Make way for the new journalists

Margaret Sullivan wrote her first column for the Washington Post the other day, and I agree with it. Take a moment to read it. She encourages college students to go into journalism because it’s fun and important, and they need to save it.

“I’m especially drawn to the need for journalism that is transparent, honest, aggressive and deep, using all the new tools and with a great sense of openness on how to present the work to an ever-more-digital audience.

“As for the question of just how imprudent you need to be to get into this radically transformed business, I’ll say this much: Given the challenges, what’s needed most are journalists — of every age — who are willing to help figure out the future with passion, smarts and integrity.”

Yet, among the obstacles in their path are owners, publishers and editors who persist on milking everything they can out of the old models without investing any of it toward figuring out the future.

Is your daily newspaper better today than it was five or 10 years ago? Is it spending any money developing new ways to serve customers in ways the customers want or need? Or are the managers holding on to the idea that people will come back or that paywalls are the answer?

If the purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,” then many newspapers – and their bosses – are failing.

Today, Poynter published what it suggests is a blueprint for reinventing legacy newsrooms. It’s a good list based on actions taken by a few innovative newspapers. The items on the list aren’t new, however. Most have been around for years in one form or another. I’m glad it’s out there, and I hope that newspaper leaders will embrace the learning others are doing.

What keeps newspapers from making more progress? People have too much to do with too many competing priorities, of course. But too often people within the organizations don’t want to change, even now after a decade of declining readership and revenue. You’ll note in the Poynter story, editors talk about journalists being uncomfortable with change and of “letting go” of old routines. And these are at cool places that are creating the future. Imagine what’s happening where essentially no effort is being made to do anything more than produce a newspaper delivered to people’s driveways.

Want to help invent journalism for tomorrow? Hire the smart, passionate journalists with integrity to take the places of those who are comfortable with today.

Sunday sampler

For the first time in the four years of compiling the Sunday sampler, I find nothing to recommend. That doesn’t mean there aren’t notable stories on the front pages of North Carolina newspapers today. I’m sure readers in their communities will enjoy them. It’s simply that none of them particularly interest me.

I thought of pointing out the story on the front page of the News & Observer, in which the GOP candidates for the 2nd Congressional District show how out of touch they are with most of the people in the district by trying to out-right-wing Jesse Helms. But in the end, it is par for the course for the GOP these days.

I read the Charlotte Observer’s story about a Union County woman handcuffed in Oak Island, but the story is long and overplayed in what seemed to be a “first-world, white people problem.”

Greensboro and Winston have informative stories advancing the congressional elections in their readership area, but they’re typical election advance stories.

The Daily Reflector of Greenville has a fine story about what could happen at Pitt County educational institutions if the feds withhold money because of HB2. But other than the amount of money involved, the story doesn’t advance the discussion much.

When can you believe Trump?

I wasn’t going to write about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton because there are smarter, more informed people doing that endlessly. But I finally came to what, for me, was a stunning conclusion:

Donald Trump doesn’t mean or doesn’t believe anything he says.

In 40 years of voting, I’ve never thought this about a presidential nominee. I’ve always thought that candidates, while I may disagree with them, had a fundamental mooring in truth. Yes, I know they make promises they don’t plan to keep, they weasel, and they sell out to big donors. But they had core political positions, tested over time.

With Trump, I have no clue where he stands on anything of substance, except for pretty women and money. I don’t believe you do, either. I mean, how can you?

Here is what’s driven me to this point, in no particular order:

  • He says no one has more respect for women than he, yet his definition of respect seems to include consistent sexist, boorish behavior toward them.
  • He says the Hispanics love him, yet he wants to export 11 million of them and build a wall to keep them in Mexico.
  • His firmest political positions — for instance, that wall — won’t get done.
  • He flip-flops on so many other things, such as releasing his tax returns, who should be punished for abortions, blocking Muslims from entering the country, support for Planned Parenthood, whether he was John Miller and John Barron, and, of course, HB2.
  • He’s the original birther, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  • He has created a new enemy: the leaders of our closest ally, England.
  • He wants to return us to a time when America was great, although it’s unclear when or how he’s going to get us there.

If you were to design a man to be president, would he even come close to resembling one who is sexist, mean-spirited, narcissistic, insulting and thin-skinned. One who has no experience with government, other than figuring out ways to make it work in his favor and paying as little in taxes as possible. One who considers the truth to be negotiable, and consistency to be weak. One who talks tough, yet whines about every slight.

