Love is blue

I was meeting with two female students over the summer, and before we got started they were talking about guys they were seeing. Or not seeing, a status apparently dependent on the mood of the guy in both cases. In their telling, the guys were disrespecting them and not paying attention to their wants and needs. Generally, being dicks. My word, not theirs. (Remembering myself at age 21, I don’t doubt that their stories are dead-on accurate.)

After listening for a while. I said, “You know, love isn’t supposed to be this hard. You shouldn’t have to wonder about his fidelity or his attention or his respect. Find a man who will make love easy.”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever said anything so simple yet so hard to do.

Sunday sampler, Veterans Day edition

Most of the front pages of N.C. papers feature stories about veterans. Some of them are notable:

Greensboro: Maybe because the Vietnam War happened in my time and I didn’t serve, but I like to read stories about those who did. The News & Record has a good one about Allen Broach, a community leader and philanthropist, who carries that weight, as writer Margaret Moffett calls it. “He shot. Was shot. Threw grenades. Had grenades thrown at him. Took shrapnel from head to toe from a rocket-propelled grenade which he still carries today. Saw body parts lying in the mud. Listened to the cries of teenage boys, his buddies, as they lay wounded or dying. He woke up each day believing it would be his last.”

Greensboro: The News & Record packages with it a good story about Combat Female Veterans Families United, a nonprofit that helps with female vets get back to civilian life.

Raleigh: The N&O publishes a frightening story about veterans and illnesses possibly connected to their service. “Veterans saw a spike in urinary, prostate, liver and blood cancers during nearly two decades of war, and some military families now question whether their exposure to toxic environments is to blame, according to a McClatchy investigation.” Read the whole thing.

And equally frightening but not about vets:

Raleigh: Flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms strain sewage treatment plants to overflowing. “The deluge that comes from hurricane downpours and river flooding pushes sewage systems past their limits. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, with their heavy rains and record-setting river heights, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated and partly treated sewage burst from manholes. The sewage flowed from plants and leaked from pump stations.”

Read more here:



The Good Stuff is still good

In one of my darker moods at the News & Record, I told one of our editors that my legacy at the paper was bound to be: “He laid off dozens of journalists, and he created The Good Stuff.

I am confident the former still remains, but I suspect the latter drops off the list. So, let me tell you about it.

The publisher had been bugging me about getting more “good news” in the paper. I didn’t disagree with him; we needed to tell the stories of the community, good and bad. I just didn’t have the people to spare to do it. (See aforementioned layoffs.)

I took this as opportunity to go to the crowd for help. I asked our readers to write about the good deeds that they saw or that they experienced. “Who better to report the good news than the people who experienced it themselves?” I told the publisher.

I believed that. I also believed that that would allow the journalists on the staff to work on other things. As the readers wrote in with particularly good stories, we’d cherry pick those and write them ourselves, I thought. As it turned out, we didn’t need to very often — readers wrote just fine.

We put a short three-paragraph blurb in the paper and got an immediate response. Readers told us about people paying it forward, about people helping to change a stranger’s flat tire, about people buying a meals for a couple of men in military uniforms, about a neighbor mowing the lawn of a friend who was ill. Sometimes they were sappy. Sometimes they made me tear up. Simple acts of kindness tend to do that.

Jennifer Burton, one of our page designers at the time, was asked to design a logo.

“What do you want to call it?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How about Good Stuff,” she responded.

That is how great leadership works, people.

This was about 12 years ago. For a while, we had enough to run a standing Good Stuff story every day. It slowly ran out of steam, and now the columns are published sporatically, but they’re still alive.

And I would still be proud if they are part of my legacy.





Who is Marcus Paige for $1,000, Alex

During his sophomore year, Marcus Paige was named to the first-team ACC and second-team All American. He was also an excellent student, smart, engaged and hard-working. In one of my journalism classes, during a lesson on interviewing, I asked him to speak to the class about being interviewed. He certainly had enough experience on the receiving end of the questions. I figured he’d have some advice for his classmates as they learned to ask the questions.

(His best advice that I recall was to ask more original questions.)

After he did his thing, I asked for questions, and a student raised his hand: “That was interesting, but who are you that you’ve been interviewed so much?”

The class, which included several other athletes, burst into laughter. It’s like those people interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel who can’t identify the president.

