Sunday sampler

Asheville: The GOP legislature has a pattern of meddling in municipal government, and this story in the Citizen-Times is yet another illustration of the bullying tactics Republican legislators are using to force their partisan agenda onto cities. I like this story because the Democratic senator who lives in Asheville calls the sponsor of the law – who lives in Hendersonville – out on his bullshit. (A bonus: The GOP lawmaker called the Democrats comments “possibly perfidious,” forcing most readers to their dictionaries.)

Charlotte:  Can’t pay your court-ordered fine? You get put in jail. At taxpayer expense. Judges in Mecklenburg County are going to do something about that, holding hearing to determine a defendant’s economic status before levying a penalty. “On any given day at the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 300 people – 18 percent of the average daily inmate population – are locked up solely because they failed or can’t afford to pay fines or other monetary penalties attached to their criminal cases, according to county figures.”

Raleigh: The academic-athletic scandal at UNC will never die, will it? “UNC-Chapel Hill’s accreditor says it will look into statements the university made to an NCAA panel at an August hearing that showed support for classes at the heart of a long-running academic scandal that involved a disproportionate number of athletes.Those statements, made behind closed doors in August and recently disclosed by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in its decision not to punish UNC, appear to contradict a promise UNC made four years ago to the accreditor that the classes would not be counted towards graduation.”

Lenoir: News-Topic editor Guy Lucas will also become publisher. Guy says on Facebook that he has forfeited his soul. I doubt that. His dignity maybe.

Sunday sampler

Tuesday is Election Day, which means that many newspapers front pages featured election previews. Thank god for newspapers because without them I don’t know where you’re going to get the information in an easier to use format. (Not here, that’s for sure.) And it means that the page 1 real estate is limited for good enterprise stories. Here are two:

Raleigh: So much of what the state legislature has done in recent years has been partisan hackery that it would be a useful exercise for the editorial board at the News & Observer to rank them. Messing around with the state judiciary has to rank toward the top. (You know that when legislators bitch about activist judges, they mean they don’t like their rulings. No surprise the legislators don’t like judicial rulings as they’ve lost many lawsuits over the past six or seven years.) The N&O reviews the most recent of the legislature’s attack on the judiciary, and the pushback by some judges who better understand the state Constitution.

 

Sunday sampler

It’s a good day to be a state newspaper reader.

Charlotte: With words and video, the Observer tells a stark story of how dangerous prisons are. Reading the list of guards and employees killed within prison walls is painful. And part of it is danger of the state’s own making. “In prisons across North Carolina, severe staff shortages endanger officers and inmates, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. At some prisons, including Pasquotank and Bertie, more than one of every four officer positions was vacant last year, state data show.”

The Observer also reminds us that it’s not just national elections that attract dark money — local elections get it, too. Great. “HB2 and the national prominence that that put on Charlotte gives groups more incentive to play here,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “They see how local decisions can be relevant to their national agendas.”

Fayetteville: Most college basketball fans are aware that high school private schools can attract top high school players. Private schools and public schools have different rules when it comes to students participating in sports. The Observer examines that and whether it gives private schools an unfair advantage.

Greensboro: N.C. has some of the best, least expensive public universities in the nation. Despite that, more and more high school students are going out of state to college. The News & Record looks at why. And there are a number of reasons. The top out-of-state destination surprised me: Liberty University. The other surprise for me was that of the top 10 destinations, four were online schools. It’s a good piece.

Raleigh: Maybe the UNC Board of Governors should read the News & Record’s story. The N&O takes a hard look at the politicization of the board. “The entanglements have led to questions about the board’s independence and its ability to make decisions in the best interest of the 225,000 students enrolled in the university system. Faculty leaders have voiced opposition about the board’s intervention into campus and academic matters in recent months.”

Carteret County: Last week I praised the Daily Courier for stripping a story across the top of the page about enrollment for Obamacare beginning Nov. 1 for Obamacare. This week, I praise the News-Times for the same thing: making health care an important news judgment issue. If the Trump Administration is not going to let people know about health care options, the news media should. Commendable.

