Sunday sampler

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(Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Between graduation stories and Memorial Day features, there isn’t much new on front pages. But I do like these two:

Gaston — So, everyone knows that drinking and driving is a bad idea. Putting aside the potentially tragic consequences, there’s a high cost to it. The Gazette tells you how much. Putting aside jail time, we’re talking serious money. Serious money. Interesting info.

Raleigh — Fracking has been linked to earthquakes and poisoning water supplies. The N&O updates us on the efforts of companies to do fracking in the state. “Depressed energy prices worldwide and uncertainty over the amount of shale gas in North Carolina have made fracking in the state unappealing to all but small, independent operators. But those wildcatters are having a hard time raising funds to start energy exploration in North Carolina.” Thank you, marketplace.

 

What’d I miss? Oh, nothin.

I once had a boss who didn’t read the paper. At least, I’m pretty certain he didn’t, given the number of times he suggested stories we had just done and the blank looks he gave me when I talked about stories in the paper that day.

I would leave those conversations wondering why he was in the newspaper business, given the lack of attention and respect he paid the journalism.

Now I think I was getting the wrong message. He was inadvertently telling me that the journalism I was producing wasn’t worth his time.

I just returned from two weeks in France. I was basically off the news grid. I didn’t read any papers. I occasionally turned on the television, but I speak no French so the only news I got was from what I could figure out from the crawl on news stations and that wasn’t much. Oh, I figured out that B.B. King had died, that people died when a train in Philadelphia derailed, and the Boston Marathon bomber got the death sentence. That’s about it.

I can’t say that I had a fear of missing out because, you know, France.

But here’s the thing: When I returned, I didn’t get the sense that I missed anything worth knowing. Yes, three more candidates who have no chance of winning entered the GOP presidential race. The NBA playoffs are still going on. Still. Going. On. Deflategate, which I had forgotten about four months ago, is back with the conclusion we all knew four months ago.

When I was a newspaper editor, I used to get mocked by my staff because even when I was on vacation, I kept up with the paper and the news of the day, and I emailed suggestions and ideas. I said I preferred to keep up so I didn’t have to catch up.

Short-term thinking. I should have gone on a news blackout. I should have come back after a week away and evaluated what we had published that actually mattered in the scheme of things. How many government meetings we had covered where nothing significant happened. How many stories of wrecks and break-ins that no one except the person and his neighbors cared about. How many long inside-the-beltway political stories that didn’t provide a true bullshit meter. How many long stories that were published only to fill space.

Such an exercise would have changed my perspective on what a news organization needed to be sensitive to. My news blackout is how most people operate. They don’t follow the news obsessively. They’re in and out — and more of them are moving out of our operations, newspapers and TV. Don’t believe me? There is an easy test if you’re a newspaper: Get a list of people who put in orders for a week-long vacation stop. When they return, ask them about how they kept up with the news from home and whether they feel they missed anything.

I suspect they will tell you how ephemeral the news we think is so important truly is.

Next, do it yourself. Go off the grid during your next vacation. Purposely ignore the news. When you return, gauge how much of what your organization published or broadcast you and your community really care about. Figure out how you can create more of those stories and fewer of the stories that don’t actually matter to more than a handful of people.

I’m not sure what I would have come up with. Maybe a local version of the Skimm as the Charlotte Observer has done. Maybe a personalized email that we would send to subscribers upon their return to the world with the one worth-knowing news events that happened each day they were gone. Maybe something like Billy Penn.

My guess is that one thing is certain if you go on a news blackout: You’ll come back and change how your news organization covers the news.

Of course, I have no idea whether I missed anything that matters to me personally because I wasn’t here and I’m not going to go back to find out.

But eventually, I’ll know what I missed because I, like so many people, subscribe to the philosophy of “if the news is that important, it will find me.” 

Sunday sampler

Update: Attribution error corrected below.

Asheville — When is it OK for a public university to give some students money and not others? Well, whenever they want, of course. But it’s always seemed unfair to me that some athletes representing a school get scholarships and most others don’t. In a smart story, the Citizen-Times examines why some “student athletes” are more special than others. And it is clearly inequitable because it depends upon the sport, the school and the league. (If only college sports had a governing body…hmmm.)