These do not seem to be core Republican values. Yet, none of this has stopped the vast majority of the Republican establishment from supporting him, after it got over being against him. As the New York Times notes about one niche: “Many religious and evangelical voters are taking what amounts to a leap of faith: willingly looking past Mr. Trump’s three marriages, his irreverence in referring to the Holy Communion as having “my little cracker” and even his apparent inability to ask God for forgiveness, which he said he had never done.”

But the other candidate is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, so apparently, the devil we don’t know is better than the Democratic devil we know.

I get that. But damn, where are your core values?

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Building good schools takes money. It’s not only paying teachers well and providing good curriculum and up-to-date tools, it’s making sure that students are safe. The News & Record takes on what seems to be an annual problem. “At Grimsley High, the lack of locker room space forces some female athletes to change clothes in their cars. At Page High, crowding forces some students to eat lunch in hallways. Parents and school officials cite those as just two examples of conditions tied to crowded and aging buildings that they say threatens the health and safety of students.”

Raleigh: The News & Observer brings the HB2 issue down to a human level by talking with Martine Rothblatt who had sexual reassignment surgery 22 years ago. (It’s difficult to put a human face on the other side of the issue because it’s difficult to find someone who has been assaulted by a transgender person in a restroom.)  “Of course I think that the law is misplaced because I personally believe that there is no problem here and I’m kind of a limited government person – don’t make a problem where there’s no problem,” Rothblatt said.

Read more here:

Teacher. I’m a teacher

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On the first day of the semester, a student always asks what they should call me. The answer is always the same: Whatever you like.

And they do. I’m John to some. Mr. Robinson to some. Prof to others. There are likely other names they call me when I’m not around.

Titles, like so much else in the academic world, are stuffy and complicated. I’m certainly not Dr. Robinson, as I don’t have a Ph.D. Hell, I am in debt to generous professors who helped me squeak through to a B.A. I’m not a professor because UNC-Chapel Hill hasn’t given me that designation nor have I earned it.

There is a distinct pecking order in higher education. I refer you to the UNC School of Media and Journalism stylebook. “Members of the teaching faculty are ranked as follows:professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, teaching assistants.”

I’m what is called an adjunct. Merriam-Webster defines adjunct as “something that is joined or added to another thing but is not an essential part of it.” (“…not an essential part of it.” Can you disrespect the people who teach millions of students a little more?) We adjuncts are, as the Media and Journalism stylebook says, part-time faculty. An administrator at another university told me that adjuncts rank between administrative assistants and custodians, but I think he might have been joking.

I prefer being called a teacher. It’s simple, without the academic barnacles, and it’s accurate.

And because it’s awkward to call me “teacher Robinson,” I will go by anything so long as they spell my name correctly.

Sunday sampler

Most front pages have college graduations and Mother’s Day. Cool.

Greensboro: Nancy McLaughlin has a wonderfully sweet story about the love between a young widowed father of two and the woman he fell in love with. Make it your Mother’s Day read.

Charlotte: The Observer goes inside the HB2 meeting last week of the Charlotte mayor, the house speaker and the senate president pro tem. Compromise doesn’t seem on the immediate horizon, which makes sense, given the public statements each has made. “We cannot write discrimination back into our laws,” (Charlotte Mayor) Roberts said. “The General Assembly and Governor must comply with the Department of Justice and repeal HB2 immediately.”

Raleigh: Jane Jan Boxill, one of the UNC professors in the middle of the academic scandal, has finally gone public with the N&O. Based on three hours of interviews, it’s a significant piece of the puzzle to understanding what happened. “Boxill maintains she was not part of the fake class scheme in African and Afro-American Studies, led by former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, though she often recommended AFAM courses to her students. She said she had no idea the office manager, Deborah Crowder, was grading students’ papers, though Boxill emailed Crowder about students’ work and Crowder referred to ‘favors.’”

Winston-Salem: The Journal looks at the state’s growth through its largest cities. Raleigh and Charlotte dominate the state’s population increase. One in 5 N.C. residents live in Wake or Mecklenburg counties, which is stunning, if you think about it. “Both of them will grow, but Raleigh may have a tad of an advantage — its economy is so much 21st-century stuff,” McCoy said, mentioning the Triangle’s Research Triangle Park. “Charlotte is a little more risky because its economy is based more on the traditional economy of finance and transportation.”

