Sunday sampler

Many North Carolina newspapers feature stories about churches opening for parishioners. All fine. And then there’s this:

Greensboro: 4,000 people go to the racetrack – one in 10 wearing masks — with social distancing non-existent. It’s as if people have decided that being tired of the virus is enough to defeat it. “I’ve done the recommendations for the last two months or so, and this is the first time I’ve kind of been out amongst folks. … I don’t know if this is the smartest thing. I don’t. But it’s outdoors, and I’m just not keen on closed-in spaces right now.” The Winston-Salem Journal has a dozen photos that will really depress the people who believe that the virus exists.

Winston-Salem: Do students forget stuff they learned over the summer? You bet. So what if they haven’t been in school since March? The Journal look at how Forsyth schools are preparing to catch them up before school starts again — if it ever does. “It estimated that students will return in the fall of 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains relative to a typical school year, and 50% of the learning gains in some grades in math. In some cases, students may fall behind a full year in math.”

Charlotte: My bet is that most North Carolinian’s suspect that Sen. Richard Burr did use his inside information to enrich himself, but the Observer examines whether he will be held accountable. It’s not clear. “Lawmakers are barred by the 2012 STOCK Act from insider trading, or using “material, nonpublic information to purchase or sell a security, including using confidential information gained because of one’s Senate position to make a profit or avoid a loss.” The bill passed the Senate 96-3. Burr voted “no.” He would be the first lawmaker charged under the act if he’s charged.”


I started a post-graduate summer school class

Somewhere around the time I was talking with a student about a story on the last two months of her senior year AND telling a student whose internship was canceled what she should do over the summer instead, I had an idea:

What could I do to help students? Could I set something up to help graduates who are facing a flat-lined job market? Something to hone their skills and network and commiserate? And maybe lift their spirits along the way?

So I tweeted about it.

And got a lot of ideas.

Last night, I had my first session. I invited 23 former students, all recent grads, all looking for work. Fifteen showed up and another three let me know they couldn’t meet this week but wanted to be included.

They told me they wanted to hear from smart people on freelancing; on getting a job; on free writing on a blog; on creating social media for a brand; on learning new skills. They wanted to get feedback on their writing so they could keep their skills sharp, and they wanted me to give them writing “assignments.”

As you can see in the photo above, one person — lower right hand corner — is on the phone. While in the Zoom session, she got a call with a job offer at a television station! That jazzed the “class.”

I came away energized and inspired by the entire experience. I don’t know how long this will last, but I’ll keep it up as long as they are interested.

If you’re a media pro and have ideas or want to contribute, let me know.


Chris Cotillo: Making the magic happen


It’s always fun when good guys get recognition for doing good.

Chris Cotillo, who covers the Boston Red Sox for MassLive, has been auctioning off his collection of memorabilia — 200 items — and another 150 that others have donated to help those in need during this pandemic. He ran the auction on his Twitter feed; he has 42,000 followers. So far he’s raised more than $57,000 for food banks and other charities across the country. Here’s the full story.

He was interviewed on CNN this morning. (I’ll post the video if CNN does. That photo above is from the Boston CBS affiliate which interviewed him a few days ago. Note the UNC and Chapel Hill background.)

Chris was in my class at UNC two years ago. (First I wrote that I taught him, but I’m not sure that is true. He was pretty well fully baked as a journalist even then.) He was already an entrepreneur. When he was still in high school he was writing for SB Nation and MLB Daily Dish. He got all kinds of scoops, attracted thousands of Twitter followers, came to Carolina to study journalism and continued his reporting. (In my class, he couldn’t meet deadlines, but that’s another matter.)

When the pandemic hit and unemployment soared, he realized that perhaps his baseball cards and autographs might be able to help others.

“Really was just a ‘hey let’s try this’ thing,” he texted me. “Had no idea it would work.”

“Hey let’s try this” is often how the magic happens.

Sunday sampler

Several of N.C.’s newspaper front pages are devoid of coronavirus stories. It seems as if some newspaper editors, like some citizens, are ready for life to move on, too. Related, the News & Observer reports on its front page that “the state’s number of positive tests took its biggest single-day jump since the state’s first case was reported March 3.”

Just putting that news judgment into perspective. There remain some pandemic stories worth telling.

Raleigh: The N&O examines the rate of the disease in minority and poor populations. “The prevalence of COVID-19 among minorities and the poor is a public health threat not just for those communities, advocates and epidemiologists say, because the illness will spread beyond them.”

Charlotte: I was at the grocery store yesterday, wearing a mask. Among the approximately 100 people there, maybe 5 of us wore masks. And social distancing? Haha. So, I was interested in the Observer story about people getting out. “Over a half mile, a reporter with his wife and dog had to leave the nine-foot-wide trail about 10 times to maintain six-foot gaps with passersby. People were pleasant, sharing “hellos” and “good mornings” even as they didn’t share the space.”

