Always have an agenda

From today’s Washington Post in a story about President Trump’s phone habits:

“The chatterbox in chief has eschewed the traditional way that presidents communicate with members of Congress, calling lawmakers at all hours of the day without warning and sometimes with no real agenda. Congressional Republicans reciprocate in kind, increasingly dialing up the president directly to gauge his thinking after coming to terms with the fact that ultimately, no one speaks for Trump but Trump himself.”

One day many years ago, I came back from lunch and Cole Campbell was sitting at the desk next to me, scribbling something on a yellow legal pad. Cole was my boss and had an office so I wasn’t used to him sitting in what was, at the time, Stan Swofford’s desk.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Working on the agenda for my trip to Raleigh with the publisher,” he said.

“Agenda?” I asked. We were big on holding efficient meetings in those days.

“I’m working on my version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Cole said. “We need three news positions — two on the state desk and one on the city desk. I want to talk about how our paper will pursue civic journalism, and I plan to talk about my future with Landmark.”

He gathered the legal pad and stood up. “When you get private time with the big boss, you should be active, not passive. I have his ear for the 90-minute drive to Raleigh. I’m not going to waste it. So you have an agenda. Always have an agenda.”


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: Both the News & Observer feature stories pegged to the one-year anniversary of the Parkland murders. (Published five days ago, it was part of a national project tracing what’s happened since. Hint, 1,157 young people have been killed by gunfire.) It’s a huge project, impressive in scope and reporting. “The fatal shootings involve a variety of situations, including children playing with unsecured guns, family members who set out to kill loved ones and then themselves, and teens settling conflicts with guns. But the killings don’t tell the whole story. In 2016 and 2017, at least another 672 teens and kids in North Carolina visited a hospital for a firearm-related injury and 242 were hospitalized.” Read it all.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times follows on the detention of more than 200 people in the state by federal immigration agents. Mayors of the larger cities in the state have released a statement of protest. I hit the paywall on the Citizen-Times site and cannot read the story on pages inside the paper. Today you can see the front page here.

Hell hath no fury like a newspaper comics reader scorned

Early in my stint as editor of the News & Record, I decided the comics pages needed updating. We ran an in-paper readership survey and replaced three or four old, tired strips with fresher ones. Two we dropped were Gasoline Alley and Mark Trail.

I spent much of the next week listening to angry readers who wondered how the publisher could have hired such an idiot. Seriously: I’m old now and Gasoline Alley and Mark Trail are still terrible.

One time I pulled a comic strip because a character referred to being SOL. I tried to imagine a parent explain to an 8-year-old what that meant. But at about the same time, I watched my own children quickly toss aside the comics page without reading it. Cartoons on TV were more interesting. What I had always heard —  comics were a gateway for young people to get into the newspaper habit — had run its course.

I soon decided that messing with the comics was a fool’s game; there’s nothing to gain. And newspapers still haven’t learned this lesson. Want some current reader reaction?  Here are two letters published in today’s News & Record relating to this. The first line of one: “Read my lips: Just leave the comics pages alone.”

In my day,  I did. I didn’t change a comic strip again unless the strip itself stopped publishing.

So I was intrigued by a tweet earlier this week from my colleague Andy Bechtel.

Hilarity ensued. Well, a long thread did, ending with twitterati promoting or trashing specific strips, games and puzzles. But some light pierced through the fog.

Robyn Tomlin, the editor of the N&O, has had the same experience with comic strips as I.

Brooke Cain, a reporter for the N&O, responded to a comment I made with a smart observation that hadn’t occurred to me.

That’s exactly why my neighbor subscribes. She needs the Sudoku. If my paper canceled the Jumble and bridge column — and Carolina has a bad season — my wife would be finished with the paper.

I don’t read the comics page. I saw Andy’s tweet and instinctively agreed. But that was me wearing my private citizen hat. Brooke reminded me that editors wear a different one. And readers value comics and puzzles in the same way that they prefer ice cream to broccoli.

Mess with the comics at your own peril.

You want a high gpa or you want a reporter

Speaking of Howard Troxler, he and I joined the News & Observer about the same time. He came straight from UNC-Chapel Hill while I had wandered a bit at other newspapers.

We were at lunch one day, and he talked about his hiring interview at the N&O.

