News to match our mountains

If they’d only lean close enough, every Monday afternoon, subscribers to Buncombe County’s eZine might hear a soft thud as a week’s worth of county-government happenings, public-health news and safety tips reaches their computers.

Buncombe County has produced its weekly news digest since January 2005, but just this summer received a “Best of the Mountains 2006″ award from the Public Relations Association of Western North Carolina for the e-mail dispatch.

County Clerk Kathy Hughes is plum tickled about the accolades.

“The great thing is, we didn’t win in a government category,” she says. “We were competing against everyone and we won. We beat people who do this for a living.”

The eZine grew from a weekly in-house roundup of news county employees received for a number of years. Then, in 2005, Hughes and others decided to go public with the concept. Subscriptions, which are made with a simple click of the mouse, have gone from 100 (“mainly friends and family,” according to Hughes) to nearly 2,500.

“We look at everything we think citizens would want to know, and pull out the best things to share with them,” Hughes explains.

The digest is a blend of the homespun (a “Pet of the Week,” announcement, for example, and favorite recipes) and less reassuring features. A recent one, for instance, had an elaborate notice on diagnosing and treating infections of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

“MRSA usually begins as a simple staph infection with a pimple or boil,” the text reads, “and can be red, swollen, painful, or have pus or other drainage.” Hardly bedtime reading, but vital information nevertheless.

Hughes says the eZine serves handily as a way of reaching county residents about health concerns, including the perennial matter of flu-vaccine availability. “It’s nearly that time of year again,” she notes.

Mind you, the eZine’s contents are not limited to pus and other drainage. Buncombe Public Relations Coordinator Stacey Keith high-grades information sent her by the county’s various departments, cutting and pasting the best of the best. Then she and Hughes edit the content, stripping it of “legalese” and shaping it into something fresh and engaging. The system’s beating heart is Buncombe County Webmaster Jeremy Twiggs, who works a floor below Hughes in an office full of blinking laptops.

From time to time, the eZine has included information on hurricane preparedness, surviving blizzards, combating purse-snatchers and destroying mold. This summer, one edition even included tips for dealing with bat bites.

“While the incidence of rabies in a wild bat population is usually low, any bite should be checked by a physician, and the offending bat’s carcass (skull intact) should be sent to the state health department for testing.” (No mention of how much postage a bat requires, but surely a Google search would turn it up.)

Once the week’s best news is boiled down and compiled, the eZine is sent out at 2 p.m. on Mondays with a grabby subject line. The preference, it seems, is for the dire.

“Do You Know the Signs of Heat Stroke?” Well, do you? “Can 911 Find You?” Well, can it? “Do You Have Poisonous Plants in Your Yard?” At least have a look, will you?

Hughes grins. “Makes you want to open it, doesn’t it? Of course, we want to get peoples’ attention.”

As readers scan the various features, hits register with the company that hosts the eZine, Intelliconnect, allowing the county to gauge how popular the content is.

“‘Where to get the cheapest gas’ was hot,” explains Hughes. “The free bus service, too — that was a big one.”

Others have been clunkers. “One I can think of right off was ‘Let’s go to the Fair,'” Hughes says. “People are like, ‘Who cares?'” Home-repairs features have also been a little thin on readership, she admits.

So what’s in store for future eZine additions? Hughes is glad you asked: “We’ve thought about running a bit about the cleanest restaurants. Originally we thought we’d list, say, 10 restaurants in Buncombe County that you should never eat at because their sanitation scores are so low. Then we thought about it for a while and decided it would be a more positive thing to list the restaurants that scored the highest instead.”

Do we smell another award in the making? Time will tell.

“There are no borders,” Hughes adds. “We’re trying to put anything out there that interests our citizens, anything that would be of use to them.”


To sign up for the Buncombe County eZine, visit www.buncombecounty.org.

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