Charlotte — If you ever need an example of why transparency is important in court proceedings, this is good one: Why did Gen. David Petraeus get probation for leaking government secrets? We don’t know because the documents are sealed, thanks to an unusual policy that affects Charlotte and Western North Carolina. The Observer looks at the policy and asks whether Petraeus got special treatment.

Raleigh — The N&O Charlotte — has an excellent article on John Fennebresque, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and the face of a body that is changing the shape of the university system. Fennebresque has rightfully taken the heat for the ouster of UNC President Tom Ross. The N&O’s Observer’s story gives a fuller picture of the man, including his motivations. Fennebresque is still inarticulate on why Ross had to go, but he takes some stands on other issues that are positive.

(Both Charlotte and Raleigh feature the Fennebresque story on their front pages. I mistakenly thought it was an N&O story, which is dumb of me because I know the Observer’s reporter, Pam Kelley.)

Gaston — If you think local elected officials are different from federal ones when it comes to cutting themselves a break, think again…at least in Gaston County. The Gazette shows how a resolution called “A resolution to allow Gaston County commissioners to purchase at their own cost, health insurance after they leave office” was actually to be subsidized by taxpayers. The resolution was rescinded after public outcry.

 

Raleigh — The N&O also has a strong piece on how state agencies apparently ignored federal law requiring them to register voters. It includes this damning anecdote of the daughter of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin who was unable to vote because the elections office had no record of her registration, even though she said she had registered at the DMV, a claim her father, who was there, backed up. Oops.

 

The blog post that I wish every legislator would read

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Jenny Surane, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the former editor of The Daily Tar Heel, has written an important post about media and education. And it has a brilliant title: “The job that I’ve spent the last year learning is not the one I’ll have.” *

Take a moment to read it. It is filled with insight about college students’ news consumption habits and the changing world of news. Her point is that while there are a lot of unanswered questions about the future of journalism — how it will be reported, delivered and paid for — she is undaunted. She is ready to embrace the change and be a trailblazer into the future.

Good. Jenny Surane is a great one to lead the charge. **

But that’s not the reason her post is important.

Her post is important because of what it says about the value of college education. And in a state in which public higher education is under attack in terms of funding and philosophy, Jenny’s post is, well, educational.

Students basically learn two things in college classrooms: how to perform a skill and how to think. In some classes, I have taught students to write clear, focused sentences and easy-to-read, cogent news stories. Those are skills.

In other classes, I have taught them to explore ideas, inspiring — I hope — curiosity, imagination and thought.

What Jenny described in her blog post was a class that prepared her to tackle her future in a rapidly evolving workplace. She explains it best:

More than thirty of the journalism school’s best minds still couldn’t figure out a definitive way to make news profitable. But this class sure did send me away with a lot of ideas for how to get there.

We unpacked so much and we were given the tools and the knowledge to tackle many other issues facing the journalism industry. It was really a privilege to get to speak with some of the brightest minds from our field for a few hours each week.

And it’s kind of scary to think that I’ve spent the last year training for a job I’ll never have. But this is the first class I’ve taken that hasn’t made me feel terrified about that.

I feel empowered.

Those 30 brightest minds she refers to? They aren’t established “experts;” they are her fellow students.

So when I read about all the efforts to make college education more skills oriented and to eliminate liberal arts courses, I wish the legislators would pay attention to the primary customers of the university — the students.

When I read about the slash-and-burn budget cuts made to the state university system — some of whose schools are ranked among the best in the world — I wish legislators would pay attention.

When I read about efforts in Raleigh that ultimately disrespect college teachers by suggesting that they don’t work hard to teach students, I wish legislators would pay attention.

Both aspects of the education Jenny and thousands of other students receive — skills and thought — are vital to their success. Students understand that. High-tech businesses with the good-paying jobs understand that. The visionaries who built the university system understood that.

Will policy makers in Raleigh? I hope so.

* The title of her post, while brilliant, isn’t necessarily true. She may well become an editor of a daily publication.

** Full disclosure: Jenny was a student in a skills-oriented class of mine — newswriting — and is, for one more week, a student in my “Current Issues in Mass Media” class. She wrote the post after I assigned the class to write about the most significant lesson they learned in the class.

