Sunday sampler

Hickory: You can believe the president or you can believe your own lyin’ eyes. The Daily Record reports that at least some furniture companies are passing the tariff costs onto customers…and that business with China has all but dried up. “So if you were to ask me again if tariffs stay in place for another 12 months … I would say the damage is pretty significant,” Shuford said. “And if it stays in place for a couple of years, I would say we’ve lost access to our biggest growth opportunity and now we’re truly looking at a different type of company.”

Fayetteville: Repercussions from last year’s hurricane continue today. The Observer reports that Robeson County, smacked hard by Matthew and Florence, are closing five schools. Well, it’s the hurricanes displacing people, a terrible economy and the rise of charter schools.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Raleigh shared reporters to explain new hurricane planning on the state level. “The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reviewed official “after-action” reports from some of the hardest-hit areas of North Carolina and asked both state and local officials about changes they’ve made since Florence. In coastal and inland communities alike, leaders are rethinking their communications equipment and how they cope when cell towers and electricity go out. In many places, officials are rewriting plans for sheltering evacuees.”

Morganton: The News Herald reports that ICE arrested five men at a food processing plant, and, based on the headline, some residents were concerned about it. ICE says the five have criminal records. I can’t find the story on the paper’s website, though, so it’s unclear what the concern is. Here is the front page with the story.

Finally, a few days ago, R.L. Bynum pointed out that the Free Press in Kinston was publishing news releases on its front page. It did it again today, this one at the bottom of the page from the “Office of the District Attorney.”

























The Jacksonville Daily News — both of the papers are owned by Gatehouse — has the same “story.” See below. I don’t mind printing a version of a news release on a matter of public interest. I do mind publishing it on the front page, seemingly unedited, and at its apparent full length. And you might think that a guilty murder plea involving an infant might be a significant news development in a small town. But what do I know.

Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting

I’m delighted that the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting is going to move to Chapel Hill. The society “works to educate news organizations and journalists on how the inclusion of diverse voices can raise the caliber, impact and visibility of investigative journalism as a means of promoting transparency and good government.”

The profession is in dire need of diverse voices.

While I’m aware that diversity includes age and gender and ideas, I’m going to speak specifically about race here.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion in journalism are essential to a healthy democracy and a relevant industry. We’re proud to support an initiative of this caliber to help make newsrooms more reflective of the communities which they report on,” said Susan King, dean of the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. Full disclosure: I am an adjunct there and proud of it.

After years of saying that every reporter needed to find stories and sources outside of the white community, editors at my paper got frustrated. Consequently, more than 25 years ago, the News & Record created a reporting position that we called “minority affairs” and filled it with a smart, capable, tough-minded reporter, Robin Adams. The idea that stories involving minorities were as important as stories about health and politics and education. Robin did a crackerjack job, but one downside to the position is that some reporters began to funnel stories about minorities on their beats to her, rather than doing them themselves. That was the opposite of our intent — although it shouldn’t have surprised us.

We also set a goal of hiring a work force of journalists that reflected our circulation area, which was about two-thirds white and one-third minority, primarily African American. Our percentage of white-black journalists hovered in the mid-teens.

After years of saying that we strived to hire a diverse workforce, we hadn’t made much headway. Consequently, we instituted a policy in which at least one person of color would be interviewed for every job opening. We kept with that pretty well, but it didn’t result in moving our minority hires much.

After a while, I got frustrated with our lack of success. Consequently, I established a standard that we would hire at least one person of color in at least every three hires. (I came up with that because of the circulation area’s majority-minority percentage.)

I wrote about the effort and got immediate feedback from some in the community, saying that the paper was lowering its standards. This was an assumption based on racism, I believed then. And now. To hell with them, I thought.

That effort actually worked for a little while. It was tough, though. We had to broaden our pool of candidates. We had to find ways to attract candidates to the paper. In retrospect, we didn’t do enough. After a year or two of tracking the numbers of hires, the recession hit and we started holding jobs open, rather than filling them. I took my eye off the ball and began focusing on saving money.

That hiring standard fell by the wayside. I consider it one of my bigger mistakes.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m glad that the society is coming to UNC. News organizations need its help, expertise and inspiration. And I congratulate Susan King for leading the way to make it happen.

“Hate is the thing with tentacles”

Sooner or later, every journalist gets mocked, ridiculed and threatened. People like to shoot the messenger. It didn’t start with Trump, although I suspect that it’s burned hotter since began blaming the media for stories that make him look like the lying grifter he is.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, is gay, and he wrote Sunday about the hate mail he gets routinely.

