Sunday sampler

Notice anything in today’s front pages?

Thank Gatehouse and the USA Today network for two stories that could have been found many, many places.

And in other news:

Asheville: The Citizen-Times reports that the city manager wants to cut the police department budget by 3 percent. That’s what “defund the police” means: taking a little money away. “The biggest part of the cut —$300,000 — would come from the reassignment of telecommunicator positions now under APD to the Information Technology and Development Services departments, according to the budget report.”

Jacksonville: Again, some racist North Carolinians embarrass the state. “On Friday, several dozen supporters in Onslow County came to a Richlands family’s side that was affected by what they describe as a hate crime when they found a swastika carved from a lawnmower in their front yard.”

Democracy dies in darkness, part II

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my last post. Let me answer the primary ones:

No, I haven’t given up on newspapers. I subscribe digitally to three: the News & Observer, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Why these three? I admire the national and political coverage, as well as the editorial views of the Post and the Times. They both hold the powerful to account, and our Republic desperately needs that. I read the N&O because it attempts to do that statewide. Plus, because of its shared ownership with the Charlotte Observer, I get the benefit of interesting stories the Observer produces.

Without the News & Record, how are you keeping up? The News & Record emails me its major headlines each morning and afternoon. I scan it and usually the headlines satisfy my curiosity about the news. Occasionally I will follow up by going to the website. That, combined with Twitter and Facebook announcements, is often enough. Is it everything I should have? No, of course not. But the N&R staff is too small and stretched too thin to be able to give me everything I should have.

What did you mean when you wrote, “Soon, there won’t be a daily paper in the third largest city in North Carolina. It’s time to imagine whether that matters.”? Precisely that. Can the N&R effectively cover a county with a population of a half a million with six news reporters? As highly as I rate the skills and work ethic of the journalists still there, I say no. I fear it will become close to a ghost newspaper, with “the quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content … significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.” My colleague Penny Muse Abernathy describes it well here.

So, as the paper’s coverage declines, what will the area’s citizens do for local news? For many, they’ll do the same as they’ve always done. Recently, most of the people in the county haven’t gotten the paper. For the ones who depend on the paper, they’ll turn to television, social media, word of mouth. They’ll be a void, but I’m suggesting that there is a void right now. And now is the time to start imagining the future.

What is your imagination telling you? My imagination tells me that good government is at risk. Occasionally, I think some rich local investors will buy it and help bring it back, but that’s a pipe dream. I suppose it’s possible for a website to spring up that has employees covering the news, but that feels like a pipe dream, too. There are the weeklies — notably Triad City Beat, which does a good job for what it does. But, honestly, my imagination is tired right now.

 

Democracy dies in darkness

I’ve cancelled my subscription to the News & Record, my employer for 27 years and the paper I was editor of for 13.

If this were Twitter, I’d end the above sentence with “That’s the tweet. 27 years.”

I didn’t cancel because the paper laid off several of my friends yesterday. I cancelled a few months ago, when there was so little in it that I could no longer justify the rising cost.

Yesterday, the paper sent more than 100 years of memory out the door. It now has no graphic artist. No sports columnist. The owners even laid off the editor. (I assume someone will get the title, although probably not in Greensboro. Worth noting that the owners haven’t had the decency to tell the community that it sent the editor and some of the most recognizable names out the door.)

As I understand it, there are now six news reporters to cover the third largest city in North Carolina. One sports reporter.

This is difficult for me to write about; I know the role I played in the decline of the News & Record. I’m not going to revisit that. Jeri Rowe writes about part of that eloquently here. (Although I hate that that photo of me explaining the first layoff in 2007 is becoming my legacy.)

Greensboro and Guilford County deserve better, but it won’t get it. Warren Buffett’s purchase of the paper didn’t save it. It’s not clear that Lee Enterprises has any intention of doing anything more than taking whatever remaining money it can out of Greensboro.

The editor, Cindy Loman, wrote on Facebook: “The revenue impact of COVID really is beyond comprehension. I think N&R revenue dropped by 90 percent for most of the months of the pandemic, and that’s not counting “bad debt” from customers who just can’t pay their bills.”

I used to hear that laying off newspaper journalists was no more important than laying off furniture workers, which happened a few decades ago in Guilford County. I’d often smugly reply that manufacturing a sofa isn’t protected by the Constitution. (Yes, I can be an asshole, I’m sorry to admit.)

I’m aware that by canceling my subscription I have contributed to the paper’s demise. And it’s funny, because if the ownership had presented a vision for the future of its journalism — how it was investing in the community,, what it was doing to understand the needs of its readers, how it was trying to meet me where I am — I’d pay top dollar to help sustain it.

But it hasn’t. And by this move yesterday, it is clear it won’t. I hate it for my friends still there.

