Six years of looking at N.C. newspapers’ front pages

I’ve posted 280 Sunday samplers  — about five-and-a-half years worth — since January 2012. And newspaper front pages have changed significantly over that period, and not for the better.

I love newspapers, and being out of the business for more than six years hasn’t dimmed that love. Sunday sampler is my personal selection of the best stories from the front pages of Sunday’s North Carolina newspapers. I limit it to the front pages because that tends to be — in some cases, that should be past tense — the day newspapers publish their best work. Early on, I described my thinking this way:  “When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know.”

So, yes, personal.

North Carolina has always had a strong culture of newspapers, thanks in part to the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, of which I’m an adjunct. A few times a year, I can’t find anything on the front pages of the 20 or so newspapers I scan each Sunday at the Newseum. Today is one of them. So, I’ll post this, which I prepared a few weeks ago and never got around to finishing until now.

Some observations:

  • Local coverage in smaller community papers seems consistently strong. Or if it isn’t strong in terms of enterprise, it is at least abundant. I have worried about news deserts ever since my friend Penny Muse Abernathy at the university began studying the decline of newspapers’ reach, particularly in rural areas. Many of the smaller papers have front pages that cover vital community affairs with the traditional mix of government coverage of lifestyle features.

  • On the other hand, the state’s larger metro papers — Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville — have reduced the number of stories on their front pages. When I started this blog, four stories on the front page was the routine. Now they often publish two stories with more dramatic displays, hoping to grab readers’ attention and focus. (There is research that supports this practice.) The upshot is that readers get less enterprise. What papers give us is as strong as ever, but there’s less of it. Speaking as a former editor I get it: Fewer reporters on staff translates to fewer enterprise stories. And while many newspapers are working hard to keep their investigative reporting muscle strong, it’s difficult. And it shows.

  • More wire stories — stories available to many newspapers, television stations and websites everywhere — are popping up on front pages of papers where they once didn’t. Another result of the decline in the number of reporters in the newsroom. And because the stories aren’t staff-produced, they tend to be everywhere — TV, websites, Twitter — on Friday or Saturday. Many readers may not be tuned to the news except on Sunday morning — but many others likely know a political fight is brewing over the Supreme Court nomination.

  • Fortunately, some newspapers are sharing content, and they are serving their readers when they do. Owned by the same company, the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer are the prime example. Both front pages featured the Observer’s fish game story the Sunday I looked. The two McClatchy papers have teams that collaborate with each other, including reporters from both papers covering sports and government, and conducting investigations. That stretches their resources and helps them avoid duplicating coverage. And because McClatchy has a wire service, many of the state’s newspapers pick up Raleigh and Charlotte stories. Winston-Salem and Greensboro, both owned by BH Media, also routinely share content.
  • Further collaboration is an opportunity for struggling newspapers. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post encourages newspapers to do just that: “What if journalists could consistently and powerfully get their act together in meaningful collaboration, truly realizing their own strength in numbers? So armed, they might do battle against the crushing tariffs that are jacking up newsprint prices; they might force the tech platforms to treat their editorial content with respect; they might even solve the urgent crisis in local news.”
  • More papers have added hard paywalls, which I understand — content has value. But hard paywalls limit random readers from seeing the news. My experience is that unless your content behind that paywall is so indispensable or compelling, it’s tough to get someone to pay for it. And perhaps for the readers of the High Point Enterprise, say, it is. But it isn’t for me.
  • There has been a major digital change since I started this column, and it’s a good one. A few newspapers are posting their big Sunday stories before Sunday. I first noticed it a year or two ago when the News & Observer published an entire series online before it made the print edition of the newspaper. Now, for Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Asheville, I will often see stories on their Sunday front pages and have to search their websites to find them because they’ve been published Thursday or Friday.

Journalists are not the enemy of the state, and it should offend every thinking American when they hear him say it. The journalists at North Carolina’s newspapers work hard in tough conditions and at low pay to bring news about their communities to the public. When you hear “fake news” it’s a smokescreen spoken by people who want to hide from something — usually the truth.

These papers and their journalists, despite their flaws, are doing democracy’s heavy lifting.

(All newspaper front pages are courtesy of Newseum.org.)