Related: Both Charlotte and Raleigh have published stories about the reopening and whether people were wearing masks and social distancing. Short answer: A lot of people seem to think they are impervious to the virus.
Greensboro: For artists, the pandemic has spurred creativity. Thank god. The News & Record tracks some of them in six different stories, all good. “Each shows how the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting quarantine have spurred artists to create new art. ‘We all have the urge to create,’ Rice said. ‘This time in quarantine has given us more power to do so.'”
One of the News & Record’s stories is about Andy Eversole, who wrote a song about being separated from his girlfriend during the pandemic. And that allows me to link to Elizabeth Holmes’ story of a few months ago about Eversole that reunited him with his girlfriend via Zoom.

Finally, in a strange judgment call, the Fayetteville Observer has a story stripped across the top of its front page with the headline: “Restaurants can resume with new rules.” I was surprised because I knew that North Carolina restaurants are still closed for dining. Then I saw the story was out of New Orleans and has nothing to do with North Carolina.

Transparency is important! Unless you’re a legislator

What if law enforcement suspected someone of violating the law and subpoenaed his emails. Should investigators be able to get them? I think most people would say yes.

Should North Carolina’s citizens know the thought process that legislators go through as they write laws. I think most people would say yes to that, too.

Now, attorneys are arguing whether North Carolina lawmakers have to turn over emails that might show their communications while writing the state’s voter ID law. You remember that one, right? That’s the law that the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled had “discriminatory intent” as a motivating factor. As in, discriminating against minorities.

It was the law that replaced the 2013 voter ID law struck down by the courts for targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

I get the sense there may be a pattern guiding lawmakers here.

The News & Observer explains why this is a legal question: “When state lawmakers wrote North Carolina’s public records laws decades ago, they not only exempted themselves from those rules but also gave themselves extra protections, called ‘legislative privilege.’ That allows them to refuse to testify or turn over documents in court cases, even when other people or businesses wouldn’t be able to refuse.”

You might think that if race wasn’t part of their discussion, they would have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. In truth, when talking about privacy, I think that’s a bogus argument. It’s not the government’s business.

But here, we’re discussing public policy conducted by lawmakers who are paid by N.C. taxpayers. I think it is fair to discover what motivated their thinking when writing a law that courts have said purposely discriminate against a class of citizens. You might even think that they would want to release their emails to prove that race was not a motivating factor.

Oh, wait. The statutes say they don’t have to if they don’t want to. And they don’t want to so there. Read the full story.



Sunday sampler

With graduations, Mother’s Day and the pandemic, North Carolina’s front pages are loaded.

Charlotte: The Observer takes us inside a Salisbury nursing home. “The Citadel’s managers, according to the nurses’ affidavits, failed for weeks to respond effectively to signs of the emerging pandemic. As the virus spread, managers ordered nurses not to wear masks while failing to provide protective clothing or test the workers on site. When nurses and other employees got sick, they were pressured to come to work anyway, the affidavits say. Those who could work frequently found themselves placed in impossible positions of being forced to treat dozens of elderly and sometimes dangerously ill patients by themselves.”

Also Charlotte: Did the area medical providers neglect the most vulnerable neighborhoods when they set up COVID test centers? “Now, commissioners Vilma Leake, Mark Jerrell and Susan Harden and the local chapter of the NAACP say early decisions by Atrium and Novant contributed to unequal access to testing and medical treatment as the virus began spreading across the county. “They have put my people on death row,’ said Leake, who represents some of the poorest neighborhoods in the county in west Charlotte. ‘Seniors are coming up to me saying, ‘What future do we have to look forward to? They have written our death certificates.’”

And from my former students who were going to graduate today:

Greensboro: A short history lesson from WWII about a young girl who lived through the horrors of war and walked miles barefoot to get to safety in Germany by Eva Ellenburg.

Raleigh: How do you get all of your friends to your wedding reception in the midst of a shelter-at-home pandemic? Chapel Fowler explains in the News & Observer. Photos by Trent Brown.

The joys of reading: It was 33 years ago that I bought this book

With my lifeline to literary sanity – the public library – closed, I have turned to my overloaded shelves of books. Bought months and years ago but never read, these books have waited for this moment in the sun. Or, more accurately, waited their turn to sit on the top of the stack on the bedside table.

A friend, facing the same dilemma, texted me to say that he had just finished rereading “Catch 22” and was going to reread “Lonesome Dove” next. “Catch-22” was my favorite book in college; I still own my 95-cent paperback edition. It’s complete with my original marginalia; it was assigned reading in an “Art of Satire” course in college. “Lonesome Dove” is possibly my favorite book, period. One night, after I got home from the editing desk at midnight, I stayed up all night reading it, stopping only because I had to report back to work at 7 a.m.