Soon, there won’t be a daily paper in the third largest city in North Carolina. It’s time to imagine whether that matters.

Sunday sampler

Asheville: Two jobs — law enforcement and teaching — are among the most vital and most difficult. And officers and teachers are terribly underpaid for what they contribute to the nation’s well-being. In Asheville, 31 police officers have resigned, attributable to lack of support and “very vocal” opposition to law enforcement, the Citizen-Times reports. “It’s very simple. The profession has never been widely appreciated. My students were able to handle that. But there is a difference between lack of appreciation and lack of respect and being under fire.”

Raleigh: “Thousands of Triangle residents who owe money on their utility bills could face penalties or lose service altogether this month, as cities take a more aggressive approach to collecting on past-due accounts.” That’s the first sentence in the story by the News & Observer. We’re talking about shutting off water. In a pandemic that has caused double-digit unemployment and death. Water.

Charlotte: The Observer examines whether we should believe the polls this year, given what happened in 2016. “Pollsters are trying to do a better job this year of including the right percentage of working-class voters by giving proper “weight” to education, said Peter Francia, a professor of political science at East Carolina University who directs the ECU Poll — the newest survey in the state, having debuted this Election Year.”

Ferrel Guillory: A well-deserved retirement

When the dean announced at the faculty meeting Friday that Ferrel Guillory is going to retire from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the end of the year, everyone gasped. (Or, given that this occurred on Zoom and everyone was muted, it looked as if they gasped.) Then people flooded the chat with congratulations and quick comments about his legacy.

Ferrel is director of the Program on Public Life, which he founded in 1997, and a professor of the practice. He’s been a stalwart at the j-school and a strong voice for the importance of journalism.

I may be the only person on the faculty who was at the News & Observer when Ferrel was. (NO I wasn’t. Angelia Herrin was there; I forgot her. Sorry, Ange.) (Professor Andy Bechtel may be the only other.) I arrived at the N&O in 1979 as an education reporter; Ferrel was associate editor of the editorial pages, I think. About the only interactions I had with him was when he was preparing an editorial and he’d quiz me on a topic I’d written about. Editorial writers had a tendency to ask questions that made me wish I had asked those questions to my sources; Ferrel was no different.

But my Ferrel story isn’t about journalism or education. It’s about his kindness. I’ve told it before, when my mother died, but I like it so much that I’m going to revisit it.

Soon after my mother’s death, my sister Louise sent me a copy of a newsletter that announced a volunteer award my mother received in 1989. In that announcement was a photo of my mother with Ferrel. I knew that they knew each other, but I couldn’t remember the relationship. I wrote Ferrel about the newsletter. He expressed his condolences and wrote:

“I can’t overstate how much I admired her, and welcomed the opportunity to work with her during the years I spent on the board of Pan Lutheran Ministries. Just as she became a Protestant on the Catholic Social Ministries board, I became the Catholic on the Lutheran board, which is how I got to know your Mom and Dad. Remind me to tell you how we ‘conspired’ to put the issue of homelessness on the Raleigh city agenda during the mid- to late-80s.

“The Pan Lutheran board ended its meetings by singing the Doxology: ‘Praise God from whom as blessings flow…’ I sing it to myself to reflect from time to time. I’m singing it to myself now in memory of Margy, a real blessing to our community. ”

I’m going to miss Ferrel on the faculty, too. He told me he will continue with EdNC and “will be around.” Good. I need to get him to finally tell me the story about his conspiring with my mother on homelessness.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The News & Record tries to answer the question of what Louis DeJoy is doing as Postmaster General and why the multimillionaire even took the position. He may have taken the job because he thinks he can help the Postal Service, but, if so, he’s been tone deaf to the politics. DeJoy, of course, didn’t comment. A good story outlining the issues.

Asheville: No “I voted” sticker? Thanks, Trump. That’s what’s happening in Buncombe County, according to the Citizen-Times. “’We peel the stickers off and actually hand them to voters and we just decided that was an unnecessary thing at the polls, so sadly we decided against those,’” she said. In my county, they don’t peel the stickers. They let you do it because we’re adults.

Welcoming the newest group of rock stars

Back in May, I started what I called a post-grad group with my former students with the express purpose of helping them hone their journalism skills and network. I thought it would lift their spirits as they got out of school facing a job market that was, in many ways, non-existent. And personally, I’d grown attached to them and wasn’t ready to let them go.

Now, 13 weeks later, the time has come to end it.

Starting that group is one of the cooler things I’ve done in teaching. We heard from experts on feature writing, interviewing, branding, investigating, idea generation, free lancing, social media, race and politics. We heard from representatives of Spectrum Sports, Bleacher Report, the N&O, the Charlotte Observer, Twitter, the Athletic, the Panthers, UNC, the Washington Post, Emily’s List and a former columnist with the Detroit Free Press. (And I have one more visit to transcribe and post.) Rock stars, all.