Sunday sampler

Good stuff from N.C. newspaper front pages today.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has two good ones. First, a piece about how 10 county employees got more than $2 million in pay bonuses over the course of three years without a word of public discussion. “Contracts and vaguely worded budget ordinances approved by commissioners show former Buncombe County manager Wanda Greene, now the subject of a federal investigation, exercised broad authority with little direction to implement extra pay.”

The second story is about a prisoner in the county jail who died after apparently ingesting meth. Two unidentified witnesses to the death say the official version of the events in the jail is wrong and that the prisoner’s life could have been saved. Her death is tragic. Meanwhile, thanks to the General Assembly, “Video surveillance was taken that day, but it is not a public record under North Carolina law.”

Raleigh: Meanwhile, the N&O follows its outstanding jail deaths project with a story about inmates in serious physical distress but remained behind bars. “Dr. Marc Stern, a former medical director for Washington state’s prisons, said when jails struggle with inmate health care, the cause is usually traced back to funding.”

Charlotte: Seventy-three people are homicide victims in Charlotte so far this year.  “Victims were business owners, parents, veterans and students. The victims have a median age of 29. More than 60 percent are black men. And at least three-quarters were killed with a gun.Some were trying to get their lives back on track after getting involved with crime; some were just barely starting their lives. Nine victims so far were younger than 20.” The Observer intends to tell their stories and asks the community for help. Commendable.

Forest City: The Daily Courier has a strip story across the top of the page about enrollment beginning Nov. 1 for Obamacare. I congratulate the paper for making health care an important news judgment issue. If the Trump Administration is not going to let people know about health care options, the news media should. Commendable.

Winston-Salem: The Journal localizes “#MeToo.” “Paige Meltzer, the director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University, said the “Me Too” movement has united men and women in the uphill battle against sexual assault and changing societal mentalities.”

 

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: When BH Media bought the News & Record, there was thought that it was doing it not for the love of the newspaper business, but for the value of the land the newspaper building sat on. The News & Record writes a long piece about the possible sale of that land, and its role in downtown development. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute calls it a win-win for the paper and the city. I say, that’s only true if the money goes back into the paper, rather than to corporate stockholders. That’s a big if.

Both the Fayetteville Observer and the Wilmington Star-News have one-year anniversary stories on Hurricane Matthew. The papers, particularly Fayetteville, have been aggressive in keeping attention on the victims of the hurricane.”A year later, the legacy of Matthew scars every part of the region. Entire blocks of homes remain gutted, their owners enduring the aggravation of governmental red tape. Economic relief has been slow and inadequate, with more than 2,000 eligible homeowners in eastern North Carolina waiting for additional aid. Many families continue to pay mortgages on homes they can’t live in, while also paying rent on temporary places.”

Related, a few students in one of my classes wrote about Windsor, N.C., which has been flooded several times in the past 20 years, including by Hurricane Matthew.

Asheville: Want to see how not to handle government salaries? Read the story in the Citizen-Times about a former county manager who received a six-figure check that maybe she doesn’t deserve. Of course, few involved are talking because the public records request was released as part of a Friday news dump.

 

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Like people, churches live and they die. The News & Record tells the story of a 101-year-old Greensboro church – Florida Street Baptist – that is closing its doors at the end of the year. It’s a story about people, people who were baptized, got married and attended funerals in the same church. And it’s a story about religion, as people are opting out of church attendance, a trend that is growing across the nation.

Yep, one story. But maybe it’s just me.

Sunday sampler

Courtesy of newseum.org

Courtesy of newseum.org

Fayetteville: From the display to the reporting and writing, the Observer does an excellent job examining the state child welfare system. And its report raises disturbing questions and tragic answers. “Fayetteville Observer investigation found more than 120 children have died in the state within a year of their parents or caregivers being referred to a DSS agency. Some of those deaths, which go back nearly a decade, were from undetermined causes or accidents. But 31 of the children were killed — beaten to death, shot, drowned, smothered or poisoned by drugs…Through public records and interviews over several months, the Observer found dozens of examples across North Carolina where children connected to DSS died because social workers failed to fully investigate parents or properly assess safety risks.”