“My inbox is proof of that; the evidence stretches back decades. And I’m talking in this case not about irate and sometimes foul-mouthed readers who dislike my opinions. All columnists encounter that, and given the privilege of our megaphones, we should. I’m talking about readers who detest the very fact of me, who I am, independent of any person or issue I lift up or tear down.

“They’re strangers. They’ve never met me, never taken the measure of my generosity, kindness, loyalty or lack thereof. For them I exist in a category, as a type. That type is all they see, and that type is contemptible.”

Leonard Pitts, an African-American columnist with the Miami Herald, routinely writes about the bigoted email he receives. This is a column from last week, spurred on by a note from “Ed.”

“Not to pick on Ed. He’s just the guy who happened to drop one last straw onto the camel’s back. But there were many straws already there, each placed by an indignant someone, righteous in their ignorance, demanding to know when we can finally, finally, finally stop talking about race — as if we do so because of some strange tic in the African-American psyche that makes us see inequality and oppression where there is really starlight and rainbow unicorns.”

Then yesterday, Whitney Cummings talked about dealing with creeps who wanted to extort money to not release a photo of her breast.

Because I’m a white, heterosexual, liberal American male, I was exempt from the noxious idiocy that gay people and minorities and women have to deal with. The only thing they had on me is my liberalism. Big deal.

I have been called a pussy and a chicken, an idiot and an asshole, a racist and a communist. (And that’s putting aside what my coworkers called me.) I have been asked how I’m able to sleep at night and how I can look at myself in the mirror. People have told me that they are praying for me. I can’t the number of times I’ve been told to “wake up!”

After an editorial about bow hunting, one guy sent me a razor-sharp steel arrowhead and wondered how I thought it would feel to be shot in the head with it. (I still don’t know, thank God.) Another guy said he was going to come to my office and beat my ass. (He didn’t show.)

After a gun control editorial, a guy emailed me a photo of my house and said he appreciated knowing that I didn’t have a gun in the house. (He’d be surprised.)

All of this was well before the age of violent social media. And I got off easy. None of it was directed at me because of my race or my gender or my sexual orientation. I didn’t have to deal with people criticizing my right to exist as so many African Americans and Latinos and women and LBGTQ people must.

It’s a mystery to me what drives these people and their bigotry and ignorance and hate. I couldn’t say it better than Bruni: “…hate has no particular profession, no education level, no ZIP code. Its sprawl is as demoralizing as its staying power. Emily Dickinson wrote, gorgeously, that h’ope is the thing with feathers.’ Well, hate is the thing with tentacles. It holds people tight and refuses to let go.”


Sunday sampler

Carteret County: More flooding at the coast. Great. The News-Times says it all in its first paragraph: “Analysis of nearly 120 years of tropical storm and hurricane landing data and associated rainfall in coastal North Carolina shows climate change is creating a feedback loop that suggests increased flooding and flood damage is likely along the coast in the future.” But it’s based on science and history which the climate change doubters don’t believe in.

Raleigh: Lynn Bonner’s story about the state wanting some of its incentive money back go me at the lead, too: “The state has handed out about $1 billion in tax breaks to companies and individuals that invested in solar farms.” A billion dollars? I appreciate  the environment and incentives and jobs and potential tax revenue, but a billion dollars? “A September public notice from the tax department said some people who invested in credits through partnerships don’t qualify for tax breaks.” Oops.

Greensboro: The News & Record has a good package of stories on being a cop these days. It spends some time criticizing the news media: “In this day and time, I think the police officers — no matter what the circumstances are of the shooting — they are tried and convicted in the media,” Gunn said. “It’s whatever sells the story. That hurts our retention and it hurts our program.” I would suggest that law enforcement doesn’t do a particularly good job talking with the news media, but whatever.


My aha moment

Back in 2004, Ed Cone was bugging me about having my staff start blogging. I resisted because I didn’t quite understand blogs and my staff was already busy enough. But I finally talked about it with our web guru, Tom Corrigan, and he said the digital side of the newspaper’s operation could handle it.

We started with a sports blog, but it didn’t work that well. There weren’t enough hot takes. I decided I needed to lead the way myself. I had written a newspaper column off and on, but I’ve never prided myself on my writing. I was nervous about it because I didn’t have much spare time, I didn’t think my publisher would approve, and, well, I’m an introvert.  But one of my management philosophies was, “Let’s do it and see what happens.” So, I followed that philosophy.