 

Sunday sampler, Silent Sam edition

A week ago, Silent Sam, the monument to the Confederacy on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, was toppled by protesters at about 9:15 p.m. Monday. Although it was arguably the biggest news in the state, the incident, which has been decades coming, did not make the front pages of any of the state’s newspapers. It wasn’t an issue of news judgment; thank the early deadlines caused by print schedules — a terrible fallout of the decline of the newspaper business.

Consequently, I suspect the state’s larger papers appreciate the Silent Sam protesters scheduling their rally early in the day Saturday. That rally, in which seven people were arrested, was featured prominently on the front pages of Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.

All three used the same story written by News & Observer & Durham Herald-Sun reporters, which, given the strain on newspaper staffing, makes sense. (I wouldn’t have said the same thing 20 years ago, when newspapers were robust. Diversity of coverage is important.) The N&O also wrote an impressive history of the Silent Sam, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to express an opinion on what should be done next. This is the story the Observer used on its front page.

I couldn’t find any other mention of Saturday’s rally and arrest on the front pages of other N.C. newspapers listed at the Newseum. (The Durham paper isn’t listed on the Newseum, but I’m guessing this was a Page One story.) For the smaller papers, it likely wasn’t local enough. Fayetteville went big with Sen. John McCain’s death, which, given its military interest, makes sense. Winston-Salem’s front is all about an 8-year-old boy with a rare genetic disorder. However, the New York Times and the Washington Post both had stories today on their websites and, given their large Sunday edition, likely in the print editions.

While it doesn’t have a newsprint front page today, I would be remiss in not mentioning the coverage by the Daily Tar Heel, which was excellent Saturday — I followed its outstanding Twitter feed, which included a lot of video — and has been outstanding all week.

Meanwhile, as for the rest of the Sampler today, newspaper front pages were dominated by Sen. John McCain’s death and back to school stories.

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: By now, you likely know I like political pieces that cut through the clutter. The Observer takes a look at the past sermons of Rev. Mark Harris, the Republican nominee in the 9th House district. Harris believes homosexuality is a choice, the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, and that women should submit to their husbands. Harris says the “left” is bringing those issues up as a distraction from the strong economy. We’ll see.

Charlotte: I’d never heard of “fish games” until this story in the Observer. (I love reading stories that introduce me to new things.) Is it a game of skill or gambling? I don’t know, but I’m glad Greensboro has already banned the games. People already throw their money away on state-sponsored gambling (the lottery and yes, I’m one of them).

Fayetteville: I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the people who seemed to think that fraud is prevalent in our elections, especially when there is no evidence of it. Especially when there is plenty of evidence that the idea of fraud is planted by Republicans who want to discourage minorities from voting. The Observer takes a look at a proposed constitutional amendment to require a voter to provide a state-sponsored ID.

Fayetteville: The Observer also tells the story Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, who will receive the Medal of Honor this week for what he did in Afghanistan in 2002.

Wilmington: The Star-News looks at the cost of the Trump tariffs and conclude that businesses are starting to feel the impact. “McWhorter said the price increase he received wasn’t enough to change his business model, other than to pass the price increase on to his customers where appropriate or just eat the cost increase where prices can’t be raised.” There you go.

Sunday sampler

Let’s see what the “enemy of the people” are reporting today! (A lot of football.)

Greensboro: The News & Record looks at the helmets high school players are wearing  and how protective they are. Most of the area schools wear good helmets. But “While the overall numbers are good, eight schools are also placing their athletes in helmets that are now prohibited for use by NFL players after a study released in April by Biokinetics Inc. of Canada.”

Fayetteville: The Observer describes how North Carolina high schools are turning out more blue-chip football players. “This season, at least 444 players from North Carolina are on top-level college football rosters, according to a Fayetteville Observer analysis. About 300 of them are scholarship athletes.”

Raleigh: Want to get the idea of what a concussion can do? Read this piece in the N&O about Tommy Hatton, a star UNC football player who walked away from the game after suffering four concussions. It’s damning. “During the first days and weeks after his fourth concussion, Hatton said he felt so incapacitated that “honestly, legitimately, it was almost like I was paralyzed.” The effects were immediate, and relentless. First was the short-term memory loss – the 9 ½ hours he couldn’t account for until he came to in the hospital, still wearing his uniform pants. Then there was the sensitivity to light, so much that Hatton spent the majority of the next three months either in darkened rooms or wearing special sunglasses.”