“They asked me why my GPA was so low,” he said. “I said, ‘Because I had a full-time job working at the Daily Tar Heel. Do you want someone with a high GPA or do you want someone who’s already been a reporter for a daily newspaper for three years?'”

The N&O made the right choice. Howard eventually became a popular columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: $960 million in renovations needed in Guilford County schools? Oh, that’s only the first phase. “Southern High School, which is about 10 minutes or so south of Greensboro, should be replaced entirely at an estimated cost of about $46 million, consultants said. Consultants recommended Smith High School, which has buildings dating back to 1963, get about $37 million in renovations.” School board members and county commissioners are, umm, hesitant, as they should be.

Charlotte: I always admired the basketball savvy of Carl Scheer. It saddens me to learn that he has dementia. Scott Fowler of the Observer writes endearingly of the man.

Raleigh: As an adjunct at UNC-Chapel Hill, this sentence in the News & Observer hurts me: “At UNC, coaching compensation, including those for assistant coaches, increased by 39.1 percent in the past five years. At N.C. State, it grew by 28 percent.” The N&O goes on to look at the money the athletic program brings in at UNC & State. And it’s huge. I mean, HUGE.

Winston-Salem: Looks like UNC and the Virginia colleges aren’t the only ones with racist images in their yearbooks. Wake Forest has some, too, according to the Journal. “WFU President Nathan Hatch, a historian, was disheartened and disturbed to learn that old issues of The Howler include lynching references, racial slurs and photos of students wearing blackface, according to an article on the university’s website.” The News & Observer also follows up on the UNC yearbook mess with an interview with the former editor.

The state of the American newspaper, 2019

Update 1: Well, they’ve taken down the video. Essentially, it shows empty hallways and empty desks.

Update 2 below.

Want a metaphor of the hollowing out of the newspaper industry? I walked these halls  for 27 years when I worked for the News & Record.

In a way it’s deceptive. The building isn’t vacant, but part of it is. A staff of hard-working, serious-minded journalists who want to serve their readers, our community, and to get it right put out the news every day. The newsroom — not shown here — has desks that overflow with paper and coffee cups and the detritus that all journalists save, just like newsrooms everywhere.

But there are fewer of them. Many fewer. I still bear the emotional scars of contributing to the emptiness.

I’ve been in the building once since I left in 2011 — to mourn the passing of a beloved colleague — and I didn’t venture beyond the first-floor auditorium. I didn’t want to; it was haunting enough then.

My friend Jeri Rowe sent the video to me and said it would break my heart. It doesn’t. It makes me sad. The building is filled with memories of journalists here and gone. Of personalities that were larger than life. Of stories that kicked ass and won awards and made a difference.

But that time is over, or soon will be. The same day Jeri sent me this, Jeff Jarvis  posed  this question in an incisive piece on Medium: “Is it possible to turn a content-based, information-based business into one that is built on and begins with the public conversation and is based on service?”

He believes we can. I do, too.

My old newspaper building is for sale, and  when it is, it will be torn down to make way for something new. And that’s probably the most apt metaphor. The staff will move to a smaller place and, I hope, find new and better ways to start the conversation and to serve the community.

Update: Cindy Loman, editor of the N&R, writes: “Though we have lots of empty spaces (thus the plan to move to a smaller building) the video is misleading. It spotlights the former work area of the ad department, which has moved downstairs, to a brighter area that offers more interaction among the employees.”

“When you see a vacuum, fill it.”


I tell a version of this story every semester. I say “a version” because it’s a 40-year-old memory.

In November 1979, members of the Klan and American Nazis shot and killed five people and wounded 11 others in what has become known as the Greensboro Massacre. I won’t describe it; that’s what the hyperlink is for. It was a national news story for several reasons. A gun fight with five dead in the middle of a housing community. The Klan, Nazis and Communists. And TV and newspaper reporters watched it all happen. (We have film!)

I didn’t live in Greensboro at the time. I was an education reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh. I was drinking a beer at a friend’s house and watching a football game when a news report about the shooting came on. I thought, “How awful, but that’s one helluva story!” I make no apologies for that reaction. Like many reporters, I see mayhem through two lenses. As a human being, I was appalled by what happened on the city streets. As a journalist, I saw a great news story.

But it wasn’t my city and I wasn’t working that Saturday so I went back to the game.