 

Sunday sampler

A slow local news day, perhaps because wire stories on the devastation in Nepal elbowed some stories off the front page.

Asheville — The Citizen-Times poses the question of whether charter schools are becoming segregated. Yes, is the answer. More students are going to schools that are predominately white, a trend that raises concerns about resegregation of schools….This matters because the schools are supposed to be serving the public interest, said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and one of the study’s authors. It’s also important because of the history of segregation in the South, she said. Is it coincidental that the Republican-dominated legislature is pushing to increase the number of charter schools?

Durham — The Herald-Sun reports on a civic engagement certificate that Duke offers to students who meet the requirements. The story isn’t particularly clear, but I note it here because I worry about the lack of civic engagement throughout the community. The more efforts and rewards given to people who get involved, the better. To earn the civic engagement certificate, a student will have to take a beginning “gateway” course, two electives and an ending, “capstone” seminar. He or she will also have to perform 450 hours of hands-on work with at least one “community partner,” and put together a public “e-portfolio” documenting their experience.

Laying off journalists

In 2007, I told 17 fulltime and a dozen part-time News & Record journalists they were laid off. A student asked me to talk about it for a class project she was working on. It’s taken this long for me to have both the courage and the distance to write about it.

I should have known that layoffs were on the horizon. Our revenues were sinking, and we had been slashing costs and content. But neither my head nor my heart would hear of it. After all, our corporate parent, Landmark Communications, had made it clear that it did not approve of layoffs at its properties. “Layoffs are a reflection of poor management,” the CEO would tell us at annual managers’ meetings. “The employee did nothing wrong; management did.”

We got the message: Lay off people and risk your own job. The innocent people wouldn’t be punished; the decision makers would. That philosophy was one of the reasons I loved our company.

But layoffs came down the tracks like the freight train that doesn’t even pause when a car is in the way. We had to “align expenses with revenues,” and revenues were in the crapper. The philosophy that had served us well through the years stopped at the bottom line.

I was given a number to cut: I can’t remember whether it was a number of people or a total salary figure. Whichever it was, my first reaction was a simple “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I can’t do this.”

A variation of Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief set in. Denial was the longest stage. the leadership of the company avoided it for months. We cut costs mercilessly, while singing an optimistic tune. Trips were eliminated, positions not filled and raises were slowed.

Then, once the decision to cut people was made, I was furious. I thought the company’s leadership — including myself — had avoided the reality and worked on the wrong things when we could have been positioning ourselves for the future. We had seemed incapable of preparing or of thinking beyond the next monthly numbers. (One pressman — a pressman! — said after the announcement that laying off so many in the newsroom was short-sighted and wrong-headed: “It’s cutting our seed corn,” he said.)

I spent little time in Kubler-Ross’ arguing or depression stages. I had lost the battle, and I try to move forward every day without worrying much about what I had lost. Besides, who could I talk with? As you might imagine, everything about this was highly classified. The company’s leaders could talk with no one except each other.

I suppose I hit acceptance, the fifth stage, about the time I actually started planning  which positions to cut. I say positions because we were instructed to think about cutting jobs, not people. We were eliminating the position from the organization, therefore the person in the position was no longer needed. It was business, not personal.

It is exactly as you would think: a cold-hearted, ruthless process.

But in reality, it was personal.

I wrote every position in the newsroom — more than 100 — on Post-Its, creating a massive org chart. I moved the Post-Its around, taking some off the board and putting some back. The first seven or eight positions to take off weren’t difficult. We had a few standing vacancies, and some jobs were clearly luxuries, left over from the golden days of 25 percent margins. One position I eliminated had been filled a few weeks earlier, and the person hadn’t yet reported to work. I let her come in and laid her off. She was angry that I hadn’t told her before her first day. (By reporting to work, she became an employee and would get a decent severance.)

The next fulltimers10 were brutal. Not only were they filled with journalists who wanted the job and likely loved the work. They had families. They were people I cared about and who trusted me to look out for their interests. I was wracked with the realization that I had failed them…and by all the consequences that failure meant to their lives.

Eventually, I had to purposely forget the person filling the position, which was as hard as it sounds. We were going to lose some outstanding journalists, and it made my heart sink every time I thought about it.

