The first lesson an editor taught me

My students are all stressed about finding jobs right now. This is how I got my start in journalism.

After I graduated from college, I taught 7th & 9th grades — English and journalism — at what was then Knox Junior High in Salisbury, N.C. I wasn’t very good at it, but it wasn’t my planned career; I was going to work for a two years and then go to law school. Because I went to a sterling little school that no one had heard of, I figured I needed some “real life” experience to burnish my resume for Harvard Law.

It gave me enough “real life,” all right. After a year, I quit and moved to the beach with a couple of college friends, both of whom were going to med school in the fall. When they moved out, I ran home to Raleigh, and my father helped me get a job working construction at Nello-Teer. We were building a mental health facility, and it was fun,  although I didn’t get paid much. We worked outside doing labor, tying rod, laying concrete, drilling studs.

Then, one day in February, the temperature didn’t rise about 17 degrees. There was no inside to seek shelter in. That night, after I bitched about the cold, my mother sat me down.

“What would be your dream job,” she asked.

“Writing for the New York Times book review,” I said without a trace of confidence. I was an English major though, so maybe I was qualified.

“So what do you think you need to do to get there?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Get a job working for a newspaper, I guess.”

“OK, start applying,” she said, and that was that.

I applied to at least 25 papers. This was before the Internet and email. Editors actually accepted blind applications and occasionally responded. In May, I got an interview with the Monroe Enquirer-Journal. I liked the editor — he was funny — and he seemed to like me. I might have gotten the job, but then I handed my writing sample to him.

The editor glanced at it and then looked at me. “You don’t type?”

When I said not that well, he put the hand-written story into a file with my application and said, “Go home and practice your typing.”

I was humiliated, and I went home and practiced my typing. It was the first lesson an editor taught me.

In June, the editor called me and asked, “How is your typing?” I said something to the effect that I was better than Rose Mary Woods. Thank god, he laughed.

“Well, the boy we hired, we just fired,” he said. “Come back and let’s see what you can do.”

I got the job. It paid $125 a week, about what I earned as a common laborer and less than I got teaching. But I wasn’t harassed by hormone-driven 13-year-olds and the office was warm.

And it was so much fun — a different adventure every day! — it took me 36 years to get out.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Two men – one a former symphony musician – are killed, four people are arrested, and many questions remain unanswered. This is a story in the News & Record about how good people, sick people and talented people live lives that many of us don’t understand.

Greensboro: The News & Record also showcases a story about an 89-year-old High Point doctor who has seen a lot — too many bad things. “Over 46 years, Tillman delivered 3,000 babies in High Point during segregation and found out that even being a doctor was no protection against racism in the South.” A story: “Once when visiting Philadelphia, the avid golfer took the opportunity to see pro Ben Hogan play a round at a nearby country club. While he was there, a white caddie began having seizures. Tillman ran to his side, told him he was a doctor and tried to help. To his surprise, the man recoiled and yelled, ‘I don’t care what you are! I don’t want any n*** to lay a hand on me!””

Winston-Salem: So the legislature is back in the business of telling local governments what it can and can’t do with statues and monuments, regardless of how offensive they are. This story has been around a few days, and normally I wouldn’t include it. But the issue is important to me because it shows how uncaring and out of touch some legislators are. “This is purely stupid,” said State Rep. Evelyn Terry, D-Forsyth.

Lost in the city

When I was 6, I got lost for several hours.

We were in Ocean City, N.J., where my grandmother, known to the grandkids as Grandmother B, had a house a couple blocks off the beach. One day, I decided to walk home from the beach for lunch. By myself. Because I was 6. But I turned a block before our street.

I passed where the house was supposed to be and I kept on walking. I don’t know why I kept going forward. I was 6.

I was sandy, barefoot and wore only a swimming suit. I walked block to block for at least three miles (when I was an adult, I clocked what I believed was my route). Eventually, I started crying. A woman coming out of a Jersey bodega stopped me and asked what was wrong. “I’m lost,” I said.

She took me inside and called the police. The problem was that I didn’t know where I lived or the name of my grandmother. I kept telling them her name was “Grandmother B.” I was 6.

As it turned out, of course, my parents had called the police first, and the police took me home. The whole drive home I was thinking I was going to be in such big trouble. I wasn’t, but before the day was over, you know that I had memorized my grandmother’s full name and the address of the house. I still know them.

Years later, my mother told me that no one noticed I was even gone for an hour or so. You have to understand, this was our extended family and there were likely half a dozen aunts and uncles on the beach and probably 15 or 20 of us cousins. What kind of idiot would just wander off.