Yes, those are the names of the dead children on the front page.

Raleigh: It’s a surprise to see Barbara Stager on the front page. Jerry Bledsoe and my paper wrote in-depth about her years ago. She’s a convicted murderer, but she’s having lunch outside of prison, which upsets some, including her victim’s first wife. It’s a compelling story all the way around, well-told by the N&O.

Raleigh: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. The N&O looks at the cuts in the state Department of Environmental Quality. Frightening for those of us who appreciate clean air and clean water. “Dozens of environmental protection jobs have disappeared, in specialties ranging from the coast to rivers and air pollution. And a months-long backlog of paperwork mean more companies are able to operate under outdated permits, without recent oversight. The cuts have led to real consequences, said Grady McCallie, policy director for the environmental group N.C. Conservation Network, including a weakened ability for the state to respond to issues like the pollution in the Cape Fear River that came to light this summer.”

Raleigh: (Yes, a three-fer for the N&O; a first here at the Sampler.) A fun piece about a collector of Earl Scruggs-related memorabilia in Durham. “It’s not just somebody’s collection,” said Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records, the formerly Durham-based bluegrass label. “What he has on display is a man’s lifetime passion. His showroom is the Louvre of traditional bluegrass, and as docent, he lives and breathes everything in there. It’s spectacular.”

Morganton: The News Herald, to its credit, writes about a survey that finds its area is last in the nation when it comes to exercise. Last. It doesn’t actually examine why that is, unfortunately.

 

Sunday sampler

If this Sunday is an example, newspaper staffs are hard at work after summer vacations.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times explores wage stagnation in Western North Carolina and reports moderately good news. It’s gone up 8 percent year over year to $796. “‘This is the largest annual absolute and percentage increase in at least 15 years,’ said Tom Tveidt, an economist and founder of Syneva Economics in Asheville, adding that the database goes back to 2001.” I say moderately good news because the area still lags behind state and national figures.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times also analyzes the news last week that the GOP is the state’s third largest “party” behind Democrats and Unaffiliated. “Here’s the party pooper for Dems: The figures show the number of registered Democrats in the state dropped by nearly 130,000 over the past five years, while the number of Republicans increased by more than 26,000.”

Charlotte: Because I don’t live in Charlotte, the story about how the police department has responded to officer-involved fatal shootings didn’t interest me that much. But what does is how the Observer is covering it: with a three-part series on the status of the promised changes the city made a year ago.

Fayetteville: I live near a lake with a dam, which is maintained by my neighborhood association. It’s also used by people who aren’t members of the association. So, the Observer’s story about private dams damaged by Hurricane Matthew interested me. Homeowners are thinking of suing the city of Fayettevile for help repairing the dams. Fayetteville says it can’t legally use public funds for private projects, a concept which is laughable to anyone who pays attention to development.

Raleigh: The N&O has an excellent write-through on the efforts the UNC Board of Governors is undertaking to change the university system. The board sounds a lot like the GOP Congress, acting “disturbed” by things the president says and does, and then going along with him. I work as, basically, a contract employee of the university and I assure you that the cuts I’m seeing are not to the benefit of the students.

Raleigh: While state legislators often say they want government to operate like a business, that seems to stop when it comes to “the customer is always right.” So when the government screws up, it boomerangs to hurt citizens. And in the case the N&O writes about, the most vulnerable ones. Sixty people have gotten notice that the state had been putting too much money in their disability checks for more than 10 years, and now it planned to collect.

Wilmington: “Last year, 55 babies were born drug positive at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. That’s more than one a week…. Those newborns join the ranks of about 400 children in New Hanover County currently in need of foster care.” A good piece about what opioids are doing to children and the system.