I felt so guilty. And alone.

As I stared at the flip chart covered with now-eliminated Post-Its, I realized that the mission of the newspaper would need to change. We couldn’t cover the news the way we had for years. Too many beats were going to go uncovered. And once the word got out to the community that we were cutting 15 percent or so of our news staff, our credibility would be in trouble.

While I knew deep down that would provide an opportunity to reinvent the paper for the 21st century community, I wasn’t ready to deal with that yet. I couldn’t plan that without help. That had to wait.

On a companywide scale, planning the layoff announcements was like planning a secret military strike. We were given a rough script for our conversations with the departing employees. Our comments were to be concise and brief. It wasn’t a difficult spiel, but it was sterile and unfeeling, as if we weren’t supposed to acknowledge that we had hired these folks and worked with them, in some cases, closely. We weren’t supposed to express remorse or regret, a rule that I think every department head broke.

We were all assigned representatives of our human resources department and the two of us would meet with each individual separately. They would get the news, get information about benefits and severance, and then a security guard would escort them from the building.

Of course, the night before the day of layoffs I got little sleep. That morning, I likely looked as hollow as I felt. I was focused. I knew what had to happen, and I knew the effect it would have. I just needed to get it done with as much grace and compassion as I could.

I was only moderately successful on the last part.

I told the top editors and left them in shock. I can’t remember if I told them which employees were out, but I’m sure I did. They had the same operational questions I did — why this was happening, how would this work, what would we give up. I said we would need to figure all that out, but that we definitely needed to stop doing some things. My message was clear: We would not respond by doing more or working harder — an embarrassingly stupid thing some people say. I wasn’t going to say that the products we produced weren’t going to be affected — another embarrassingly stupid thing some people say. We had to narrow our focus to the important things.

At 1 p.m. the HR rep and I were to begin the meetings in a room in the HR department.  As instructed, I had set up a schedule to meet with each affected employee — every 20 minutes, I think — and had my assistant to tell each employee to meet me in HR at the specified time. That, in essence, let everyone know something bad was happening. We had had discussion after discussion on the best way to handle it, but as it turned out, there was no best way.

It went FUBAR pretty quickly. Employees came early for their meetings and backed up. By 2 p.m. there was a line outside the door. Everyone knew what was happening and they awaited the guillotine. A few were weeping.

The responses inside the meeting room varied. Some understood and were stoic. Some were kind. One swept the files from the table onto the floor and stormed from the room 30 seconds into my remarks, shouting some choice words about my character. I’m surprised that that didn’t bother me; I understood it.

The day ground on. In the end, I had to meet with several part-timers at once, just to get them all completed. The impersonalness of that was particularly galling to me; some of them – editorial assistants who worked random nights — I didn’t even know.

Update: One of the journalists not laid off reminded me that while I was laying people off, word of what was happening leaked into the newsroom from a reporter in Winston-Salem. None of the editors who knew would confirm or deny, which put them in the most awkward position.

When those meeting were over, I went upstairs to address the remaining newsroom staff.

They were waiting. A few were angry, but most were sad about the layoffs of their friends and worried about their own future. It’s a testament to the newsroom that they seemed to respect the process even as they hated it.

I remember clearly how I started: “I just met with a few dozen outstanding journalists and told them that they didn’t have jobs here anymore, and it sucked.” I told them what happened, how I felt and what I thought it would mean. I was as honest and as direct as I could be. I declined to name names — we had been instructed not to out of respect for the laid off employees — one of many HR curiosities that seemed to defy common sense.

I answered every question I could. I’m sure I was more stoic than I should have been. It’s pretty much my way, and I was already emotionally drained.

Several employees came to my office to ask questions they weren’t comfortable asking in public. A few asked about me, which was kind and meaningful to me.

I went through my exit routine, stopping briefly at the various editing circles and checking on the front page for the next day. I wanted to be seen and to give folks another chance to talk. I spent the most time with the night copy desk folks because they were a feisty group and I liked them. I wanted them to have a separate crack at me.

When I left, I went straight to a reception for one of my daughters’ soccer teams. I could have skipped it, but I wanted to be around people and I knew there was beer there. I told the host how I’d spent the day. He briefly commiserated, then put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’ve been on the other side. Your people had it much tougher today than you.”