Across town, another N&O reporter hopped in his car and raced to Greensboro to get the story for the N&O so the paper would have our own story. (I remember the good reporter as Bruce Siceloff; Bruce remembers it as Howard Troxler. Both worked on the State Desk.) The way I heard the story the following Monday was that Siceloff/Troxler didn’t ask an editor for permission to drive the 75 miles to Greensboro. He recognized a good story and he wanted in.

A true reporter, he filled the vacuum.

Meanwhile, I was filling nothing but my stomach, drinking beer and watching a forgettable football game.

Later, I told that story to one of my friends, Cole Campbell. He said, “He filled the vacuum. You didn’t. Here’s your lesson: When you see a vacuum, fill it.”

** Bruce clarifies my memory: “Howard Troxler wrote the main story- I don’t know whether he drove from Raleigh to Greensboro on his own volition or was called at his home that Saturday, as I was.

“By then I was the city govt reporter and I was tired after a long week of early meetings and late meetings. Sorry to confess I was not eager at first to go, but Bob Brooks, the managing editor, was eager. He wanted me to write a sidebar on Communist Workers Party victim Paul Bermanzohn. I wrote instead about previous clashes and the CWP’s rash decision to dare KKK types to show up for their Death to the Klan rally. They showed up with a car trunk full of guns.”

Sunday sampler

So pleased that few of the state’s front pages had Super Bowl stories, and only a few featured stories about the Virginia governor’s stupidity.

Charlotte: “During the decade that ended in 2017, one city of Charlotte utility worker collected more than $330,000 in overtime. He was among more than 20 government employees who, in some years, earned more overtime than salary, state records show.” Well. The Observer analyzed city employees’ overtime pay and found some extreme cases. Love it when the local newspaper investigates.

Lenoir: The News-Topic features a story about the profits involved in bankruptcy. It takes one bankruptcy case, Heritage Home Group, and tracks the amount of money the company overseeing the bankruptcy is billing: $257,649. “That amounts to an average of $515.92 an hour for the five AP Services officials involved.” The story includes a description of a Greensboro hotel where an employee stayed for two nights, at a total cost of $543.09. The story itself is block by a paywall, but for Sunday readers, here is a replica of the paper’s front page, courtesy of the Newseum. (This link will rot Monday morning.)

Wilmington: The lede on the Star-News story says it all: “A racially imbalanced elementary school program. Two former teachers accused of sex crimes against students. A high school girl who was assaulted, and claims her school did not protect her from her attacker.” OK, I’m reading that story in which a parent group wants the school system’s administration investigated, saying officials mishandled or covered up wrongdoing.

Sunday sampler

Fayetteville: Here a depressing fact: “From busts of illicit “massage” parlors to allegations of child labor, Cumberland County far exceeded even the largest North Carolina urban areas for new human trafficking cases last year.” The Observer quotes the DA as crediting the focus of law enforcement, which suggests that human trafficking in other cities is way worse than the numbers show.

Winston-Salem: Federal government works on furlough are applying for unemployment benefits. And get this: because of a 2015 state law, they must prove they’ve searched for work each week. “Which means furloughed workers are having to apply for job openings they may have little, if any, intention to fill.” Your governments at work.

Raleigh: This formation of the UNC Board of Governors has shown it to be incompetent, firing Tom Ross, driving out Margaret Spellings, perplexed by Silent Sam, and, now, giving Carol Folt no alternative but to resign. The board is an embarrassment to a great public university system. Read the N&O’s piece.

Henderson: The Daily Dispatch has what looks to be a compelling story about a cold case involving the killing of a 12-year-old by a 13-year-old, but it’s behind a paywall. Here is the start of it on the front page. (This link will only last through Sunday.)

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The new sheriff in Mecklenburg has ended the county jail’s  practice of holding teenage offenders in solitary confinement, This as published online on Thursday, but made it to the front page of the Observer today. “Once you get in there, it’s like being trapped in a box,” said the inmate, who has begun serving a sentence for armed robbery “I think it’s a crazy life. Just sitting in that cell.” The inmate said he is happy for the new opportunities outside the DDU. He is attending classes with other young offenders at Jail North and hopes to get his GED.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times published a piece by Kirk Ross of Carolina Public Press about the 2019 issues before the elected officials in Raleigh. It ran on the CPP’s site on Dec. 31. No matter, it’s a good piece that everyone should read. It includes discussion of hurricane recovery, Medicaid expansion and the 9th Congressional District.