Marcus smiled – but did not laugh – and responded politely: “Well, I’m on the basketball team, and basketball is pretty big here.” The self-deprecation was real.

In the other student’s defense, he happened to be a transfer student in his first semester. Not all students at Carolina are obsessed with basketball.

P.S. This post was inspired by this tweet.

Sunday sampler

I spent 30 seconds this morning looking at all the “Did you fall back?” graphics on front pages and wondering if home delivery subscribers really needed that reminder of Standard time. But anyway…

Kinston, Jacksonville and New Bern: All three Gatehouse papers feature a good and important story about access to broadband in rural North Carolina. The state legislature approved a broadband grant program at $15 million annually for 10 years. “Our community will fall behind if we don’t do it,” Myers said of the ECB rationale. “People need internet. They need it yesterday.”

Raleigh: The N&O examines high school football with reduced hitting during practices. It’s a trend. “As research continues to link concussions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease that can cause dementia later in life, participation in high school football across North Carolina has declined 25 percent since 2010.”

Fayetteville: The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this week on a copyright case that will have huge implications for who owns creative work. And it’s a case of the little guy against the state with big players weighing in on both sides. “The lawsuit was filed in late 2015 by Rick Allen, owner of Nautilus Productions in Fayetteville. Allen is an underwater videographer who says the state of North Carolina illegally published five of his videos to YouTube of archeological work at the Blackbeard shipwreck plus illegally published in a state newsletter a photo he made of a research barge working at the wrecksite.”

Money for a job well done

“Did you get a raise?”

That’s my wife asking. She takes care of the money in our family because she’s the smart one.


“Then why do you have an extra $100 in your paycheck,” she said.

“Let me see that,” I said. Sure enough, there was more money in the check. On the stub, it said, “Bonus: $100.”

“Looks like a got a bonus,” I said. “News to me. But I’m clearly pretty special.”

“No, seriously,” she said.

Normally, at the paper, the editor tells you that you’re getting a one-time bonus for an exceptional job, but no one mentioned anything about it to me. At the time, I was one of five assistant city editors. Editor’s note:This was about 30 years ago, when the newspaper opened its doors every morning and people threw in money.

The next day I took the paycheck stub into work and told Faye Jolley, who was editor Ben Bowers’ administrative assistant, that there was a mistake in my pay.

“Let me see that,” she said, unknowingly mimicking me as she took it. Her face fell. “Oh, no! This wasn’t supposed to go to you! I made a mistake.”

I said, “That’s OK. You can take it out. Mistakes happen.”

She took my pay stub into Ben’s office. A minute later, she returned and said, “He says don’t worry about it. It’s too much trouble. You probably did something worth a bonus.”


Those were the good old days when newspapers had hundreds to throw around.

Kay Hagan, a public servant and a friend

I have a lot of memories about my interactions with Kay Hagan, who died yesterday. She was, as everyone said yesterday, smart and tough and passionate. A true public servant.

We met in 1998 when I was editorial page editor, and she was a candidate for the state Senate. I was impressed then and, if memory serves, we endorsed her. Since then, I’d visit with her when we’d run into each other at the grocery store. I’d talk with her on the soccer sidelines as our daughters were growing up. I spoke to her Sunday School class at First Pres about my role as editor. And, of course, we’d often talk politics — when she wanted to discuss issues or our coverage.

I remember her best, though, for her role in one of my favorite memories at the paper. Back in 2010, we were planning our 50th anniversary coverage of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, and Metro Editor Teresa Prout came up with the idea to ask President Obama to write what it meant to him. She liked the idea and, as a U.S. senator at the time, took it to the president. She made it happen, and we stripped his column across the top of the front page on Feb. 1, 2010. (Can you imagine what President Trump would do with a request like that on the 60th anniversary in February?)

The next time I saw Kay, I thanked her for helping us. I don’t remember her exact response – and she said it better than this – but it was something like: “I was happy to be a part of it. His message was so good, and it describes the power and inspiration of the people in Greensboro.”

Sad that someone who embodied that power and inspiration passed away yesterday.

Sunday non-sampler

Nearly every Sunday morning for seven years, I’ve checked the “Front Pages” at the Newseum to create this post. The Newseum closes at the end of the year, and I’ve been thinking about what that means the end of the Sunday sampler.

