Dear Gov. McCrory: being anti-liberal arts is being anti-business

I join the legions of Republicans who must be wondering why their politicians are actively branding the party as anti-education. I don’t mean anti-education bureaucracy, as in “let’s get rid of the Department of Education.”

I mean anti-schooling, anti-learning.

The GOP-controlled legislature, with Gov. Pat McCrory’s approval, has cut school funding and demonized teachers. It gave most teachers a raise, but only after months of protests outside the legislative building.

It didn’t just squeeze the K-12 system. Led by Gov. McCrory, it cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s acclaimed university system.

He started the campaign soon after he took office.  “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

He went further last week: “Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday said that North Carolina needs fewer journalists and lawyers and more truck drivers and technical workers as he unveiled his ’1,000 in 100′ work force development initiative in Greensboro as part of a three-city tour.”

According to the Triad Business Journal, McCrory said: “We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many.” 

This post is not against truck drivers and other blue-collar trades. They perform an important role in the economy. But why not just promote the need for people in those jobs? Why denigrate those may want to do something else? Why not promote all of the educational opportunities the state has to offer?

Here is another informed voice. Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, makes the case that the key to success in modern business is hiring “smart creatives.”

From the New York Times: “Smart creatives, the authors write, are impatient, outspoken risk-takers who are easily bored and change jobs frequently. They are intellectually versatile, typically ‘combining technical depth with business savvy and creative flair,’ the authors note.”

I suspect the governor, if asked, would agree with Schmidt. I suspect he would say we need both truck drivers and “smart creatives.” (Perhaps some truck drivers are smart creatives.) Maybe.

Of course, McCrory’s public words don’t encourage smart creatives. He’s basically saying, “If you want to pursue that kind of thing, great. We don’t need that and won’t support you.”

In that atmosphere, is North Carolina the sort of place you want to locate your business? That should give the state’s leaders — people who say that jobs and economic development are their top priorities — something to think about.

It makes people — even average thinkers like me — wonder why the state’s leadership is embracing the idea that higher education in the liberal arts is bad. It’s divisive and offensive to those who see the value in a college education.

And it’s bad for business.

Sunday sampler

Charlotte and Raleigh — The Observer and the News & Observer teamed up, as they do, to do an in-depth look at Thom Tillis and his leadership of the state House. It’s insightful, particularly when it compares his campaign message of working across the aisle with earlier comments about gut-punching Democrats and to “divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.”

Gaston – You know about all the military equipment the federal government has given police and Sheriff’s departments throughout the country? The Gazette reports that the program was suspended because the state failed to account for all of its equipment by the deadline. And the criminal justice agencies want it back. Great. 

 

Write with ‘going viral’ in mind

Updated twice

Which story would you read? One with the headline, “McCrory: Match training to employers’ needs,” and which starts: “More than 18,000 people in Guilford County are looking for a job. But employers can’t fill 1,500 openings for skilled workers.”

Or

One with the headline, “Gov. McCrory: We need fewer lawyers, fewer journalists and more truck drivers,” and which starts: “Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday said that North Carolina needs fewer journalists and lawyers and more truck drivers and technical workers as he unveiled his “1,000 in 100” work force development initiative in Greensboro as part of a three-city tour.”

The first came from the News & Record, the second from the Triad Business Journal. Both cover the event in Greensboro in fine journalistic fashion. Both make the same point, presumably covering the governor’s comments accurately. And, presumably, some readers prefer the News & Record’s approach and others like the Business Journal’s.

But which story do you think went viral, engaging people on the social networks and adding traffic that doesn’t usually accompany a story about the governor announcing a jobs initiative?

Friday morning I shared the Business Journal’s story on Facebook – originally posted by Journal Editor Mark Sutter. Right now, it has been shared 17 times by other Facebook friends. My post alone got 59 comments. And that’s just mine. It doesn’t count all the other people who have posted that story. (It has been posted several times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds.)

While I am sure the News & Record’s story was posted on both social networks, I doubt it went viral. (I never saw it on either Facebook or Twitter.) The Business Journal’s story went beyond the social networks. It circulated on the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school’s faculty listserv. It evoked a published response from Susan King, dean of the J-School. The governor’s comments in the story were fact-checked by Mark Binker at WRAL. Even the News & Record’s assistant editorial page editor, Doug Clark, wrote a blog post about it. (To his credit, properly crediting and linking to the Business Journal.)

The difference in the two stories, of course, is that Katie Arcieri of the Journal used the Gov. McCrory’s smack at journalists and lawyers in her lead versus the generic lead of the N&R. One way to go viral is to insult or mock specific groups of people, and the governor provided the news media the ammunition.

The challenge, of course, is for traditional print journalists to write with virality in mind rather than using the institutional voice, which tends to be straight, conservative and, often, vanilla. Of course, their publication needs to want them to, to train them and to encourage them.

