to go to Snow Hill and visit her. I would go at on stories and see how interesting that was. I would go out when she was visiting the advertisers, go to court when she was getting the court cases put in that, and help her when she was, drive her around later on to get the subscriptions, which was amazing for a woman to do that back in those days. So she was one of my main inspirations. And she’s in the Journalism Hall of Fame at Carolina. I’m real proud of her. That really perked my interest in newspapers. And we used to put out a newspaper for the children, for the people on the block where I lived, and we’d put out little newspapers…

One of the biggest moments was when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court asked me to do a series about the Constitution. That was a wonderful Humanities Moment, had that opportunity to interpret the Constitution to newspaper readers. I worked very carefully with people at the National Archives. I could sit down with the top expert and talk to them about what we wanted to get children to know. I could give my interpretation of it, make it accurate, because the people they’d talk with read the story before, so we’d make sure that things were right. That was one of the most wonderful moments, to have the Supreme Court Justice ask you to do something like that…

The only way we’re gonna get any better or any stronger as a country is if people read, and know, and get curious, and accept particularly emotional things that are so wrong, and learn to do that with thinking. That’s what the humanities is all about, to try and get you to think more, and to relate more, and to improve yourself, and improve the world, and see what other people have done to try to improve through pain of music or something to make it a better place. And that’s what you want for humanities to be. Because if you get your mind off some of the things that are so silly that you think about, and you waste your time on, and you make it …
I wanna tell you something, you take a whole bunch of kids to watch a performance or something, you really do tell them something about the humans that are up there dancing, they learn. You start with the play that you’re seeing, and try to bring it to life, and say, “These are people that are working in order to do that, and they’re humans.” We’ve got to really start thinking about the humans that we’re dealing with.