Sunday sampler

A good day to read some N.C. newspapers. Stories from their front pages:

Asheville — The march to dilute education continues with the legislature’s mandate for something called “virtual charter schools.” The Citizen-Times describe these schools, which allow online learning for K-12 students provided by private companies. Do they work? Evidence from Tennessee suggests they don’t. “The ratio of students to teachers would be one teacher for 50 students in kindergarten through eighth grades and one teacher to 150 students in ninth through 12th grade classes.” Sounds good!

The Citizen-Times also has a tough-minded story that starts: “North Carolina will miss $51 billion in federal payments over the next decade unless lawmakers expand Medicaid under Obamacare, according to a new report.” Naturally, in their wisdom, N.C. lawmakers say they won’t expand Medicaid.

Raleigh — When you get legislative power, you pass the laws you want. When the courts rule against those laws, you stymie the courts. Welcome to N.C. GOP rule. The News & Observer describes the latest attempt by the legislature to make sure it gets its way. “Beginning in September, all constitutional challenges to laws will be heard by three-judge trial court panels appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The move takes those cases out of the hands of individual Superior Court judges and sends them to be heard in Wake County, where the panels of judges from across the state will assemble when needed.”

Charlotte — The Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward II incident was quickly overshadowed in the news by Robin Williams’ death and Ferguson. But the Observer rightly swings back through with a good story about deaths at short tracks. More than 520 people have died in the past 25 years at tracks, and safety regulations have been slow coming. “‘Short track racing is usually mayhem, hopefully controlled. That’s what people want. It’s like ice hockey with cars.’”

Gaston — I am so out of the drug culture. The Gazette introduces its readers to “spice,” a synthetic marijuana sold over the counter as potpourri or incense. And it can be dangerous.

A brief argument for transparency

Updated

First, let it be known that I and most people support the local police. They have a tough job, and, on the whole, do it well. This isn’t about what they do on the street.

This is about governments being transparent…and what happens when they aren’t.

Exhibit 1: Ferguson, Mo., where police decline to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting death of a Ferguson citizen. The police and District Attorney also decline to discuss details of a planned investigation. Protests ensue, police are threatened and attacked, police respond with tear gas, shooting dummy bullets into the crowd and arrests. Damn.

Exhibit 2: Raleigh, N.C., where the News & Observer reports that “Gov. Pat McCrory failed to disclose his ownership of Duke Energy stock this year in two state ethics filings and sold the stock after a torrent of bad publicity about the company’s coal-ash spill, the governor’s office acknowledged Wednesday.”

Exhibit 3: Greensboro, N.C., where a police officer shot and killed a Vietnamese immigrant who approached him with a knife and ignored his orders to stop. The incident occurred in March, the department and the SBI investigated and the officer returned to duty in May. But police declined to release details of the shooting or its investigation. Finally, on July 30, the assistant district attorney discussed the shooting with the news media.

Obviously, Ferguson is the most urgent problem. No one knows if more police transparency would have prevented the violence and arrests. But I believe that more openness about what happened and what the police planned to do about it would have calmed the city. Information is power. When I have it and won’t give it to you, it signals that I don’t trust you to know what to do with it. In turn, it erodes your trust in me.

No question that government transparency is complicated. A lot of moving parts. Delicate balance of public records with the right to privacy. Will information damage a criminal investigation? But the inclination should always be to release information. The discussion should revolved around this: “We work for the people. This is being done in their name for their benefit. Why shouldn’t we release the information?”

Most crisis management experts advise transparency rather than secrecy. And as a practical matter, details eventually come out. I heard on the news that many citizens of Ferguson know the name of the officer involved in the shooting. Or they think they do. How can that certainty/uncertainty be good?

This excellent first-person piece in the New Yorker doesn’t suggest that transparency was a guiding principle: “Police, some outfitted in riot gear, others in military fatigues, barricaded the streets. At least one of them draped a black bandana over his face; others covered their badges.” 

From a good New York Times story that discusses the issue: “Mr. Harris said that while it was understandable that police officials would try to protect their officers from threats and unfair accusations, silence also had its risks. ‘This case is not being tried yet, but the narrative is being forged in the public arena,’ he said of the Ferguson shooting. ‘When that goes on, information is put out selectively and withheld selectively.’

