Why they write



Every semester, I ask my students to tell me why they write. And when I say “tell” I mean write. This semester — one that is the third in which they spent all or part of the semester learning remotely — their responses are more reflective than normal. Many of them mentioned that they write so they can make sense of the thoughts pingponging around in their heads. Which seems to be as good a reason as any other.

This is a class full of smart people; people who may be writers or may not. But they’re all going to be successful. Some excerpts from their writing:

Stories are the ties that bind us as humans, and I can’t resist a good story. That’s why I’ve spent most of my life creating them in some way: first fanfictions, fiction writing and now news stories and feature pieces. Stories can create the empathy we need to sustain a society.


Empathy and knowledge are our weapons to fight hate, expose problems and come together. Writing has been my favorite way to merge the two together for others to consume, and maybe in some small way, we can all be better for it.


Those special moments of humanity when two people can bond, and forever connect, over the power of words. When journalism is more than words on a page, but a moment of shared appreciation.


I wish I could tell you I write to bring about justice, to help those who need it, to enlighten the world of somebody’s struggle. I wish I could say I write because I desperately have to let the world see who I am or know what I’ve gone through. But I don’t. I write for wholly selfish reasons.


I write because, at a certain point, I’d boil over if I kept all of the things I’m thinking inside my brain.


Maybe I hide behind my writing, but when I write I can be anyone that I want to be, a cynic, a critic, a poet.

When I write, I am forced to look within myself. It makes me question what I know. I hope those who read my writing question what they know — about me, but also about themselves.


My writing remains my strongest form of communication. It’s the key that opens up the box inside me that hides who I really am – the person few people get to see.


When my words started floating off those pages and into conversations, I realized other people had stories just like mine and stories that were very different. They were all worthy of being heard, but I didn’t hear them until I asked the right questions.


What I hope to give with the words I write now is what those journals gave me growing up — a place where my words would be heard. It’s shooting for the moon, and I often miss. But I try again, I ask new questions, I write fresh words. Because the stars aren’t enough.

The lifespan of a scoop

When Maddie Ellis’ story about the Disaster Girl made the New York Times on Thursday, it was a sweet, sweet moment for her and for me. Except it wasn’t Maddie’s story; it was a story written by a Times writer.

But Maddie’s story — a scoop, if you will — started it all.

Welcome to story sharing — story adapting, really — in the media ecosystem. The lifetime of a scoop — an exclusive — is short and soon forgotten.

It started when one of my Media Hub student teams was sitting around talking about stories last week. One student heard that Zoe Roth, aka the Disaster Girl, and now a senior at UNC, had just sold an NFT of that image above for half a million dollars. For the uninitiated, the Disaster Girl photo became a viral meme a decade ago. An example:

I know a national story when I hear one. I mean, $500,000? In crytocurrency? For a hot new type of collectible? I gave two seconds of thought about treating it as if it were a typical news story, getting the who, what, when, where, why and how in the first couple of paragraphs. But any first-year journalism student can write that. I wanted to tell Zoe’s  story, as well as report the impact.

That student who found it didn’t have time to do it, and I passed it to Maddie, who is a student in my feature writing class. I knew she could tell the story the way I was thinking about it and that Zoe deserved. We needed a quick turnaround on it; news doesn’t lay low for long on a 25,000-student campus, especially one with as good a news organization as the Daily Tar Heel. Maddie is a writer for the DTH, and I made her promise not to leak it to her colleagues.

As expected, Maddie nailed the story, as did Nash Consing, who shot photos. We published it on the Media Hub website last Sunday afternoon. I emailed Jessica Banov, an editor at the News & Observer who works with the Media Hub class, to consider it for publication.

The N&O published it online Tuesday and on the front page Wednesday. Maddie got the byline, and it was attributed to UNC Media Hub, which is what we ask when news outlets publish the class work. The story took off from there.

First, the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, MarketWatch and Gizmodo picked up the storyline. The storyline, not Maddie’s story. They all rewrote Maddie’s story — shortened it — and linked to her story in the N&O. (The N&O said later that her story received  thousands of page views.)

Thursday, it appeared in the New York Times. By Friday, it had spread to NPR and the New York Post and the New York Daily News and the BBC, and People, among others. And in Spain and France and Germany. By this time, the link to the N&O had been dropped, presumably because the reporters had talked with Zoe or they added additional information about NFTs or the buyer.

Take a moment to note that, as far as I can tell, the N&O, Durham Herald & the Charlotte Observer — all in the McClatchy group — are the only North Carolina newspapers that published the story, which, as a former newspaper editor, is a mystery to me.