I was 6. And I was ready for lunch.

I still have intense anxiety whenever I travel somewhere new. I don’t want to get lost. Even now, I still feel like I’m 6. And I pack a lunch.

Earning a grade

Last week ago, Payton Walker, a senior broadcast star at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism, interviewed me about grade inflation. Her interview was for Carolina Week, a student-produced news program about UNC.

More specifically, her topic was about the tension faculty members might feel between trying to control grade inflation AND wanting to get a positive course evaluation from students. I suggested that I wasn’t the one who could give her the best answers, given that I am an adjunct. But she had been having difficulty getting full-time faculty members to speak on camera. Apparently, faculty without tenure are nervous about it, and faculty with tenure aren’t worried about course evaluations. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (She ended up finding some others.)

I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys grading. To grade effectively, you must give the student ample feedback on their writing. It’s time-consuming and subjective, to a certain extent. For me, when a student writes poorly, I think that I’ve failed them.

I want to be liked by students. I want to be considered a good teacher. But I teach at one of the best journalism schools in the country, and I want to uphold its tradition of excellence.

In my first semester, Professor Chris Roush taught me that students aren’t given grades, they earn them. And I knew from years of management in a newsroom that if you set high standards, people will try to meet them.

Students will benefit more in the long term if they have to work to get a good grade. They appreciate the teachers who are tough but fair, and who put in the time giving constructive feedback. I know this because I’ve heard them talk about teachers and courses that are easy. I don’t want them to talk about me that way.

Here is the Carolina Week broadcast. The discussion about grade inflation starts at the 11:44 mark.

Stories we missed

Several years ago, I had this cockamamie idea to publish a weekly listicle of stories displayed on the covers of the weekly tabloids under the headline, “Stories we missed!”

I had this stroke of brilliance as I waited in the grocery store check-out line. It seemed a way to bring some fun to our pages. I knew I’d never do it. The mass newspaper audience isn’t a great fan of snark  And to be honest, I was afraid that some of our readers would think we believed these stories were important.

But to get a taste of what it might look like, here is a sampling of stories we missed as of this morning. These are the top stories on the magazines’ webpages.

National Enquirer: Gweneth posts birthday message for ex Chris Martin

OK Magazine: Loni comes to blows with co-hosts over Jordyn & Tristan — ‘Ya’ll got me hot’

Star: Rhonj star Danielle Staub dumps fiancee after 6 weeks of dating

Life & Style: Colton Underwood announces ‘I’m f-ing done after explosive ‘Bachelor’ episode: see the recap!

Weekly World News : Saturn is a giant UFO! Astronomer’s stunned! (Editor’s note: The Weekly World News brand statement is “The world’s only reliable news.”)

!!!! You have to dig down a few stories in the Enquirer to get to ‘Luke Perry’s darkest life secrets exposed’

The one other problem with my idea: I didn’t know what Rhonj stood for or who Loni is until I looked them up.

Significant note: My thinking is redeemed! Jezebel does it now. ‘Is Meghan Markle a class traitor’


Sunday sampler

Carteret County: One of the signs of a good local paper is that it follows big stories to the end. The News-Times does just that: “Nearly six months after Hurricane Florence hit the county, several displaced tenants of Crystal Coast Apartments in Morehead City are still unable to move back into their damaged homes.” Meanwhile, FEMA is formally ending its shelter assistance program.

Winston-Salem: The City Council appears ready to allow bow hunting inside the city limits because people say there are too many deer in the city. While the council is discussing regulations, I’m with the council member who said, “I can see where the areas that would be really attractive to a deer herd would be the city parks. I really don’t want folks putting a hunting stand 100 feet off the park, and waiting for something to go over (the line), and maybe their aim is off and they shoot into the park.”

Monroe: The Enquirer-Journal was the newspaper that gave me my start. At the time, it was an afternoon paper delivered five days a week. Now it’s delivered three days; I don’t know if it is still afternoon. It announced today that it is dropping its carriers and contracting with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it. It’s going to save the paper money, but disrupt its subscribers. I note the change without judgment.  (The website has a paywall. Here is the front page announcement, and the link will rot after today.)

A canary in the coal mine

Back in the late 1980s, a new phone system was installed at the News & Record. It had all the bells and whistles: voicemail, call forwarding and conference calls. Plus, it replaced the traditional phone bell ring with a cooler, softer, pulsing ring tone, similar to this.

Who knew that new phone system would be a symbolic canary in the coal mine for the newspaper industry.