Update: Mark Sutter explains in the comments: While the post did get lot of page views for us, I suspect it was only a very small fraction of the hits the item got on the Web as a whole. Our story – and thus McCrory’s comments – was picked up by Romenesko, Dylan Byers on Politico, WRAL, etc. and while they appropriately linked to us, I suspect few people clicked on those links. They had already “read the story”, albeit as summarized by Romenesko, etc.  I also suspect Romenesko or Byers may have gotten more total hits than we did, which is pretty interesting when you think about it.

Also, as the story quickly spread from the Triad Business Journal, the fact that we were the source became increasingly obscure. The Charlotte Observer, for instance, reported on it and the average person might have thought an Observer reporter was at the event themselves. They did have a link, but it was to Politico. So we not only didn’t get any page views from it, we didn’t really even get credit as the source, except very indirectly.

Not saying there was anything wrong done there, only that our connection as the source became obscure pretty fast as the item was aggregated.

Update: David Beard, director of digital content for the Washington Post, suggested the Beatles have a song about aggregation and its point.

Sunday sampler

Another good week for North Carolina Sunday front pages.

Asheville – So, the Asheville Police Department videotapes a Moral Mountain rally, and when the city manager asks about it, the police say it was no big deal, it was for training purposes. Great, the Citizen Times says, it’s a public record so let us see it. Hold up, the city attorney’s office says, the recording is exempt from public records because it could be used for criminal intelligence and criminal investigations. This is the kind of story that only makes sense to lawyers and people with something to hide. The APD has been recording rallies for years, according to the Citizen-Times. Great work, newspaper.

Fayetteville – Politicians like to generalize about poverty, homelessness and minimum wage. It’s always good to bring it down to the personal level, which is what the Observer did. “About one in seven households in Cumberland County have incomes less than $15,000 a year, according to 2013 census estimates released last week. Jason’s new job will earn about $10,000 a year, based on his hours. ‘We’ve exhausted all the resources we possibly could trying to live in the in-between,’ Julie says. ‘And now we’re going to be homeless because you can’t – you can’t make it.’”

Greensboro — Public records not only help hold government accountable — hello, Asheville! — but they help shed light on business people who may be prey on people. That brings us to the News & Record, which reports on the problems of Sonny Vestal, and the problems Vestal caused so many others. He didn’t pay bills of a low-income condo that his company managed, causes 150 households to be evicted. His company  owes the city $100,000+ in unpaid bills, and the city may spend thousands to take over the condo. SMDH.

Wilmington — I like stories that look to the future. The Star-News asks what Wilmington, which turns 275 this year, will look like when it turns 300. For someone who loves Wilmington and Wrightsville, the piece is fascinating.

Sunday sampler

After a slow day last Sunday, today’s front pages have several outstanding stories.

Charlotte — The Observer has two worth noting. First, sudden infant death syndrome has disappeared in N.C. because state officials have stopped attributing deaths to that cause. Why? “Experts say the decision to call so many cases SIDS masked the dangers of a widespread practice: Parents risk suffocating their babies when they sleep with them or put them to sleep on their stomachs. In some cases, it also allowed irresponsible parents to go unpunished for preventable deaths.”

The Observer’s second story effectively reminds us of the Latino child immigration crisis. The story is heart-wrenching and informative and, without the politicians attempting to manipulate public opinion, gives us a clear picture of the need.

Durham —  The Herald describes how Duke attracted such a strong class of basketball recruits. And as a Carolina fan, this pains me. But the story is good and, perhaps, a reason that Coach K continues to coach USA Basketball.

Fayetteville — The Observer does a deep dive into home-schooling, which has grown so rapidly that more students are being home-schooled than are in private schools. That’s right, more home-schooled than private schooled. Many reasons for the growth, and many reasons to be concerned about it. Read them.

Greensboro — Being a firefighter is the most respected occupation in America. So, the News & Record wonders why cancer — which is a killer of firefighters — isn’t included in the state’s presumptive disability coverage. “We assume we’ll be taken care of, that our employers will do the right thing. But both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly have failed first responders in this state.” I know that will shock many of you.

Raleigh — Following last week’s excellent series on companies that defied labor laws to avoid their tax obligations, the N&O reports that “key lawmakers” have promised to investigate.

Winston-Salem — I can’t recall the last time that Aldona Wos, state secretary of Health and Human Services, willingly sat down with a newspaper reporter. She talked with the Journal for 38 minutes. And while the story doesn’t explore the sorts of topics I would have liked — explanations for the many department missteps, for instance — it starts a conversation that I hope other reporters will attempt to follow.

Sunday sampler

I apologize for the slim pickings from the front pages of North Carolina papers. Perhaps they were tired from the strong showing the past couple of Sundays. If I missed one I should have included, let me know.