This is the way the news ecosystem works and has worked for year. Once the story is out there, it’s fair game for picking up entirely, reworking it and giving credit to the original source, or rereporting it and making it your own. Many outlets feel the need to put their own byline on a story when there is no obvious need. Granted, Maddie’s story was longer than the publications above wanted. And she wrote it as a narrative rather than a news story. So, the rewriting is warranted if you want a news bite.

But then, this happened: Sonia Rao, a classmate of Maddie’s tweeted at the writer of the New York Times article.

Actually, it was a link to her story on the Media Hub website, which is nice.

Maddie’s story noted that with the sale, Zoe could finally control her own image. It didn’t escape either Maddie’s notice or mine that Maddie lost control of her own scoop, which is the way it goes with scoops.

“I learned so much by writing this story, not just about cryptocurrencies, but about what happens after news breaks,” Maddie told me. “I looked obsessively for links to the original story in national outlets, because I wanted to still feel like I owned that story.

“But I never owned that story — I was just fortunate enough to get to tell it first. It’s just surreal knowing that I made something trend on Twitter. I’m so grateful Zoe shared her story with me, and that I got to write it.”

Here is Zoe now. (Photo by Nash Consing.)

Zoe Roth. Photo by Nash Consing.

Sunday sampler

I took a break because I was uninspired by what I saw. I’m back.

Carteret County: The Department of Social Services received 66 child protective services reports in March, more than double February’s number and March of 2020. The News-Times doesn’t really explain what’s happening, but I’m glad it’s on the case.

Hickory: Businesses post-pandemic can’t find enough employees. Employers – and many of my acquaintances blame government unemployment benefits. Me, I like this opinion from John Quintero: “Typically what happens that we don’t talk about is we try to make it about the workers: ‘What’s wrong with them? Is unemployment too generous?’ … What we never really talk about is, are employers adjusting their wages and their compensation packages?”

Morganton: Republican legislators are at it again, politicizing things that don’t need politicizing. This time it’s schools. A bill has been introduced to make the school board politically partisan. The News Herald made several attempts to get comment from the legislator who introduced the bill, but he didn’t respond. But it has plenty of discussion from officials who oppose it, and their reasons all make sense.

Meanwhile, the paper also has a story about two historians giving a history lesson about the Confederate monument downtown that the Burke Board of Commissioners have declined to take action on. I like their style. The story isn’t posted on the paper’s website that I can find.

Failure is good

“In my freshman year of college, John Robinson taught me failure is good. I got a 15 percent on his first assignment, and it was the lowest grade I’ve ever received.”

What a legacy!

That’s from this post by Brynn Walker, one of my former students in “Writing and Reporting” at UNC-Chapel Hill. The headline of the post is “Teachers Beyond the Classroom.” It was a recognition of teachers whose lessons have stayed with her as she enters the real world. I’m honored to be in there. It appears I’m in good company.

The rest of her paragraph about my class: “It was in the winter, and I remember saying to my friend the temperature is higher than my grade right now. It was only 54 degrees outside. I lost 50 points for spelling someone’s name wrong TWICE. And what did that teach me? People are most important.”

Honestly, I doubt I taught her about failure. She played golf at Carolina and athletes know to grow through failure. As Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.”

Brynn is now a pro golfer. Look for her on the tour.

Sunday sampler, Trump acquitted

Observations of N.C. front pages when they could have done something special with the acquittal of President Trump for the second time. (Thanks to newseum.org for the images below.)

The state’s largest papers – Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston and Greensboro – featured the story, with interesting twists. Raleigh and Winston featured the Senator Burr vote to convict, which was the big surprise of the day. Charlotte had a national story with no mention of the Burr vote. Burlington, Jacksonville and New Bern also had various versions of the impeachment story.

As is their wont, many smaller papers didn’t publish anything about impeachment on their front pages. That’s Morganton, Mooresville, Carteret County, McDowell, Kannapolis and Hendersonville. Notably, two larger papers – Asheville and Fayettevile – didn’t feature the story on their front pages.

I’m not sure if I prefer the reason that Asheville and Fayetteville ignored the story on their front pages because of deadlines or community interest. The vote happened about 4 p.m. so it doesn’t seem as if deadlines would be the cause. You could argue that the vote for acquittal was pre-ordained and not “new news,” but Burr’s vote wasn’t. That was and is news.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: Andrew Carter is one of the premier journalists in the state these days, finding and writing the hell out of stories. He does it again with this piece on Warren County high school being told through its basketball team. (And South Granville’s basketball coach should be ashamed of himself.) I can’t encapsule it; just read it.

Charlotte: The hastag Everything Trump Touches Dies really is true. This time it pertains to Mark Martin, once respected N.C. Supreme Court chief justice. The Charlotte Observer writes of his connection as legal adviser to Donald Trump during his two-month fight to remain as president. “According to the Times, Martin advocated a “radical” constitutional interpretation giving Vice President Mike Pence the authority to reject any state election returns he deemed fraudulent — a theory that legal scholars across the political spectrum dismissed as nonsensical and which even Pence, one of Trump’s most loyal allies, refused to embrace.”