Each of the professionals I asked to join us for 45 minutes answered with an immediate “Yes.” They were all generous with their time and advice. Every one offered their emails so that the students could reach out for advice whenever. (And that has happened.) One of my goals was that students would have a network of professionals who have been where they are and have flourished.

But all good things run their course. Attendance has dwindled because some in the group have gotten jobs or the time is inconvenient or other things — life! –get in the way. The meetings were always casual; people came when the could. And, school has started up again for me.

I may have gotten more out of it than the alums. I mourn every May when my students graduate and go on to seek their fortunes. We’ve worked together in courses, and, in some cases, shared some moments. I miss them. I got to stay connected with my former students for a little longer, and that was fun and fulfilling.

I always say this because I believe it: This generation of journalists will be better than the last. They’re smarter and savvier. I am proud of them all and grateful for the time they gave me.And the 2020 graduating class will be extra special because they graduated in a pandemic and are thriving despite it.

Welcome the newest class of rock stars!

Sunday sampler, newsroom diversity edition

The papers in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Jacksonville and Kinston, feature a strong column on their front pages by Pam Sander, regional editor of the Gatehouse newspapers in the southeast, about the papers’ efforts to improve their coverage of the communities they serve.

“At all 260 Gannett publications that make up the USA TODAY Network, we have been shifting priorities to better reflect the communities we serve. Our goal: to be at parity with our communities by 2025. This is not an initiative. It’s not a program. It’s another chance to get it right, by being inclusive, better reflecting and involving the communities we serve, listening to their voices, bringing injustices to light and producing change.”

In Burlington, the Times-News is part of the effort and is reporting on the diversity in its newsroom. “For The Times-News to succeed, we must have an inclusive and diverse workplace where employees are valued and feel empowered. We must build and sustain a newsroom that is reflective of the diversity in the communities we report about. Our effort in Burlington hasn’t been good enough.”

Related: “The newsrooms in New Bern, Jacksonville and Kinston are partnering with local groups for an educational and informational session that focus on the needs of diversity communities.”

Wilmington: When David Zucchino was in Chapel Hill to talk about his book “Wilmington’s Lie,” I asked him what the response was when he was in Wilmington on the book tour. He told me that there weren’t enough seats for everyone who wanted to hear him talk about the 1898 coup. The Star-News takes a look at how it is being taught in Wilmington’s schools. “But the classroom remains one place where the troubling but important story of 1898 has struggled to find a dedicated place. There has been success in recent years in carving out instructional time for it at the public education and higher education levels. But hurdles like funding, time, resources and no consistent directive on how to teach it continue to pose persistent challenges to getting it in front of students like Fuller.”

Greensboro: The News & Record reminds us of how far the pandemic’s tentacles reach, in this case to addicts struggling to stay clean and sober. “A month-by-month tally of naloxone doses, the overdose reversal medication, given by Guilford County Emergency Services reveals a startling spike in overdoses between March and April, the same time the pandemic hit — the same time jobs were lost, social isolation began and nearly every facet of everyday life was interrupted.”

Raleigh: In a story close to my heart, the N&O reports on the millions that the pandemic has cost the university system. (I know that adjunct positions are among the first cuts.) “While the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cost the UNC System at least $220 million in lost revenue this semester, universities also spent millions more to get their campuses ready for students on Aug. 10.”

Winston-Salem: I end this dispatch with a good news story from my former student Matthew Audilet in the Journal. It’s the tale of a man given six months to a year to live…and how his love for a woman helps him survive. “Just weeks after the (marriage) proposal, when Nick’s condition was seemingly bleak, things began to turn around. He’s now in stable condition and is expected to survive well past the short time frame his doctors originally set for him.”

Brayden Harrington, ftw

I think the reason this affected me so deeply is because I had a mild speech impediment when I was a kid.

It was nothing like Brayden’s or Biden’s. I simply couldn’t say my “r’s.” They came out as “w’s.” So roar became wore, rocky was wocky, and trouser was twouser, although I doubt I ever said the word trouser when I was 10.

I was self-conscious about it, but don’t remember getting teased for it. Those were the days of neighborhood schools in Tulsa, Okla., and I was with kids I had known my entire life. We were in kindergarten together and they knew me and my funny words. That, plus my natural introversion, helped.

But I was aware of it. And thought about it.

Fortunately for me, my neighborhood school had plenty of resources. In the fifth grade,  I and another student were sent to a speech therapist for an hour twice a week. We met in a room that must have been designed as a broom closet because it was tiny and dark.. But I liked going because the teacher was nice and I got out of class. (Probably the reason it wasn’t until high school that I actually learned grammar rules.) The other student, whom I didn’t know well, had a mild stutter. Watching her frustration with her speech and how hard she worked at it taught me.