Raleigh & Charlotte — The two largest papers in the state team up to work on a newspaper chain report on corrupt construction companies who cheat their employees and the government. Complicating matters are state regulators who largely ignored the cheating. You don’t work construction so why should you care? “The costs are staggering, a yearlong investigation by The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer reveals: nearly a half-billion dollars each year in uncollected federal and state tax revenue.” It’s a complicated story told well.

 

Newspaper paywalls: What is the customer value?

I am a newspaper subscriber. Get it delivered every day to my driveway between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. My newspaper recently established a paywall that goes up each month when visitors hit 20 articles. Seven-day subscribers get unlimited access for free, which is fine. (Irrelevant for me because I rarely visit 20 times per month.)

This morning, Monday, the paper had an interesting story on the front page that I wanted to share on Facebook. At 7 a.m. I went to the newspaper website to find the link. The story wasn’t there, but Sunday morning’s stories on coal ash and baptism were. An hour later, the story I wanted went up, but it was approximately 59 minutes after I got frustrated, lost interest and moved on to something else.

I don’t know if the story was posted late because it was a mistake or because it was part of a strategy. At one time, I know that an online strategy was to post newspaper stories later in the morning so that paying print readers would get them before non-paying digital readers. (For what it’s worth, Friday night’s high school football stories were still getting display position on Sunday morning so there’s that.)

It caused me to think about two things, one small and bigger. Both can apply to all newspapers with paywalls, not just mine:

* The value proposition: You’re offering quantity online, when what I really want is quality.  We shop the same store and pick through the same products, I just get to make more choices, right?

Wouldn’t a customer-first strategy be to give a 7-day print subscriber a rebate if he doesn’t use his free 20 clicks per month. That would make my print subscription feel more valuable. (We’ve already established that you want me to subscribe to print because you’re charging more for the online subscription.)

Is your preference to the print subscriber the reason that that story was posted a couple hours later on the website than when my paper was delivered?

* Feedback — Before the paywall, you could — shouldn’t have, but could — ignore my digital usage and opinion because I was paying nothing. But now that you’re charging for the website, I’ve become a paying customer. Do you value me as a paying customer enough to ask how I use it and what I think could make it more helpful? I would willingly take part in an email survey or SurveyMonkey exercise.

If digital is your future — the statistics would argue it is your present — then customer focus is more important than it has ever been. Many of us want to help.

Sunday sampler

Lots of good journalistic surprises from the front pages of N.C. newspapers today.

Asheville — Robbinsville is experiencing what so many N.C. communities went through years ago: the closing of a furniture plant that employed hundreds of people. The Citizen-Times does a good job explaining the business imperatives, the human cost and the community pain involved.

Burlington — I love it when newspapers call BS on politicians’ comments. The Times-News does just that when the local sheriff testifies in court that his department does not do traffic stops on Sundays. The Times-News says hold on there, partner. We checked and you do. I assume the sheriff was under oath. Oops.

Greensboro — Build it and they will come. For toxic coal ash and the new Randolph County landfill, that could be true. Everyone says it’s too early to tell, but I’m siding with the fears of the environmentalists: if it can be dumped there, it probably will.

Raleigh — The N&O has two good ones today. The first is a story about DNA evidence possibly freeing two men who have been in prison for 30 years, were part of a U.S. Supreme Court argument, and were the subject of a negative political campaign. Shameful all around.

The second is a story about what UNC-Chapel Hill is doing to give context to students’ grades. “Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section.” Who knew? (Most of the students interviewed didn’t. Nor did I and I teach two classes there.

My 10th anniversary of blogging

I started blogging 10 years ago this month. Supposedly, I was one of the first newspaper editors to do so actively, writing about why we did what we did. I say supposedly because I know that only because people told me so at the time. Because the News & Record had so many blogs, we were written about by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several other publications. One Greensboro reader of the paper wrote me to say that she saw a story about us in the Hong Kong paper when she was in China.

It was a fun time.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your outlook – those early blog posts are buried deep inside the Internet’s mausoleum of broken links. The News & Record has changed content management systems a few times since I left the paper. The blog posts are probably cached somewhere within Google’s vault, but I don’t care about wasting the time to find them.

Since my first blog post in 2004, here are some things I’ve learned:

* It’s important — to me, at least — to think and to write in public. Knowing that people could and would question and improve my work inspired me to up my game. I learned to think beyond my own insular view and consider how others would read my words. Am I saying exactly what I intend? Could I avoid misinterpretation if I rework? Am I prepared for disagreement? Blogging made me appear smarter. It also helps me listen to comments and suggestions more openly and actively.