Because the Newseum is late loading this morning, I thought I’d see if I could shift to visiting each newspaper website to pick out stories that interested me. It would be a different type of sampler, but it could still be good. Two differences: It takes me much longer, and the stories featured on the websites are much different than the ones on the newspaper front pages. That makes sense, of course, as web readers and newspaper readers have different wants and needs.

Fortunately, none of that will be necessary because the Newseum will continue its featuring the days front pages for a while longer.

P.S. I didn’t see much on the front pages today.

A Venus flytrap waiting for an insect

“John Robinson may be the only person I know who is capable of making a whole room of people terrified of him without saying a word.”

That is going on my tombstone. Wait, maybe this will:

“He talks with an old-fashioned accent that makes him sound wiser than he probably is.”

Those are two of my students talking about me. Or writing, as it were.

As part of a lesson on writing description, I had them describe me in no more than three paragraphs. It may not have been the smartest assignment. They were aware that I was their teacher, even though the exercise wasn’t graded and I encouraged them to write whatever without repercussions. To tell the truth, it was more risky for my ego. But I had tried having other classes describe scenes of nature, and of random people and in coffee shops, and they were all boring. So I tried this.

Many of them wrote about my height — “legs longer than most people’s bodies” — and voice — either “calm and reassuring” or “unanimated.” One compared me to a Venus flytrap waiting for an insect. Apparently I need to smile more and be more animated in my movements. Several referred to my usual uniform of a dress shirt and slacks — hey, it’s a sign of respect to the students and craft!

The best descriptions were from the students who not only mentioned the physical, but also used what they had observed throughout the semester — my actions, my words and my thoughts. And most of them nailed the assignment and described me pretty accurately. There were funny lines, though.

“John Robinson speaks like a character from an old Southern movie — warm, drawn-out and a bit twangy. The voice is comforting even when he’s ripping apart your writing in his office.”

And this one, which was prescient:

“He says that this won’t be graded and there are no expectations, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be judgment. The first day of class he said he both loves people and he also hates them. There will be judgment. He does care about them, a lot, but more than he would let on for you to believe. I guarantee as I walk out of the room I will get another sly smile, begging the question, “So, how do you think you did?

Some are precise:

“Robinson is the kind of professor who tricks students on the first day of class. He talks a lot about harsh grading, challenging work — all spoken with a no-BS attitude that makes a 20-year-old think, “This guy’s a hard ass.” 

“But the facade comes down pretty quickly after that.”

And while I don’t know what some of the words mean, I’m taking it as a compliment:

“He interlocks his tatty fingers while he speaks. He routinely puts his hand in his pocket to jingle the coins as he wait for students to answer his questions. He has a smear grin that is warm to see from an aged man.”

Yes, I was there

Back in 2006, I was on a panel at a Nieman Foundation gathering at Harvard. I was flattered and excited because Nieman, because Harvard and because I was included. The topic was the changing nature of journalism — what else? — and the digital revolution. I was there because of our newspaper’s effort to create an online town square.

Seems like 100 years ago, doesn’t it?

There were four of us on the panel — me, a New York Times reporter, a prominent journalism academic, and Sylvia Poggioli, a CNN correspondent. (She’s the only one whose name I remember.) Without a doubt, I was the least prominent person there. And I didn’t want to screw up or, worse, say something dumb.

I was by far the most “radical” in terms of what I thought the business needed to do digitally. I talked about all the things people I respected taught me: going to where people gathers; readers knowing more than me; engaging with readers and listening to what they wanted; etc. I was asked if editors read reporter blog posts before they were published. I said no, that we trusted our reporters to know what they were doing. A reporter with the Atlanta Constitution said, “I imagine your legal department doesn’t like that.” I said, “Well, since we don’t have a legal department….” and everyone laughed.

When it was over, I was feeling pretty good. I thanked my fellow panelists and mingled with the crowd. I found the Constitution reporter and apologized for being a smart aleck; she said she was going to lobby her editors for the same freedom.

I drifted toward the elevator, thinking that I’d held my own, said some smart things, and maybe even made people think. I should do this more often, I thought.

When the elevator opened, Poggioli was standing there. I smiled and said, “That was a fun panel.”

She responded, “Oh, were you there?”

Yeah, maybe I won’t take my act on the road.