“’There is real danger in that,’ he said, ‘because ultimately law enforcement depends on the trust of the people they serve.’”

It is difficult to regain trust once you lose it.

Sunday sampler

It’s a good day for journalism on the front pages of NC. newspapers.

Charlotte — What would inspire someone to go into a danger zone where war, disease and pestilence reign? The question is timely in Charlotte and the world, as one of the Ebola infected Americans is from Charlotte and connected with SIM USA. The Observer answers the question. (It’s about missionary service.)

But the more fun — and less important story — on the front of the Observer is this one about Adam & Eve boutique. But maybe that’s just me.

Fayetteville — We’re back in Iraq, and the Observer tells us Ft. Bragg’s role in an interesting story about humanitarian aid. A good reminder that we’re doing more than bombing.

Greensboro — As the News & Record’s headline says, heroin is “cheap, devastating and readily available,” and for the first six months of this year, nine people in High Point have died from ODs. And the High Point police are still trying to get their handle on it. Good overview of the problem that is back and growing.

Raleigh — If you need any further evidence that the discussion about fracking is political as opposed to scientific, the News & Observer provides it with a story by Duke researchers who are not invited into the discussion about how to proceed with fracking. The questions about the impact of pumping chemicals into the ground remain: poison groundwater? cause earthquakes? The state should try to answer them first, rather than second.

Hickory — The Daily Record has what looks like an interesting story about how police piece together evidence to solve a murder, but I can’t find that story on the website. Instead, there is a story about a suspect’s arrest.

Paywall content: Is it worth paying for?

The other day, I was following the tweets of a newspaper reporter who was reporting on a city council meeting. I wasn’t following the action on purpose; the tweets just came fast and furious in my stream. The council was arguing, and he recorded it well. So, I made a note to myself to read his story when it was filed. (I’m wonky in that way.) So far, so good.

A few hours later, a Google Alert in my email pointed me to his story. It was a good story and satisfied me. I doubt it satisfied the powers to be at the paper, though. It came via insurancenewsnet.com, not from news-record.com. (I never got a Google Alert about the story on the News & Record’s website.)

If I were thinking about erecting a paywall, as the News & Record has done, I would test the market. (And perhaps the paper has done it.) A few things I’d do:

*Set up a variety of Google Alerts for the topics you cover. In this case, “Greensboro City Council” and “Guilford schools” and “UNCG” and “A&T” and the like. See who is on the web covering the same issues you are. Compare what they do with what you’re doing. With ice in your veins, decide whether a reader needs your story if they can read the other.

*Cross tab what you write about with the TV stations and other news media. If the police chief holds a news conference about say, what to do if you see a child locked in a car, it’s pretty likely at least one other news outlet will cover it, too. Again, does a reader need your version if TV’s version is good enough? *Each day, Google your primary content to find if others have scraped it off your site or have imitated it or if you can find similar stories elsewhere.

Then, once you have that data, use it to determine what you have to offer potential subscribers that is relevant, unique and worth paying for. Stating the obvious, if I can find most of what I need to know without any trouble and without any cost, why would I pay to get into your site?

Be careful, though, in deciding what you have that is worth paying for. Don’t be easy on yourself: Is it a strong editorial voice? I can get a lot of those elsewhere. Is it indepth college sports coverage? I can get a lot of that elsewhere. Is it broad entertainment news? Doesn’t the free weekly tab cover that? Is it intensely local news and information? Great — but it needs to be intensely local news and information I care about. If, for instance, it’s high school sports — you’ve lost me.

Be ruthless with yourself. Chances are the exercise will not only give you pause about what you’re offering online, it will cause you to re-evaluate what you write about in the first place. My advice is to put the emphasis on unique and relevant.

Robert G. Picard raises the ante with a story of his own about trying to find original reporting, but only finding journalists building on each other. “As this case shows, they are doing nothing new, adding nothing or little, and essentially copying each other and themselves. This gives readers nothing they cannot get elsewhere, so how can they expect people to see it as valuable.

“This value creation deficit is especially a challenge if news organizations want readers to pay for journalism, but it is increasingly a problem even in asking them to spend time reading free content.”

The only reading guide you need*

* Well, in truth, that I need

Updated

John Kroll published his list of the 100 books every journalist must read. It’s an outstanding list, filled with books of intelligence, insight and wonder, and books that I will never read, must or not.