He was right, of course. I still had a job.

I wept when I got home. Wept from guilt, from regret, from stress. Wept because I knew this was the beginning of the end for me and the paper.

In the ensuing days, it was clear that a bond between the company and the employee was broken. The deal had been this:

They would work hard, do good work, miss family dinners, have coworkers critique their work, hear from readers that they were stupid and biased and worse.

We would give them a place to do what they loved, a paycheck and job security. We could no longer provide the security.

After that day, that covenant wasn’t ever fully restored.

Last month, I told a student who interviewed me for a school project that that day had traumatized me.

I had fired too many good people who had done absolutely nothing to deserve it, except come to work for the wrong company at the wrong time. With it came the eventual realization that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the journalistic mission I had set for myself and for the paper.

I stayed on, but in the five years before I finally quit, we had three more layoffs, although not nearly as large as the first. After each, we caught our breath, thought we were out of the woods and even got to hire a few people. (I went back to the people we had laid off to see if they wanted to return. Some did and are still working at the paper.)

But we never were out of the woods. We really never created a survival strategy that went beyond cutting.

In retrospect, I believe I stayed three years too long. Not because I lost my love for journalism or for newspapering. I lost my will to keep battling the alligators in a company that had a different vision than I. (The newspaper has new owners and, in the past three years, virtually all of the top leaders from my time are gone.)

Do not misread this: I’m still optimistic for the future of journalism and new ways of telling stories and nourishing democracy. There are so many smart, innovative people working on solutions based on people and community and service — rather than on protecting the way we do things — that journalism will flourish. I’m fortunate to teach some of them.

Sunday sampler

Image courtesy of the Newseum

Image courtesy of the Newseum

Love the art on that front page.

Greensboro — I’m always impressed when high school students stand up to be counted. The News & Record writes about students protesting bullying and discrimination of LBGT students…and the school system’s policies addressing that. It also happens “in the hallways, in the lunchroom, on the bus — all the places students are where there may not be too many school personnel around,” Stroupe said. “Students still get nasty notes … put on their lockers. They get bumped into lockers. Things like that still happen.”

Asheville — Fascinating story in the Citizen-Times about the city’s growth, and one that can be done by every news outlet in the state. The Asheville metro area is the only one among 15 in North Carolina with a population growing only because more people are moving to the region, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in late March. It also shows sizable growth in Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington. Greensboro, less so.

Burlington — There’s not a parent around who doesn’t know that 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds make some of the dumbest decisions imaginable. Only North Carolina and New York automatically try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. This spring, New York legislators are poised to change their law, leaving North Carolina the only state in the U.S. that — to paraphrase what the state’s juvenile justice director said last week — treats 16-year-olds like 45-year-olds. The Times-News outlines the research that suggests changing this practice is wise. There is even a bipartisan state bill proposed to change it. Of course, this is the legislature we’re talking about. 

Fayetteville — I wish every legislator would read the Observer’s coverage of military issues. It’s top drawer. Today’s is about reports of sexual assaults in the military on the rise. Its report is straight forward and damning, if you care about those kinds of things.

Raleigh — Prepare to be outraged. The News & Observer’s story on state contracts leads with an anecdote about a Harvard professor named Rubin who was paid about $950 an hour to produce a study. The state hires hundreds of professionals like Rubin every year on personal services contracts, sometimes at seemingly high rates to fill what are supposed to be temporary needs for more doctors, attorneys, engineers and the like. Earlier this year a legislative unit that evaluates public services found that agencies are using the contracts to evade oversight. The contracts, which cost the state an average of $22 million a year over the past five years, have been so misused that they should be eliminated, according to its report.

The Rhino News: It reaches for facts, but it avoids truth

Want an example of the difference between accuracy and truth? The Rhino Times provides it.

The short version is this. John Hammer wrote a defense of his survey on Friday. (I’d link to it, but that version is gone.) Because he named me as part of his attack on the News & Record, I responded on Saturday pointing out three errors in need of correction. After 48 hours, he changed his post. It’s factually correct but not precisely true. Let’s take a look:

Item 1. His wording on Friday: “From a journalistic standpoint, in quoting a professor at Elon University – where former Editor of the News & Record John Robinson was in charge of doing the polling – the N&R might not have used the most unbiased source available.  To the News & Record’s credit, at least they didn’t quote Robinson on his views of the Rhino Times’ poll.”