That was the genesis of one of the aha moments that changed the way I thought about journalism, and the way I worked.

What I found was just what the smart media observers predicted: an open, engaged group of people who wanted to talk about news and the newspaper. I enjoyed writing short pieces about journalism and the decisions we made at the paper. I heard from readers and other bloggers. They were positive and negative, and that’s fine. Transparency was important to me. And people were there. (Introduced me to a great group of other bloggers, too. You know who you are.)

I followed a dictum that rather than having people come to us for news and information about the community, we needed to go to where they gathered. And, at that time, it was the web. I began to understand much better what people thought about the paper and what we did and how we could do a better job getting them what they wanted and needed.

For me, it was as if a wall had been broken down.

The secret to success: Work like a sonuvabitch

CJR published what it described as some journalists’ aha moments that changed the way they think about journalism. I have my own, which I’ll tell you about on Thursday. First, though, I want to highlight some powerful aha moments from CJR’s list.

Stephen Rodrick of Rolling Stone said a tiny, interesting detail or a dynamite quote often aren’t worth adding to your story in the scheme of things. He once included an unnecessary quote that hurt a subject in his story. “I’ve never cut out anything that I thought was crucial to a story, but it was a stark reminder that you are writing about actual flesh-and-blood human beings. It is not your responsibility to capture them at their very worst. I guess I always knew this, but it took this reminder to make it sink in. A little kindness, even in journalism, goes a long way.”

I had a similar experience when I was a reporter at the News & Observer in 1980 and wrote about Bo Rein, a former N.C. State football coach who died when the plane he was in flew into the Atlantic Ocean. I quoted an aviation expert as saying something to the effect that at the plane’s velocity, slamming into the ocean would be like slamming into concrete. There would be nothing left but pieces of his body. After the first angry call the next day, I realized how insensitive that quote was. And, I hope, learned the same lesson Rodrick tells.

Vicky Ward of CNN remembers the advice an editor gave her about writing versus reporting: “In order to be a really good journalist, you have to be able to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and find a story. Anybody can report on a train crash. But what takes real skill is to walk into a room full of people and come out with a story that is ready to publish. And I said, Well, what about the writing? And she said, The writing is the icing on the cake.”

Someone once told me that good reporting can cover for mediocre writing, but good writing will never make up for mediocre reporting. I’ve used that line dozens of times as an editor and teacher.

Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post mentions what’s become my mantra to students: Work harder than anyone else. “I’m not Alice Munro. I do the best I can, but my writing isn’t art. So putting in that time, becoming almost obsessive about simply working hard, is the only way I can be special.”

I’m convinced that the reason I got ahead in the newspaper business is that I worked hard. I certainly wasn’t the best writer or smartest guy in the room. But I would work like a sonuvabitch.

Sunday sampler

Most papers featured the El Paso mass murders on their front pages. The Dayton killings happened after their deadlines. It’s hard to keep up. So, in other news:

Both the Fayetteville Observer and the Kinston Free Press feature Martha Waggoner’s excellent story for the AP about the Slave Dwelling Project. “Descendants of slaves removed from Africa to clear swamps for a North Carolina plantation are holding a reunion at the site, with some spending the night in a reconstructed slave cabin.” She tells the story of a sad history.

Lenior: Last week, I praised the Fayetteville Observer for following up on the local angle to the Washington Post’s series on opioids. This week, the News-Topic adds to the narrative of what easy-to-get pain meds are doing to the state. “In six years, more than 35 million prescription pain pills flowed into Caldwell County — enough for 62 pills for every man, woman and child each year, according to a database made public by the Washington Post.”

Fayetteville: The Observer takes on toxins in the water in Cumberland County, where the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant is located. Unfortunately, I’ve reached my limit of stories at the website so I can’t read it. (Sorry, I subscribe to four papers; I can’t afford any more!) Update: The story is from NC Health News.

Wilmington: And to end on a happier note, the Star-News reports that the number of sea turtle nests on N.C. beaches is up. “Turtle conservationists also say that we are also starting to see the effect of measures to protect sea turtles, like decreasing deaths caused by commercial fishing through use of turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) and gill net regulations.”


The day the Secret Service came calling

One morning, I awoke to a photo of the $20 bill on the front page. Or maybe it was $100? Why quibble when you’re talking about counterfeiting.

It was green, it was the exact size, and it looked real. It was also illegal.