I have only two book titles on my must read list. Let’s face it — only the most devoted journalists will read 100 books about the craft they practice every day. Time, interest and life get in the way. My reading list should appeal to those of us with the shorter attention spans.

The books:

* Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” – It should be read and reread by every journalist because it will make you a better writer. And it foretells the Internet’s fascination with lists. From the Wikipedia entry: It “comprising eight ‘elementary rules of usage’, ten ‘elementary principles of composition’, ‘a few matters of form’, a list of forty-nine ‘words and expressions commonly misused’, and a list of fifty-seven ‘words often misspelled’.”

* Roy Peter Clark’s  “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” —  Again, short. Again, a list. And again, every single tool in Clark’s toolkit fits a need. Study them, experiment with them, and they will improve your work.

Both provide advice to improve the journalist’s skills. But I have other non-books on my every-journalist-should-read list. These are more about expanding your knowledge and your thinking.

* Create a strong Twitter list full of journalists who are trailblazing, trying to find a journalistic future. People such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Stacy Kramer, Clay Shirky, Steve Buttry, Dan Kennedy, Mindy McAdams, Dave Winer, Mathew Ingram. And, of course, John Kroll. Here’s a list I created a few years ago, but it’s inadequate. Most of them have equally valuable blogs. Creating a list of journalists and thinkers – people that you want to have in your stream to challenge you when you need challenging — keeps you ahead of the game where the rules change quickly.

* Create an RSS feed that delivers to you the websites you like. I have many sites on my reader, but on my “must” list — primarily for their range — are Mashable, Gigaom, Nieman Journalism Lab and Mediagazer. I mention these because they’re filled with links to interesting stories, some of which may interest you and others won’t. But it’s about choice. And these links will send you in unexpected directions so that you can discover stories and information that you didn’t know that you wanted to know. (Sorta like the serendipity of turning a newspaper page.)

* Sign up for the American Press Institute’s daily email newsletter. Compiled by Millie Tran, it’s filled with links to important developments in journalism and media. Need a quick guide to what’s happening and what thought leaders are writing before you leave in the morning? (The answer is yes.) This is that.

This is a terribly incomplete list. I’m sure I’ve left out some of my favorites. It’s intended as a beginning. It may seem like a lot, but it’s not difficult to manage, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to spend as much or as little time as you have. I have many more sites I like to visit because I personally like the writer or his or her style. You can find your own. Like Kroll, I welcome additions.

And now, without all those must-read books on journalism to read, you can read books of fiction or history or political science or religion and truly expand your horizons.

Update: Lex adds “The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques.”

Sunday sampler

First, the front-page story count:

Four stories: Durham

Three stories: Lenoir, Winston-Salem and Sanford. Charlotte and Raleigh had three – one was a wire story. Wilmington had three – two were wire stories. Asheville had three – two were on the same topic.

Two stories: Gaston, Greensboro, High Point, Monroe

One story: Hickory, Shelby

Greensboro — Say you’re a county and you have a population that has a need for treatment of drug addiction. Say that the best treatment is at least 30 days in rehab. So, do you consider cutting the number of people you treat and reducing the number of days of treatment to 14? Most people would say no. But if you can save big money? Well…The News & Record brings us up to date with the future of substance addiction treatment in Guilford County.

Raleigh– Along similar lines, Wake County got out of the business of providing mental health services to county residents, believing private companies could serve them better and more efficiently. You know how this is going to turn out. The News & Observer: “As a result of errors and miscommunication, some people with mental illnesses or disabilities arrested for nonviolent offenses have been jailed for months in Wake County, waiting for court-ordered psychological evaluations that might help set them free – and lead to better treatment. The evaluations are supposed to take seven days.”

Fayetteville — I applaud the Observer for going to Oklahoma in pursuit of a story. Fewer and fewer papers do that kind of traveling when it doesn’t involve a sports team. The Observer went to Tulsa as part of its year-long effort to illuminate the problems of and possible solutions to crime. In this installment, the story is about an innovative pre-school program that is helping children graduate.