In non-football news:

Greensboro: The News & Record continues its series on money in politics with a look at state legislative races. Here’s the key: the candidate with the most money wins. Sad, given the state of the General Assembly. “We basically have a system that is not designed to create competition,” said Bender, whose group is based in Helena, Mont., and operates the www.followthemoney.orgwebsite where visitors can track the interaction between the big bucks and state officeholders. “An incumbent once he or she is in office, you can usually see that there is a handful of people who are providing boatloads of cash for them,” Bender said.

Hendersonville: Terrible mudslides in May, and still waiting for federal help in August. Not the way government is supposed to work. “Bobby Arledge, Polk County emergency management director, said so far 153 people have been documented as suffering some type of damage from the storm. That damage ranges from minor to major, and while not all will be eligible for FEMA to reimburse, it will be a “big help for those folks struggling to get back to normal,” he said.”

High Point:  Gangs. The lead paragraph in the Enterprise story says it: “Three people were killed in the city between Monday and Thursday, and another two were hit with bullets. Six different homes were shot at and at least 200 bullets have been fired in the city in the same time span.”

 

Twitter, Trump and the dancing flamingo

I like to troll public officials when they do something hypocritical (often) or, frankly, something I think is bad for the country. That puts President Trump in my cross hairs. And most of the time, I try to have fun with it. Most of the time.

When I read that he referred to flamenco dancers as “flamingo dancers,” I could resist showing him what a flamingo dancer looks like, which I did in a tweet.

A few days later, a former student told me that the tweet had been featured on CNN. I thought it was simply something the news channel put on its running crawl, along with others. Then I clicked the link to the Jeanne Moos piece. My tweet comes at the 1:25 mark. She refers to me as “someone,” which is vague yet accurate.

I’m grateful that I made President Trump’s most despised network. He hasn’t yet called me dumb, for which I’m also grateful.

P.S. I have no idea how CNN found that tweet.

 

What is “the Enemy of the People” doing today?

Let’s take a look at what the Enemy of the People in North Carolina are reporting today!

The largest paper in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer is all over the upcoming Republican National Convention with a positive headline, “RNC 2020 could give Charlotte better access.”

The News & Observer in Raleigh, meanwhile, has three stories: one on a constitutional amendment pertaining to hunting and fishing, another on cities hiring workers, and a third on climate research. OK, that last one the president may not like because it involves, like, science.

Greensboro’s News & Record tells its readers about a positive story about High  Point’s police department, and another story about gangs, certainly an issue the president likes to talk about.

How about positive business news from the Winston-Salem Journal?

Local news stories and features from smaller papers, such as Statesville.

Government activity in Morehead City.

Sanford

You can find more at the Newseum site, where I got these. I don’t see anything that make the newspapers in North Carolina — or any other state, for that matter — and “enemy of the state.” Instead, they are full of real, not fake, stories — news, features and analysis — of people and events that communities care about. Journalists track the daily happenings where they live every day. They watch government, check out police departments and follow court proceedings. Journalism is an honorable craft.

I’ll leave the rest to Mindy McAdams, a journalism professor at the University of Florida.

 

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: My friend Joe Killian wrote about gangs in Greensboro 8 or 9 years ago. The News & Record updates the gang activity in the city, and an update was definitely needed. “Capt. Nathaniel Davis, who has been tasked with looking into why the city has seen an increase, says Greensboro’s number of gangs and their members fluctuate constantly. At last count, there were 38 sets of gangs and 750 members. That’s up from the 624 gang members in 2015.”

Fayetteville: The cliche of “every parent’s nightmare” really applies to this story in the Observer about two boys who went to the movies in 1964 and were never seen again. And this one is pretty creepy.  “The boys were probably killed on that hot September day when they disappeared, some believed. And the killer was probably the one person they had suspected all along.”