Sunday sampler

Most of the state’s newspapers have Irma on their front pages, which sort of makes sense. I say sort of because weather stories are tough for newspapers. The paper goes to press before midnight and isn’t read until, what, 7 a.m. on Sunday? It’s easier to get an updated forecast by turning on the TV when you get up. But whatever; there are other good stories.

Raleigh: The N&O has a piece about what I call a strange expense by the state Supreme Court. But I care less about the story than the writer, Joe Neff. Joe, one of the state’s best investigative reporters, is leaving the paper to work for the Marshall Project. He joins Mandy Locke, who left last month. The leader of the investigative team, Steve Riley, is going to work at the Houston Chronicle. By my count, that leaves only Dan Kane and David Raynor on the investigative team. I assume the N&O is going to reload, but these are huge talent and institutional memory losses for the paper. In a broader sense, they are losses for the state’s citizens who have benefitted from the work they’ve done holding miscreants in state government accountable. Presumably, some of these departures are a result of the digital first initiative undertaken by McClatchy papers. Regardless, iIt is time for the state’s other large papers to redouble efforts to do tough-minded investigative work.

Raleigh: Meanwhile, the N&O reports on the stalled progress of a three-year-old murder case in the small town of Salemburg. If nothing else, the story is one of how the homicide of an 11-year-old girl can affect dozens of people on the victim’s side and the suspect’s.

Fayetteville: And I promise I’m not in a dark mood this morning, but the Observer features a story about a 4-year-old who went missing in 2000. The boy gathered his two dogs and walked out of the house, never to return. But the Sheriff Department’s search continues even now.

The Vanishing Newspaper, revisited

A journalist friend stopped by the house Sunday, and he reminded me of a conversation we had 10 or 12 years ago. He had asked then when I thought the News & Record, where I was editor at the time, would close its doors. I guessed about 30 years.

He asked me yesterday if I wanted to reconsider.

It reminded me of this post in 2011 in which I scoffed at a USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future report, which said 2017 was the drop-dead date for most newspapers.

“Circulation of print newspapers continues to plummet, and we believe that the only print newspapers that will survive will be at the extremes of the medium – the largest and the smallest,” said Cole. It’s likely that only four major daily newspapers will continue in print form: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.  At the other extreme, local weekly newspapers may still survive.”

Four months left in 2017.

Without question, newspapers continue their declines in revenue and readership. Newspaper companies are consolidating, and expanding more into digital-first thinking. For the print reader, the outlook is terrible. Newspapers are thin. Today’s News & Record, covering the third largest city in North Carolina, is 20 pages. News staffs have suffered from 10 years of attrition. News coverage itself is often inconsequential. As consolidation continues, printing often moves off-site so that late news doesn’t make the paper. (High school football games, once a staple of Saturday sports, don’t make deadline.)

Yet, newspapers, both those at the extremes and those in the middle, are still churning it out. Much of that is thanks to advertisers who want to get their messages into the homes. Younger people aren’t reading papers. But for older ones, like me, who like the newspaper habit of scanning and turning pages — they’ll stop the paper when it’s pried from their cold dead hands.

In the 2011 post, I encouraged newspaper companies to finally get their shit together. I hope that those trying new things with digital are successful, but I’m no longer optimistic. Too little, too late and too much corporate emphasis on profit over quality and over community.

As always, when a newspaper dies, the community suffers. I was reminded of that when I saw this tweet.

Andrew Kaczynski of CNN deftly took it apart it with a scalpel:

https://twitter.com/KFILE/status/904491302741561345

This is what happens when people aren’t reading newspapers or watching mainstream news on television. They assume crap they read online is true. My friend and colleague Penny Abernathy at the UNC School of Media and Journalism has written extensively about news deserts.

It’s not pretty.

So, back to my conversation with my friend yesterday who asked, “Do you want to reconsider how many years the newspaper has left?”

I said 10 years. He said five. I hope he’s wrong, but I fear he’s right.

It’s scary.