Paying for the paywall at the News & Record

Updated

My hometown newspaper and former employer, the News & Record, is introducing a paywall. Ever since Warren Buffett bought the paper, we knew it was coming. I don’t like it. I think it encourages people to avoid the paper — print and digital — altogether, and I hate that many editors are reduced to shilling for something most don’t actually believe benefits the public. (To his credit, Jeff is pretty direct in his message to readers.)

But I’ve written about my objections to paywalls  enough.

The surprising thing to me – and which I believe is unusual for newspaper paywalls – is that the N&R is charging more for a digital subscription than for a print subscription.

Currently, a 7-day, 52-week subscription costs $187.12. According to an ad in the newspaper today, the digital subscription is $215.40. (FYI, the subscription page on the website hasn’t been updated, at least that I can find.)

In comparison, the News & Observer charges $390 for a year’s print subscription, and only $69.95 for a digital subscription. The Star News in Wilmington charges $218.40 for the print edition, and $131.40 for a digital subscription.

But the N&R is cutting the other way. Editor/Publisher Jeff Gauger explains: “The reason for that variance? A print subscription permits us to subsidize the cost of content by providing access to your home or business for preprinted advertising circulars. A digital-only subscription lacks that advertising subsidy.”

Put aside the idea that many of us might pay not to get the preprints. The newspaper must weigh the costs of non-delivery against the potential loss of preprint revenue. Sending people to a website costs much less than delivering a newspaper to homes. No paper cost, no delivery cost, less production cost. But preprint advertisers pay for delivery to a certain number of homes. They don’t know how many people look at the ads vs. those who pull them from the paper and send them straight to the recycle bin. The advertiser can judge the effectiveness of the ads by the number of people who buy its product.

Here’s the thing: People who subscribe to the print paper, as I do, get digital access free. That means that it’s cheaper to get the paper and digital, than just to get digital.

Is the pricing structured to encourage digital users to subscribe to the paper? After all, the more subscribers a paper has, the more it can charge advertisers. (Despite what many readers think, advertising pays the bulk of the cost of a newspaper, not subscription fees.) I doubt this is the actual intent, but it does make some perverse sense to the consumer. Unless you can get what you need from the website from its 20 free articles per month.

None of this changes my mind that paywalls are a short-term fix and, without valuable new content, a long-term failure. But it will be interesting to watch.

Update: After mentioning this on Twitter, several people chimed in to say their local papers charge more for digital than print. Several also said it makes sense to try to drive people back to print, even if they don’t want it. Me, I get why they’re doing it; I just don’t think it’ll work.

So, charging more for the web to encourage people to subscribe to the paper even though they don’t want the paper is a viable strategy? I’m not convinced. Imagine this: A person dropped the newspaper subscription because he could read what he wanted from the paper’s website. Now, he can subscribe to the newspaper again to read the paper AND the website…it’ll just cost him nearly $200. My bet is that he’s going to read his 20 free articles and go elsewhere. Or maybe that’s just what I’ve done at every newspaper where I’ve hit a paywall.

Update II: More from Newspaper Next and Nieman Journalism Lab.

 

Sunday sampler

Where we are on front page stories.

4 stories on the front — Durham

3 stories — Greensboro, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Lenoir, Monroe, Raleigh (one wire); Fayetteville (one wire); Wilmington (two wire).

2 stories — Asheville, High Point, Hickory, Gaston

1 story — Shelby

Charlotte– As the nation deals with the influx of children from south of the border, the Observer writes of a 9-year-old from Honduras. The story puts a human face on the numbers.  “She arrived in Charlotte last month to be reunited with her mother, after a trek from Honduras that had her hiking for days, forging rivers and clinging to the tops of freight trains. She was accompanied by her grandmother, a woman in her 50s who is being held in a Texas detention facility.”

Raleigh — Two stories in the News & Observer. One about environmental tests of water in streams near the 8-acre cleanup site where Ward Transformer dumped toxic PCPs years ago. As the story says, don’t eat the fish. The second is about sexual abuse in the 1970s at Carolina Friends school in Durham. The N&O’s story is an excellent write-through of the revelations that came out last month.

Greensboro – Jim Melvin, former mayor, former head of a local S&L and now head of a charitable foundation that invests in Greensboro, is known as Mr. Greensboro even as he hasn’t held public office in 30+ years. He is disliked by many for politics long in the past. I’ve always liked him for his passion and directness. N&R columnist Jeri Rowe shows a side of Melvin rarely seen — talking about his father’s murder.

