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Former editor leaves lasting legacy

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Jeff Herrin reacts after arriving at a surprise 50th birthday party in March 2008 in the Telegram's old offices on Hunter Hill Road.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Jeff Herrin, former editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram and The Tarboro Weekly, died Monday after a hard-fought battle with cancer. He was 60 years old.

This week, editors, publishers and journalists who worked with Herrin over the years mourned his loss and reflected over the impact he made on their lives and in improving journalistic efforts in the region during the 25 years he worked at the Telegram.

"It's a terrible blow to the Telegram family, and that's what we are, thanks to Jeff — an extended family," Telegram Editor Gene Metrick said. "His guidance and mentorship forever touched the lives of at least three generations of journalists who worked throughout the years under his steady and caring hand at the Telegram."

Herrin re-invented the Telegram after assuming the helm of the newspaper in 1993, not only in the paper's content and coverage of the Twin Counties but also in the every-day operations of the newsroom. He was also responsible for launching The Tarboro Weekly from scratch.

“What he did for the town of Tarboro with the implementation of that paper was an amazing feat,” said Chris Siegel, central copy desk manager for Adams Publishing Group Eastern North Carolina.

Herrin made an impact on everyone who worked with him and for him, Metrick said.

"He demanded the highest degree of fairness, objectivity and journalistic ethics from his staff," Metrick said, "while at the same time creating a truly fun and creative environment that brought out the best work from his team. After working under Jeff for nearly 20 years, I now strive every day to continue and build upon what he set into motion — and believe me, that's not easy to do."

Metrick said he spent part of this week listening to the music of Bruce Springsteen in memory of his friend and mentor. Herrin was well-known for his love of Springsteen’s music and attended many Springsteen concerts over the years.

Ross Chandler, former Life editor at the Telegram, said he also spent time this week remembering Herrin while listening to Springsteen songs. Chandler worked with Herrin for roughly 16 years at the Telegram.

“I will never hear The Boss’s music again without thinking about Jeff,” Chandler said. “Jeff was a mentor for many journalists, myself included. He was always interested in having news focus on the community as much as possible. He wanted to put local people and local events in the newspaper and get them the recognition they deserve. He was respected by all who knew him.”

Eric Eckard, former assistant news editor at the Telegram, also spoke about how he appreciated Herrin’s friendship and mentorship. He worked with Herrin for 15 years.

“Jeff was a great mentor for so many young journalists over the years. He had a way of making you want to go the extra mile, which helped develop you into a better reporter and writer,” Eckard said. “He was also a great friend. I wasn’t always the best employee, but he was the best boss I ever had.”

Herrin was born in Albemarle and grew up in High Point. He began his foray into journalism in the late 1970s, working as a sports stringer at the High Point Enterprise while he attended Appalachian State in Boone. He later transferred to the University of South Carolina, where he earned his degree in journalism.

Herrin started working full time at the Enterprise in 1981. Over the next decade, he worked his way up from beat reporter to editor. In 1991, he began serving as managing editor of the Opelika Auburn News in Alabama before he returned to North Carolina in 1993 to serve as editor of what was then known as The Evening Telegram. He retired from the Telegram last year.

During his time at the Telegram, Herrin was the lynch pin of the operation — a constant force while company ownership and publishers changed around him. He served under four publishers during his tenure at the paper, but his leadership blossomed during the administration of Rip Woodin, who served as publisher of the Telegram from 1998 to 2013.

“When I was named publisher of the Rocky Mount Telegram in July 1998, I began studying the paper while still in Greenville, but was not impressed with what I read. I expected I might have to replace the editor, Jeff Herrin,” Woodin said.

But Woodin said his perspective changed after he met Herrin.

“I quickly saw that his news coverage of the community was based on the former publisher’s beliefs, not Jeff’s. We expanded the news staff and began intensively covering local news. Associated Press wire stories and photos on the front page were replaced by staff written stories about municipal government, schools, crime and business activity. Local photos more accurately reflected members of the community. The sports department grew in size, covering just about every high school in the Twin Counties,” Woodin said. 

Woodin said the paper flourished with Herrin at the helm.

“A re-design of the newspaper modernized the appearance and attracted new subscribers. His news judgment was impeccable, he always listened to complaints and he treated everyone fairly. Many awards from the N.C. Press Association followed Jeff’s hard work. Reporters, photographer and editors won blue ribbons for their news contributions while the Telegram earned general excellence awards on a regular basis,” Woodin said.

Herrin’s loyalty to the Telegram and the Twin Counties has made a long-term impact on both. 

“He could have easily moved up to a larger paper but chose to stay at the Rocky Mount Telegram, probably as its longest serving editor outside of early owners who carried the editorial title. Jeff said he had no regrets about his choice, instead enjoying the satisfaction of doing a good job. I will take issue with that — he didn’t do a good job, he did an outstanding job and was an excellent writer, designer and editor, the best I ever worked with,” Woodin said.

Mark Wilson, who retired as Telegram publisher in 2018, said he remembers Jeff’s strong focus on meeting the needs of the community.

“Jeff was a good community newspaper editor. He had a strong commitment to reporting local news. It was a pleasure knowing and working with Jeff over the past several years,” Wilson said.

Kyle Stephens, current publisher of the Telegram, said Herrin’s contributions to the newspaper will always be remembered.

“There have been a lot of heavy hearts in and around the Telegram office for the past couple of weeks. Some tears, some reflection and some smiles generated by old stories and favorite memories that have been shared among colleagues. Jeff was a talented and polished journalist. He treated people in just the right way. He was a boss when he needed to be, a mentor when called upon and a friend when that was needed. His contributions to the fabric of the Rocky Mount Telegram will never be forgotten. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his family,” Stephens said.

A Celebration of Life ceremony for Herrin will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Chapel of Wheeler & Woodlief Funeral Home with Chaplain Mike Crenshaw officiating. Visitation with the family will follow in the Atrium of Wheeler & Woodlief Funeral Home until 4 p.m.

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