New Bern: The Sun Journal has a fascinating look at the racial disparities of housing in New Bern. Yes, how Black residents were moved out of their homes to make way for “revitalization.” “Since 1980, homes in New Bern’s white neighborhoods have increased in value nearly four times faster than homes in the city’s predominately Black neighborhoods. In the starkest case, a two-bedroom home of about 1,000 square feet in the historic district recently sold for $500,000. That same census tract includes homes of the same size that have been bought this year for $6,000 or even less.”



Going viral, every 4 years

Posting this here so that it doesn’t get lost to me. (I don’t go viral very often so….) The one other time (below) came four years ago on inauguration day.

Sunday sampler, no vaccine edition

Full disclosure: My wife and I were two of the 11,000 people whose vaccine appointments were cancelled because Cone Health didn’t get the vaccines it said the state pledged. A reporter with N.C. Health News asked who I blamed: I said Trump for his administration’s ineptitude for the past year; the state for mixing its messages to local health providers. Fortunately, some of the state’s front pages covered this outrageous mess. Honestly, it’s confusing as officials point fingers, math doesn’t add up and opacity takes the place of transparency.

Greensboro: The News & Record has a pair of stories about the screwup in the state’s vaccination plan. “State officials said Saturday they’re in the difficult position of balancing broad distribution with an urgent need to clear their shelves of vaccine or face the threat that the federal government won’t supply more doses. Cone Health CEO Terry Akin said Saturday night that he still doesn’t have a “cogent” explanation for why the state canceled the health care system’s allocation, especially in light of the Charlotte event.”

High Point: The Enterprise has what I assume is a similar story. I can’t read it because of its paywall.

Hickory: “We’ve had a mass vaccination plan in place for 15 to 20 years, which we exercise, but if you don’t have the vaccine to give people, it doesn’t work the way it should,” she said. “Has it made people lose trust in us and has it made people mad at us? Yes, and I’m sorry.”

Morganton: “We apologize for the long holds, the dropped calls, and, at times, not being able to speak to a live person,” said Kathy Bailey, president and CEO of Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge. “And we’ve all experienced this kind of frustration, but not with something as important as a life-saving vaccination.”

Charlotte and Raleigh both have stories about the efforts to get vaccinated from people who wrote in. tl;dr version: It’s a mess.

On the eve of Trump’s departure….

I wish I had added, “The best president ever!’

Personally, I think it is going to be his mishandling of the pandemic.

I posted that tweet on Facebook and got these suggestions:

From Michele McLellan: Try “The worst president ever.”

From Mark Sutter: I’m reserving “something(s) we found out about after he left office” as a possibility

Sunday sampler

As so much political coverage is horserace driven, I’ll put this sampler in those terms: N.C. newspapers gave readers a dueling perspective of looking forward or looking backward.

Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Morganton, Statesville, Mooresville and Hickory presented an Associated Press package of stories on Trump’s legacy. Headline:
“Examining a legacy.” (I don’t know about the others, but the News & Record published four pages inside.)

Countering that, New Bern, Kinston, Jacksonville, Henderson and Burlington published an Associated Press story looking forward to Biden’s term. Headline: “After Trump, Biden aims to reshape the presidency itself.”

Random thought: So much for local papers going intensely local and avoiding wire copy.

There were other notable stories, though:

Greensboro: The News & Record, beneath the Trump legacy story, has a piece on Greensboro’s mayor’s proposal to require bars and restaurants to be more involved in addressing crimes that occur on their property. This is an effort to reduce the rate of homicides in the city. I can’t find that story on the website, but right now this one leads the page: “Man dies in one of two shootings that injured two other people in Greensboro overnight.”

Charlotte: For those of us who have shopped Belk for our entire lives, this is significant. Belk, the 133-year-old Charlotte-based department store chain, has been pushed to the edge of solvency by a pandemic and the financial vulnerability of private equity ownership, industry experts and financial analysts say. Standard & Poor’s said in an October report that it’s likely the business will run out of cash within a calendar year.”

Raleigh:  The N&O and Pro Publica show how the law, however well-intentioned, can protect businesses that should not be protected. “Signed into law in early May, just days after being proposed, North Carolina’s protections went further than many states, precluding even claims that don’t involve COVID-19 treatment or that stem from staffing shortages that could otherwise be evidence of gross negligence….In a state that has cast itself as a friend to industry, the breadth of North Carolina’s protections spoke to the power of Republicans over the economic agenda and the influence of the health care lobby.”