His wording today, and I’ve bolded the change:From a journalistic standpoint, in quoting a professor at Elon University – where former News & Record Editor John Robinson is involved with the polling – the N&R might not have used the most unbiased source available.  To the News & Record’s credit, at least they didn’t quote Robinson on his views of the Rhino Times’ poll.

As I wrote Saturday: “I’m not in charge of polling. I am communications director for the poll, which means I handle the poll’s social media accounts and discuss with the poll directors which topics might be relevant to the state’s citizens and get media attention. I don’t create poll questions and have no say over what is or isn’t asked or how it is asked.”

He doesn’t explain what relevance I have as it pertains to the News & Record.

It is factually accurate, but hardly true in terms of his point.

Item 2: His wording Saturday: A review of News & Record articles citing polls done by Elon University, which the N&R seems to really like, reveals that the N&R provides about the same amount of information about the polling results as the Rhino Times did.”

His wording today, and I’ve bolded the change: A review of News & Record articles citing polls done by Elon University, which the N&R seems to really like, reveals that the N&R often provides about the same amount of information about the polling results as the Rhino Times did.  However, we did neglect to include the margin of error, which is 3.5 percent.

Nice that he added information that people have wanted since Thursday. But this is Hammer dancing on a pin. The Rhino commissioned its survey, and it declines to make the methodology public. The N&R did not commission any Elon University Poll so the News & Record would have no reason to make the methodology public. But the Elon University Poll  does. Its methodology is public.

Again, factually correct, but hardly true.

Item 3. His wording Saturday: “According to a poll done by Elon University and reported in the News & Record, the majority of voters in North Carolina were in favor of same-sex marriage.”

His wording today, and I’ve bolded the change: “According to a poll done by Elon University and reported in the News & Record, the majority of people in North Carolina were in favor of same-sex marriage.” 

This is true. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t bother changing his argument. There are two significant problems with it: First, polling residents of North Carolina is wildly different than polling likely voters. Second, the Elon Poll was taken six weeks before the election. The major campaigning took place during those six weeks.

He knows both those things. He just declines to tell his readers. He also declined to tell his readers that he made any change in the post between Friday publication and today.

That’s the Rhino, but it’s not public-oriented journalism.

Sunday sampler

Skipped last week because it was Easter, both in my life and on newspaper front pages.

Asheville — I start with a personal favorite from the Citizen-Times on the disruption of the music industry. It’s a favorite for two reasons: I teach the topic, and what’s happened to and is still happening to music is happening to all media. If you grew up with records, moved to tapes and are still on CDs or iPods, you’re quickly going out of style. Catch up.

Charlotte — Think racial disparity in arrests are a thing of Ferguson, North Charleston and “somewhere else?” How about Charlotte? The Observer: “Though African-Americans make up less than a third of the city’s driving-age residents, they are pulled over by police more frequently, receive more tickets and are the subjects of roadside searches twice as often as whites.” The survey is filled with interesting statistics, and to its credit, the police department is taking action.

Durham — 94 percent of the graduates of UNC system schools are satisfied with their education, according to a survey the Herald-Sun reported on. My favorite: 74 percent of Chapel Hill alumni rated the education they received as excellent. Bear in mind, of course, that the legislature is doing its best to strip funding from the system because…well, because.

Raleigh — The N&O is filled with great stuff. First, the former head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina misspent half a million dollars that wasn’t his. Second, Craig Hicks, accused of killing three Muslim students in Chapel Hill in February, is a symbol of a gun control debate. (Yes, some make the claim that we need fewer background check questions and more guns out there.)

And third, the state hasn’t counted dozens of workplace deaths each year. “Dozens of North Carolina workers die each year with little or no notice from state officials. No inspector asks questions, no one demands reform, no one pays a fine. Often, that is because of narrow state and federal laws that prohibit state investigation. Sometimes, though, labor investigators retreat after heeding an employer’s argument that workplace safety laws don’t apply.”