We loved the new phones. The office was quieter, we could smoothly transfer callers to the right phone number, and we had voicemail. When we were on deadline or thinking through an important story, we could let calls go to voicemail.

Eventually, the phone system had the effect of making one of the two administrative assistants in the office unnecessary. We didn’t need someone to answer the phones when they answered themselves.

A year or so later, my boss stuck his head into my office and told me to step into the newsroom.

“What do you see?” he asked.

I hate these types of questions.

“A newsroom?” I said. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

“People,” he said. “Look at all the people! All working at their desks.”

I was thinking that was a good thing, but I waited.

“I just called up here to see if I could reach someone,” he said. “I called 10 phone numbers and no one picked up!

“What do you think a reader with a story tip would do? What if a source was trying to return a call? What if a reader was calling to compliment us? They’d get frustrated and hang up. We’re in the business to serve our readers. Get your people to do their jobs and answer the damn phones!”

He was right, and I was guilty. I often let voicemail screen my calls. His small sampling indicated I wasn’t alone. If I recall correctly, the phone would ring three times and go to voice mail. Where once the phone would ring until it was answered, now it was simple to ignore.

He reminded me that readers were our life-line to the community. Rather than avoiding them, I should have initiated and embraced the conversation with them.

In the end, the new phone system may have improved our efficiency, and the bean counters would have said it improved our productivity because it reduced personnel costs.

But it hurt hurt our effectiveness in serving our community needs, which, for a local newspaper, was a terrible trade-off.


Journalism: It’s about the people you serve

Madison Forsey, a sharp broadcast student at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, discovered an important truth about journalism the other day when she visited the News Reporter in Whiteville. She wasn’t expecting much when she pulled into the paper’s parking lot. Rural North Carolina. Small town. Print’s dying. You know the drill.

Then she walked in the door.

“It was buzzing. Full of friendly people working on everything from digital advertising content, to what would be in Thursday’s paper.  Each and every person had a smile on their face, and after sitting down with them and meeting almost the entire staff, I knew why.

“They love what they do. They believe in what they do, and who they do it for. They stressed that journalism should never be about the money, but about the people you serve.”

The people you serve. The people who work for a small-town newspaper know who they serve because they talk with them every day. When I was a practicing journalist, I admit that I sometimes forgot about those people. I got caught up in chasing the big story, or I followed the horse race rather than report the issues, or I got distracted by financial problems at the paper.

It’s appropriate that she learned that lesson in Whiteville, too, because she and another student went there to report a story about news deserts and how the News Reporter is swimming hard against the tide. Madison pulled together a wonderful story about the News Reporter, and Mary Glen Hatcher wrote about Smithfield, which lost its local paper two years ago.

Madison had the opportunity to talk with Les High, the publisher of the News Reporter, and he taught her a second vital lesson about journalism. “He said something I think should be plastered on the walls of every journalism school across the country: opinions are easy, but facts are hard.”

Serve your community and get the facts. Not a bad day’s lesson.

Read Madison’s entire post. And watch her broadcast piece.


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O features a three-part series on bail reform. “The law in North Carolina says judges and magistrates must confine people before their trials only if they pose a danger, threaten to flee or might destroy evidence. Yet statewide, 67 percent of people arrested for misdemeanors in 2017 got a secured bond from a judge or magistrate — meaning they had to pay, put up collateral or hire a bail bondsman to go free before their trials.” And, based on this series, this should be addressed and changed.

The News & Observer also features a Charlotte Observer story with a breathtaking lead: “North Carolina paid prison officers more than $45 million in overtime last year, about 10 times more than it did in 2011, data show.” Apparently, the state can’t hire enough guards.

Fayetteville: Readers who like true crime stories will be interested in this story in the Observer about law enforcement’s pursuit and arrest of the man police believe kidnapped and killed a 13-year-old girl. The Observer reviewed hundreds of pages of search warrants and court orders to show some of the inner workings of the investigation. Powerful reporting and writing here.

Charlotte: The Observer writes of developers using shady means to get people to see them their property. “That ends up targeting people that are economically disadvantaged, and may not have the knowledge to say ‘OK, I need to sell my house, I haven’t been able to sell it any other way. Now here’s this guy that showed up on my doorstep — that’s the way I should go,’ ” he said.

Hickory: Because it’s February, the Daily Record asked six people their opinions on why Black History Month matters. Normally I wouldn’t highlight this, except for the annual questions white people raise about “when do we get a White History Month?” Any time we can fight ignorance, we should.