* It fulfilled one important goal: Readers who cared about newspapers got to know me. Some didn’t like me or the way I ran the newsroom. Some of those had an ax to grind on an issue, and I heard from them often. (I can’t find the citation but someone smart once said there are three things a man thinks he can do better than anyone: build a fire, make love to a woman and edit a newspaper. I assure you that is true.)

But I also heard from people who appreciated learning about me and the paper. Jon Lowder, who lives in Winston-Salem and didn’t read the News & Record, wrote this in January 2005: “I get all of the N&R blogs via RSS.  I don’t get their paper…yet.  But I still feel closer to the N&R, and in a way I feel it is my hometown paper.  And I think it’s going to eat the Journal’s lunch if the folks at the Journal don’t act fast….Anyway, it would probably pain the editor at the Journal (I have no idea what his/her name is) to know that I feel like I’m on a first name basis with the editor of the Greensboro News & Record (Hi John!).  If I happen across a hot story or issue, who do you think I’m going to ping with it?”

* So many commenters on the newspaper site were trolls. I know that’s not news now. At the time, I was told traffic was not the goal, conversation was. But the conversation often turned out to be shouting matches in the cafeteria that turned into food fights. Some, I suspect, spread out into the parking lot for a fistfight. It took me a long time to learn to not to rise to the bait. It’s actually a lesson I still have trouble with. (Commenters on this blog are smart and helpful. Thank you for that.)

Consequently, my contacts on the social networks — Twitter, Facebook and, now, Instagram — are much more civil and constructive. The networks are walled gardens, yes. Some people choose not to join, and therefore can’t comment. I can live with that. As I said about Twitter years ago, it’s like a cocktail party where you can join and leave conversations at will whenever you like.

* My blog posts go nowhere if I don’t link to them on the social networks. When I was blogging for the newspaper, I got a readership boost simply from being on the paper’s website. But once I started on Twitter and Facebook, those mentions brought in more traffic, primarily because people would share, retweet and comment. In essence, the conversation that I wanted occurred on the social networks, rather than the blog. That was fine by me. The conversation was smarter. As an aside, the links from other bloggers — heralded as viral before viral was commonplace terminology — drove conversation, but little traffic.

* While I was blogging at the paper, I was forced to make some hard decisions about coverage, about staffing, about economics and about layoffs. I tried to tell the truth on my blog, even as it embarrassed me or my boss. Two examples: When I eliminated the New York Times news service, I mentioned how much it cost us. (It was a lot of money, and I thought it would be persuasive to readers. It wasn’t.) When I had to lay off journalists, I said it would hurt our coverage. I am proud of that, as many other news executives either don’t acknowledge staff cuts or proclaim that local coverage will not be affected. I don’t have any sense that transparency had any widespread benefit, but it made me sleep better.

* Is blogging dead? I was blogging before I was on Twitter, and I was tweeting before I was on Facebook. I use all three now, using them differently and writing different things on each. I get different reactions, too, which I like. I don’t plan on dropping any of the three platforms, but if I do, blogging will be the first to go. I like the communities that I’m a part of with Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday sampler

Journalism from the front pages of today’s N.C. newspapers.

Charlotte/Raleigh — Both the Observer and the News & Observer centerpiece their joint story on the economic “success” of gambling in Cherokee, and the drive to get approval to build a casino in Kings Mountain. It is a great overview of the impact of gambling casinos in the state. (And it’s surprising that with all that “free” money flowing, the state legislature hasn’t legalized casinos statewide.)

Sanford — So, 100 people at a public meeting told members of the Mining and Energy Commission what they thought about fracking and what they wanted done when it came to fracking in their community. What was the response from a member of the commission, which is charged with coming up with the fracking rules? “Very little of substance comes out of these meetings,” he said, noting that many speakers advocated for a moratorium, or an outright ban, on fracking instead of offering commentary on the draft rules. If you don’t think the fix is in…. (News & Record alert: the next hearing is tomorrow in Reidsville.)

Greensboro — The News & Record continues tracking Duke’s coal ash spill — how it started, how slow Duke was in responding and what the result has been. Given the lukewarm response from Raleigh on the issue, this continues to be a big deal, even six months after the spill.

Fayetteville – Several newspapers featured “back-to-school” stories that basically served the purpose of reminding readers that school starts Monday. The Observer gave its story a welcome edge: Not all is right with the world of public education; it is being attacked on virtually every front. What’s a teacher to do? Good question well-answered in this story.

Wilmington — Speaking of education under attack, the Star-News gives a local school superintendent the voice to argue for transparency in charter school funding and accountability. Charter schools get public money, why shouldn’t the public get to see how it is spent? It’s a good follow to a story the paper has written about recently: a local businessman who founded some charter schools which now have exclusive contracts with his private businesses.

Hendersonville — Ten people have died on the roads in the Times-News’ three-county region in the past two months. The Times-News examines causes. Be careful out there.