I thought about following my friend’s lead. But my history of rereading favorite usually turns out badly. With the exception of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I’ve been disappointed by second reads of favorite novels. I decided I was ready to discover “new” writers and ideas. So, in a stack are “Waiting” by Ha Jin; “Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole; “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace; “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch; and “Broken” by Don Winslow. (Yes, Winslow is a new one, but he’s the best and I reading everything he writes.)

On the top of the stack is Juan Williams’ “Eyes on the Prize,” and I’m 120 pages in. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m only 33 years late to discovering this wonderful book about the civil rights struggle in 20th century America. I knew about Emmett Till and the Little Rock Nine and Montgomery’s bus boycott and the Freedom Riders, but I didn’t know as much as I should have to be this old and this educated. Still to come are Selma and Birmingham and the March on Washington. I’m going to turn to it as soon as I finish this post.

It’s never too late to discover.


My mom throws shade

One more thing about the teaching award.

Five years ago, I was invited to speak at the ZTA academic achievement banquet at UNC. Several of my students were Zetas — and both of my daughters — and I was honored to speak to the sorority.

I mentioned it to my mother during a phone call.

Me: “I’m going to speak to a sorority’s academic achievement banquet tonight.”

Her: “An academic achievement banquet?”

Me: “Yes, ma’am.”

Her: “You?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Her: “I never thought I’d live long enough to hear your name and ‘academic achievement’ in the same sentence.”


I was a B-minus student in a family of straight A students. She was being funny in that “you’re-not-in-school-now-so-we-can-joke-about-it” kind of way. Yeah, I showed you, Mom!

Sunday sampler

Morganton: ReopenNC folks rallied in Morganton, saying they were standing up for their constitutional rights.  Also, on the front page: “A ninth person with COVID-19 in Burke County has died, and the total number of cases has grown to 108.”

Winston-Salem: This shelter-in-“place business isn’t helping our mental health, the Journal reports. “’If I told you that you will have a new set of social norms forced upon you, that the ways you showed people you care is seen as a threat, that you’ll have to change the way you get food and the way you eat — and this doesn’t even take into account the threat of illness — it would be incredibly overwhelming and stressful,’ said Heath Greene, a clinical psychologist who teaches psychology at Wake Forest University.” I don’t know; as an introvert, I’m good.

Raleigh: Churches are getting beat up by COVID like everything else (except Zoom), the News & Observer says. “Religious leaders say some churches, synagogues and mosques — particularly those that already were struggling — will come out of the national and statewide shutdown with such dire funding problems that they likely will be forced to close or combine with another congregation.”

Finally, a special appearance on the front of the Arts & Living section of the N&O: Hannah McClellan and Will Melfi, two students in my Media Hub class. Their story is about St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh. It’s special. Read it.

Writing is a superpower

Every semester, on the day of finals, I ask my feature writing students to write a note explaining “Why I write.” I do it because they should know their motivations for writing. And every year, they bowl me over.

Interestingly, there are a lot more “I write because I can’t say it out loud” than I normally see. I’m not sure what that’s about, but I have my suspicions.

Some samples:

“I see writing as a way to snap the world into a specific focus–whether it helps a reader see someone/something in a new light, evokes a feeling, or gives them a story to carry with them. Stories matter. They can change someone’s mood or change their mind.

“And finally, I write because I cannot help it.”


“When I’m writing, I feel like when I’m writing something new, I’m carving my own unique voice, sharing a pastime that the greatest writers and storytellers that have ever lived have done. When I write the first word of a story, there’s no difference between me and Hemingway or Twain or Joyce. Writing offers limitless potential.”


“I write music because there are songs that need to come out. I write fiction because I create stories that want to be told. I write poetry because there are words inside me that want to be heard. I write nonfiction because the lives of people around me desire to be shared. I write because what spills out cannot be wasted on passing ears. I write because I am an artist and art will come out whichever way it pleases that day.”


“I write because I want to uncover stories that often go untold and overshadowed. I believe my purpose is to help others see the value in telling their stories.”


“I write to be able to take a moment in time and keep it forever.”


“It’s also something really satisfying in creating or telling a story and once you’re done writing it, you read over it and you’re like ‘dang, I wrote that.'”


“My favorite films always rebel against established narrative arcs. They are moody and contemplative with no action to speak of. That’s the kind of writer I was trying to be, but really I needed to learn the rules before I could try to break them.”


“Writing has the power to inspire a lot of good and change in the world, big and small.  I chose to become a writer honestly because I think it’s the best way I can use my passions to do some good in the world.”


“I write because representation is important, and I come from a little niche of life that I think most people don’t understand or are afraid of. I write to show people my worldview, and the stories that are so big to me that others might never be aware of.”


“I write because it’s powerful. Words can make people laugh and cry. They make people change their minds about things they’ve held as solid beliefs. It really is a superpower, and I hope to make the most of it.”