The story of Fred McCormick’s path to journalism is so distinct that it warrants an article of its own.
A native of Florida, McCormick first visited Western North Carolina when coming to see his mother in Marion. She then began remodeling a house in Black Mountain and invited him and his wife to move in. “We just fell in love with the area,” McCormick says. “The first time I ever came to Black Mountain, I was, like, ‘I need to live here,’ because I had never seen anything like this.”
Though he’d written for a startup magazine in Tampa, McCormick primarily worked in children’s mental health care. But when his family moved to Cashiers and he became a stay-at-home dad, that flexibility allowed him to get part-time work at the Crossroads Chronicle newspaper.
A few years later, the family returned to Black Mountain, and in 2014 the Black Mountain News hired McCormick as a full-time reporter. From then until he left the Gannett Co.-owned paper in late 2019, McCormick estimates he wrote around one million words about the Swannanoa Valley. In February 2020, he launched The Valley Echo, a hyperlocal news website providing independent coverage. Xpress spoke with McCormick about the challenges and rewards of running a one-man publication and what gave him the optimism to embark on such an endeavor.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
How were you able to stand out while interviewing for the Black Mountain News position, since you were fairly new to journalism?
I basically begged for that job. Jennifer Fitzgerald was the editor and I told her, “I’m sure you’re going to find people who are more qualified. There’s probably people who are better at aspects of this job than me, just because I don’t have a whole lot of experience. But you’re not going to find someone who’s going to work harder. I will dedicate myself to this completely.” And then she hired me. I was shocked and probably a little overwhelmed. But I wanted to honor my word that I would try my hardest, and I’ve been hanging on for dear life ever since.
Why did you ultimately decide to leave the Black Mountain News?
With these large corporations that own newspapers, I started to understand that as things are changing, it appeared likely that a community this size probably wasn’t going to get all of the [financial] support because it didn’t work for the company that owned the paper. By the time I left, I was the only news employee there. Editor, sports, politics, crime, business — you name it. So my thought was, because I did see the writing on the wall with what the future looked like, I wanted to create my own thing and try to keep news local.
What gave you the confidence to start The Valley Echo?
There’s a great amount of accountability doing what I do in a town with only 8,500 people. If I write an article, I’m going to see one of the people I interviewed at Ingles later that week — and I think that has helped me in a lot of ways. It’s helped me make sure that I’m being objective when I go into situations and think about how it’s going to impact the community as a whole.
What that broad range of topics I covered at the Black Mountain News ended up doing was put me in touch with so many people in the community. Still to this day, people stop me and say, “I loved this story” or “Thank you for doing this story.” Knowing that and engaging with the community in that way, it helped me understand people were paying attention to what I was doing. And that’s what made me confident that if I continued to do the best that I could, the community was going to support it.
Were you concerned about being an exclusively online news organization?
I played a role in establishing a Black Mountain News social media presence because I knew it was important. I knew that a lot of people here consumed news online. I would have loved to have been able to have my own newspaper, just for the glory of it all. But the truth is that market is shrinking, and I wanted to start a business on a platform that’s being consumed by more people every day. I think more people are likely to turn to the internet for news for the first time than they are to turn to a newspaper for the first time.
What has been your experience running The Valley Echo independently of a media conglomerate, like Gannett or Tribune Publishing Company?
I’ve been fortunate up to this point where the majority of the businesses are approaching me about advertising. It’s a great position to be in, but I’m always very honest with people and I tell them the goal is for this to be free for readers. I don’t want there to be any obstacles for people to access the information about the community. That’s very important, and I make sure to tell local business owners that. My feeling is the more that everyone knows about what’s going on in their community, the better the community. And so far, everyone has been receptive to that.
What other goals do you have for the site?
I want this to be in the community after I’m gone. It’s been less than two years since I started this, so I still look at it as the pretty early stages. But ultimately, the goal is for the community to have some sort of buy-in to this … to build this thing slowly in a sustainable way, and to allow the community to have a voice in The Valley Echo in its future.
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