“Oh, shit,” I said. The U.S. Treasury frowns upon the reproduction and distribution of exact copies of money. (And several people inside and outside the newspaper building took the opportunity to let me know that, too.) I don’t recall what story we were illustrating but it didn’t matter.

We screwed up.

Early in the afternoon, I got a call from a Secret Service agent. I told him I was expecting his call. He laughed, which relieved me. He told me that doing what we had done was forbidden by federal statute. I told him that I understood. That it was a mistake, and that it would not happen again. He chuckled this time and said, “I understand, but I need to finish this.” And he proceeded to tell me about the potential fine and punishment.

I thanked him, he thanked me, and we hung up.

An hour later, I got a phone call from a reporter with one of the local television stations who wanted to interview me for a story about the screwup. I asked why, and she said it was an interesting, fun story about money.

“Yeah, OK,” I said. “Thanks, but it’s close to our deadline, and I don’t have time for it.”

She said, “We’re in our truck right outside your office.”

I laughed; I had to give her credit for that.

“Nevertheless,” I said, “I’m happy to give you a statement, but I’m not going on camera. I know you’re going to try to make us look foolish and I won’t help you do that. If you want to interview me by phone, here I am.”

She said, “hold on” and covered the phone to talk with someone else. She came back on and said, “Thanks, but since we can’t interview you on camera, we’ve decided not to do the story.”

When you’ve got to have a talking head….

That time he held a knife to my head

I went to my doctor for an annual physical.  I was fine. Yeah, blood pressure was too high, thanks to the deadly combination of heredity, job stress and white coat disease. I was still the editor of the newspaper at the time; I could have been hyped up by any number of things.

I asked him to look at a dark, raised spot on my temple. Like a mole, but a mole that hadn’t been there a month ago.

“Hmmm,” he said, and he scratched it with his fingernail as if it were a piece of dirt. It wasn’t. It started bleeding. “I think I’ll take a piece of that for testing. Or, how about I cut it all out and I send it for testing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

He said it could be basal cell carcinoma, precancerous keratosis or nothing. “Probably nothing,” he said, “but who knows?”

Yeah, great. Take it all.

He had me lie down on my side, and he placed a white paper cover over my head. The “probably nothing” was on the same latitude as my eye and about an inch away. A hole was cut in the paper where he’d have access to it. He numbed me and started cutting. I didn’t feel anything but some tugging on the skin. I was fine.

Then he started talking:

“Let me tell you what I really don’t like about the paper,” he said,

“Doc, let’s not,” I said, “while you have that scalpel an eighth of an inch from my brain.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “One slip and I’ll be on the front page won’t I?”

“We both will,” I said. “And neither of us will like it.”

He was quiet, the removal was uneventful, and the lesion was nothing.

As it turns out, he didn’t like the way we covered kids’ soccer, of all things.

Sunday sampler

Last week, I featured five N.C. Gatehouse papers and made note of how similar their front pages were. This week, they seemed to share share the AP story on Trump and Iran, but not much else. Good. Local journalism should be local.

Asheville: It never occurred to me that rehabbing injured wildlife — deer, owls, rabbits — was a bad idea. But apparently it can be. “It’s up to the agency to conserve and sustain North Carolina’s fish and wildlife resources, and its official policy is that rehabbing nonendangered wildlife isn’t only unnecessary — it can actually be selfish. ‘Wildlife rehabilitation serves mostly to meet the needs of our human society, not the needs of wildlife populations.'”

Fayettevile: I have been hoping a local paper would follow up on the Washington Post’s publication of opioid sales. Thank you, Observer/Gatehouse. “The shipments to Moore, Robeson and Lee counties all averaged out to about 55 pills per person each year. Cumberland and Harnett were around 34 pills per person. Hoke County was just 21 pills per person each year.” Breath-taking numbers. Everyone should read the Post’s series.

Greensboro: Changing the ABC system has never made a lot of sense to me, and it still doesn’t, despite what appears to be a bipartisan effort to privatize sales. I can’t tell that the system is broke. And I’ve been in privately run liquor stores out of state, and I am much more comfortable in N.C.’s ABC stores. So I agree with Mayor Nancy Vaughan, quoted in the News & Record: “When you look at our ABC stores they are situated evenly throughout the community. They are in clean shopping centers, they are well-lit, and they are professionally run.”

Hendersonville: I must be in a drinking mood this morning, but I was interested in the little bit I could read of this look at the wine country in Henderson County. Tl;dr version: It’s booming. (I can’t find the stories online; the link is to the front page, courtesy of the Newseum.)