There was the time in the 1990s when county commissioners in Onslow County voted on a legal matter by phone. In the same decade, the Onslow County school superintendent wanted to meet one-on-one with individual board members in an effort to build a secret consensus.

In both cases, Madison Taylor and his colleagues at the Jacksonville Daily News believed the proceedings should be public. Taylor, now the executive editor at the Burlington Times-News, did what North Carolina newspaper journalists do on the inevitable occasion that a sticky, legal issue arises: He turned to one of the oldest and broadest-reaching newspaper advocacy organizations in the country.

A group of upstart editors in Goldsboro founded the North Carolina Press Association on May 14, 1873. Since then, it has evolved into a trade organization that represents the interests of 198 daily, community, and college newspapers on all levels.

From lobbying the State Legislature to training reporters to intervening on legal matters, the NCPA serves as an invaluable partner to the state’s Fourth Estate.

“The press association always offers you a go-to person when you have legal questions, when you’ve got quick questions that need to be answered on the fly,” says Taylor, a Stokes County native with 30 years in the profession.

The original purpose

The NCPA, though, wasn’t always there for legal support. Formed by a group of editors from 33 of the state’s then 74 journals, just three dailies among them, the organization’s original purpose was to regulate advertising rates and practices while forming a professional bond in the wake of the Civil War. The editors always wanted to promote North Carolina’s resources beyond its borders.

An April 6, 1890, account in The Carolina Watchman newspaper in Salisbury described the NCPA’s genesis: “The heated political atmosphere . . . had naturally and unavoidably drawn the press . . . into the vortex of the agitated current,” it read. “It had, in fact, forced the press to the head to direct . . . that current.”

The group of newspapermen convened at noon at the Goldsboro courthouse, where a historical marker was erected a century later (and still stands) to commemorate the gathering. Major J.A. Engelhard, who fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and later became editor at The Wilmington Journal, was elected president.

At some point during the convention the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad invited the editors to the new town of Morehead City for what must have been one of the state’s first press junket.

As the NCPA evolved during the next 140 years, so did the needs of newspapers. The NCPA’s mission came to include protecting First Amendment freedoms; keeping public records, meetings, and the state government process open; and maintaining high industry standards.

NCPA Executive Director Beth Grace says the organization’s main legislative objective is preserving public notices in newspapers and on newspaper websites, preventing cash-strapped governments from burying them on seldom-read government sites.

“Newspapers believe in keeping these in the public eye,” Grace says. “Making them available for free on highly read newspaper websites is not only responsible, but preserves what the original legislators who passed these laws wanted: to keep government business in the open and to prevent government from policing itself.”

When Taylor’s newspaper sought to keep public the meetings of both a school board and county commissioners, the NCPA stepped in, providing two small examples of how the organization serves the state’s citizens by serving its journalists.

“They are the people that keep our issues first and foremost,” Taylor says.

David Hall covers sports for the Kinston Free Press and Freedom ENC Newspapers. His most recent story for Our State was “Pully’s Barbecue” (May 2012).

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