 

Sunday sampler

A little different this week.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the shrinking front page. Fewer stories…fewer reasons to pick up the paper. Here is an update, starting at the top…or bottom, depending on your perspective:

* Four local stories on the front page: Durham

* Four stories on the front: Wilmington, but two are wire stories and the other two are on the same topic.

* Three local stories: Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Sanford

* Three stories: Raleigh and Fayetteville (one wire on each)

* Two local stories: Greensboro, Gaston, High Point, Asheville, Hickory, Monroe.

* One local story: Shelby

Perhaps coincidentally, I found only two that grabbed my attention this morning.

Charlotte — Remember the story about Subway rolls containing yoga mat material? I didn’t know it was a Charlotte activist — the Observer’s headline refers to her as the “food babe,” which is apparently what she calls herself — who said it.  The Observer investigates and finds some of her claims suspicious, unfounded or misleading. Fascinating piece.

Fayetteville– As the legislature argues in Raleigh over the budget, state agencies are winging it…or, in some cases, not. The Observer focuses on the effect on state schools and universities. Given my current situation, it’s personal. “Meanwhile, the university needs to hire adjunct faculty and others to provide enough class sections for students scheduled to graduate in the next two semesters, yet it doesn’t know if it can, Anderson said. A section typically has 30 to 35 students. If no decision is made soon, Anderson will have to proceed.

“‘You end up not offering those sections. That’s all you can do,” he said. “And then, students will then start requesting to try to get into sections that are closed, which gluts those sections. So it’s always a domino effect.’”

 

Why add stress to your audience?

What if you knew that one of the major story lines in your paper added to the daily stress of your readership? Would you react to that? Would you figure out how to help your readers process that storyline differently?

What if you knew that “news” in general, added to the stress of your viewership? Would it change your news judgment on what and how you broadcast?

The latest report, not on news per se, but on American stress: “Americans cited “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.”

Think about that for a moment: “The most frequent daily stressor on their lives.”

This is my hometown newspaper, but on any day, you can find newspaper front pages similar to this across the country.

No. 2 on the list was “Watching the news.”

What does this mean for news organizations? A great deal, but my guess is that few will give the survey a second thought. They have enough surveys and enough problems. After all, news consumption is up, even as people actually paying for newspapers has declined for years and the audience for broadcast news is sinking.

But it’s a huge opportunity for those that want to think seriously about their future. Yes, the news is stressful, but your reporting of it doesn’t always have to be. Go out and talk to people and listen to what they tell you. Here is a short version of what I’d say:

* Give less about political bickering. Fights between politicians create a great deal of smoke but little fire. This story about an ethics accusation that is quickly disproved is a good example. Most people don’t care about the kind of middle-school fighting that makes up today’s politics. I know it’s election time and these stories happen. But understand that people are angry at politicians and government. Figure out how your coverage acknowledges and adapts to that.

* Give me less about government operations that have little impact on people. Rather, present government stories from the vantage of how actions affect real people, rather than politicians.

* I know better than to suggest TV turn down political ad money. But you must realize that people hate attack ads. They even make me – a political junkie – change the channel. (This is my favorite: “People don’t like political ads.”) I don’t know how you alleviate that — would fact-checking them hurt your bottom line? — but I’d get your experts working on it.

* The axiom of “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” may work to increase viewership, but it is a dereliction of your community responsibility. This fear-mongering is wrong on every psychological level. And there is data for that and the unnecessary stress it puts in viewers’ minds. Most of us are not consumed by murder or break-ins or traffic fatalities. Few of your viewers know the victims. What is the public service value you’re offering?

* Give me more of two things: investigative reporting and stories of success.

Investigative reporting implies negative reporting about government. But focusing on issues that matter to your readers and viewers is the key, which leads back to asking them. For me, I’d say cut through the bullshit and tell me what’s what. If a politician speaks political double-speak — and watch “House of Cards” for what that is — don’t quote them or call them on it.

Stories of success – last year I called the good news stories — inform and reflect the community more than political stories or crime stories. They reduce stress in people’s lives, and they get talked about.

Plotting your future in this news world is tough. What we know is that ignoring customers, doing little different and playing it safe isn’t the correct path.