Raleigh: The GOP legislature stops at nothing to increase its power and smother opposition. Much of the time, it pushes issues that have no reason for being. Now we voters are faced with a constitutional amendment to protect hunting and fishing as a right. What, you didn’t know they are under attack? I mean, just like the war against Christmas! Oh, wait. I’m wrong about that, the sponsor of the amendment says. “I would not say it was under attack in North Carolina,” Tucker said. “It is the possibility of the future of the heritage of hunting being removed through municipalities and counties and by restricting hunting rights in certain areas.” Sigh.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The News & Record does a great public service by “following the money” raised by the candidates in the two congressional districts in its region. The story itself doesn’t add much perspective, but the charts at the bottom of the story are fascinating.

Raleigh: N&O revisits 10 cold case murders. I’m not sure why I read each one – a few I remember – most I don’t. But it’s striking how capricious and how ordinary they are.

Wilmington: Beachgoers will be interested in this story in the Star-News. “More than 3,750 existing homes in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties could see chronic tidal flooding by 2045, according to a study released earlier this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists.” The story says there is time to “get out ahead” of the problem. Given the state’s political climate, I’m doubting it.

High Point: The enduring symbol of the Furniture City is “the world’s largest chest of drawers.” So, imagine selling it. That’s what the owners did in a public auction. The story in the Enterprise is password protected, but basically it says both the buyer and the sale price aren’t public. Here’s the front page display.

Trolling Washington

I troll my elected officials in Washington.

I remind them on Twitter that the tax cuts they champion ballooned the deficit they say they’re reducing. I remind them it hasn’t helped wages the way they say it has. I ask them why they talk about children forcibly separated from their parents, and where they are on President Trump’s racism and sexism and bigotry. And don’t get me started on the Russia attack on our elections.

But I know they don’t read the tweets, and I know tweets are an ineffective way of getting their attention. That’s OK, the elected officials aren’t my primary audience.

My city has a strong tradition of voting Democratic so the state legislature gerrymandered it, cutting it in half and pairing it with rural, conservative voters. Consequently, Greensboro is represented by two conservative Republican House members, leaving the moderate and liberal voters no voice. The two representatives vote in lockstep with the party, except when the party is too moderate. My senators are a little better — Richard Burr seems to be doing a good, bipartisan job as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — but when it’s time to vote, they generally go along with the party.

I understand that. Elections have consequences. Meanwhile, these politicians don’t hold town hall meetings. Write them a letter and, chances are, you get a form letter in return. You can call and speak with an aide or an intern, but even if they got tens of thousands of calls in favor of Obamacare or gun control or abortion rights or the Supreme Court, their positions wouldn’t change. I get that — they have certain values that they won’t cross.

But their silence about issues concerning their constituents must be called out. Do they agree with President Trump on the issues of immigration, Russia, Iran, North Korea and “shithole” countries? Do they think the news media are the enemy of the people? Are they OK with his attacks on the rule of law and the American justice system?

How comfortable are they with the leader of their party’s lies, misstatements and obfuscation? President Trump lies about matters of intense importance to the safety and security of the nation and our democracy.

The silence of my reps in D.C. suggests assent, and that disturbs me.

Perhaps they disagree with him on some issues and hate his lies, but they fear his wrath and the wrath of his base? That’s a different kind of cowardice. Maybe they believe that the ends justify the means. Trump will appoint anti-abortion judges and cut tax rates so they’ll tolerate his immoral and offensive behavior.

Of course, you have Rep. Mark Walker who regularly talks with Trump, so there’s that.

I’ve tried to tell them that they’re going to be seen as on the wrong side of history. They have options. There are several moves they can make without leaving their conservative roots, as Charlie Sykes writes here.

I wish they read the tweets. Perhaps they’d be inspired – or shamed – to speak out. Leadership, after all, demands courage and standing up for what you believe. This article suggests that voicing caution or restraint or even opposition can be an effective deterrent to objectionable ideas.

But, no, my congressmen, especially the House members, are men who seem to look the other way. 

It’s unclear if they are members of the Trump Party or the Republican Party. As Jennifer Finney Boylan writes about creating a new Republican Party based on the old Republican Party ethos, “The Republican Party could be overthrown by the Republican Party and replaced with — well, the Republican Party. That would require that the people John Boehner described as “napping somewhere” find their principles and their courage, and wake up.”

It’s important that people know what their reps believe and value. So I troll them to remind them and my followers on Twitter that some of us are watching. And expecting better.