The teacher walked me through what was probably simple speech therapy, rolling my tongue in certain ways and speaking each syllable in a word slowly carefully. I was sent home with sentences to read, which my mother, a professional psychologist, helped me with.

I don’t remember how long this went on; my sense is that I corrected my speech relatively quickly, but it could have been weeks. But everything else is as clear as yesterday.

I don’t tell this story to compare myself to Brayden Harrington because there is no comparison. I have the deepest admiration for what he did last night. (Here is the backstory.) I couldn’t have done it at that age. I tell it because it one of the clearer memories of my youth.

Mirin Fader: ‘If you hesitate? Guess what, another person won’t and they’ll get the story’

Last week, Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report spoke with my post-grad group. Fader isn’t much older than the college grads in the group, so she is the perfect representation of what many of them can become if they keep at it, learning and working and refining their skills. I grabbed some of her thoughts here (edited for clarity).

On finding interesting and unique stories:

“You want to write an interesting story that, say, your grandma might want to read. She doesn’t need to know anything about basketball to understand the Brandon Ingram story. The first thing is recognizing that you want your stories to be very human and grounded in the universal. When I think of trying to find ‘the story,’ I don’t say who’s averaging 20 points a game. I say, who’s an interesting personality that maybe I want to know more about? I start with a question like, ‘how can I find an interesting personality to unpack in a different way?’

“One of the main things that I use is actually local news. I’m going to be really sad if all local news disappears for numerous reasons but I will literally read the papers of pretty much every state in America. And sometimes you’ll find like a 300-word blurb about an athlete and you have to ask yourself, is this a national story? Does this deserve more than 300 words.

“You’re fighting for people’s time and memory in long form. Don’t just go after somebody because they’re really successful. I profiled Nassir Little when he was at the end of the bench and everything was going wrong in his life. I found that so much more interesting than profiling Zion Williams. You want to pick topics that are really rich for human themes.”

On interviewing:

“I think the first thing is to frame what an interview is in your mind. I like to go in there thinking that I’m going to have a conversation. It’s just I want it to be a casual conversation where I tell myself lthat I’m just here to learn about the other person. If you psych yourself up and you’re like, ‘oh my god, it’s my interview with a capital I, and we’re sitting here and what’s my next question,’ it’s so unnatural and you’re not going to get anything natural. The first thing is if you want your subject to relax, you’re going to have to go in there a bit relaxed and that’s the hardest thing as a young reporter. You haven’t done it enough to be relaxed.

“I always tell the subject, ‘I really want this to be informal. I just want to understand your story better.’ I find that saying that at the beginning kind of lets them let their guard down. You have to understand that you’re never going to know the person. You’re just trying to create a snapshot for the reader of who somebody is in a certain time and space. So however you can, come as close to understanding who somebody is. That’s your job.

“I ask a billion followup questions. If somebody in the interview tells me, ‘Yeah, I was feeling really sad,’ and they end there, you have to keep digging. Say, ‘you know how like when you say sad, do you mean like depressed or can you help me understand a bit more how you were feeling?’ And then they give you more. You say, ‘well, what was your worst moment? What was your lowest moment?’

“Sometimes you just have to ask for the anecdote because subjects don’t think in terms of anecdotes. They’re not like ‘Yeah, so one time when I was 7, I was in the car. The car is red, and it had a holder for this. And by the way, my mom and I used to listen to the song in the car and that has sentimental value.’ That’s literally not how it goes. You can’t be afraid to ask, ‘What color was the car?’

“And I was like, ‘Look, I just really need an anecdote from your childhood that illustrates blah, blah, blah.’ They were like, oh, and then they gave that to me.

“So, the rich anecdotes come from follow up after follow up and not being afraid to look stupid. Half of being a sportswriter, I feel, is making a fool of yourself. If you’re ever embarrassed to ask a followup, just make fun of it. ‘I know it’s just a stupid journalism question but what song was playing in the background?’ And we know it’s not stupid, but they don’t think like us. So that’s sort of how I go about it.

“If you hesitate, guess what? Another person won’t and they will get the story and you’ll be mad at yourself. And they will keep getting the jobs and you will be in your apartment wishing you would have gone there. You’ve got a job to do and if you don’t want to look stupid or not make the extra call or don’t ask the question, I’m telling you, somebody else is and you’re going to be mad at yourself for being too afraid.

“It’s not that you’re not going to have fear throughout your career. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is, like, I’m always nervous, I’m always fearful, but I’m going to push past it. That’s how you get better. That’s really all this is.”