The myth of story quotas

I continue to hear that more and more newspapers requiring reporters to hit story quotas, writing five, six, seven and more stories per week to fill the paper, in addition to posting to the web throughout the day.

Editors and publishers, here’s the deal: you’re measuring the wrong thing. Providing a lot of stories is not the same as providing service to readers.

Here is the real impact of quotas:

Reporters often subvert their good news judgment to reach an artificial number. Consequently, news items that merit all of three paragraphs (or no coverage whatsoever) get turned into eight or nine paragraphs so that the reporter gets a byline and meets the day’s quota.

Meanwhile, as reporters focus on that relatively inconsequential story, important stories, stories that have the potential to affect a large number of people, go unreported. They take too much time, require too much digging and too many interviews. Spend one day reporting a story without writing means you’re in the hole — you must write two or three stories the next day to catch up to your quota.

There’s no relief.

The result: The newspaper staff is worn out and demoralized. But editors can crow that the paper is community-based and filled with local stories.

But that’s the spin based on the wrong measurement. What really happens too often is that readers page through the paper, shopping for a story that interests them. They find little and wonder why the paper isn’t writing about important things, or at least, interesting ones. Readers lose trust in the paper, and they turn to other sources.

You know, the Internet has all the stories any person could ever want.

It is true that every marketing survey of news content I’ve seen says that readers want “more.” But it’s not more “stuff.” It’s more content that affects their lives. Story quotas provide one side of that equation but not the other.


Sunday sampler

The larger N.C. newspapers seem to think HB2 is a big deal. I do, too, because it says so much about how the issues on which N.C. governor and legislature like to spend their time and our money, how they pander to the base, how they load unrelated issues into one bad law and how they double down when their plans backfire.

Charlotte: The Observer looks ahead at the General Assembly’s short session that starts next week by outlining details of HB2, what people want to change about and what might happen. Short answer: not a lot. (This story, by Jim Morrill of the Observer’s staff, is not on the Observer’s front page, but it is on the N&O’s.)

Greensboro: The News & Record’s front page is dominated by two HB2 stories. One, by Dick Barron, outlines in detail the impact HB2 has had on the state’s tourism. The lead is damning: “House Bill 2 has hit the North Carolina economy so hard it has left a ‘black eye’ that won’t fade for years, local business leaders and tourism officials say.”

The other, by Joe Killian, examines the possibilities of changing the law. Like the Observer’s story, this one quotes Sen. Phil Berger as saying, in effect, “we’ll change it over my dead body.” (He never sounds conciliatory when he has the opportunity to sound arrogant.) But the story includes a good discussion about legal challenges.

Raleigh: And Craig Jarvis at the N&O expands on what’s at stake in the legislature’s short session — namely Gov. McCrory’s agenda and, perhaps, reputation. (For instance, he wants the legislature to consider a change to HB2. Measure that against Berger’s statement. Who’ll win?) “Mostly, McCrory would like the din over HB2 to subside so he can talk about an improving economy, education spending and his success in persuading voters in March to approve a $2 billion infrastructure bond issue. Democrats, meanwhile, intend to keep the LGBT discrimination issue in the forefront, while arguing that McCrory has ignored the middle class and followed the legislature too far to the right on social issues.”

North Carolina: A remembrance of things past

All you people who think things are bad in North Carolina now, you obviously have long-term memory problems. Now, finally, the state is stepping boldly into the future. Things were much worse, say, 10 years ago. Let me refresh your memory.*

Back in 2006, voter fraud was rampant. We made Chicago’s fabled corruption look like kindergarten. Who knows how many of our politicians were put into office by all the fake voters? Fortunately, the Republicans got elected in 2010 and changed the laws and now voter fraud is non-existent! Lines are longer because of some of the changes, but who said voting should be easy?

Why, back then, we were also paying teachers too much. They work for nine months, get lots of holidays, and their days are over by 3 p.m. And who in the private sector has “tenure?” The General Assembly took care of all that. Now we’re operating government like a business and paying the least amount possible in salaries.

In 2006, traditional marriage was being destroyed by men marrying men and women marrying women. God didn’t create the heaven and Earth with Adam and Steve, y’all. Amendment One stopped that in its tracks, although the liberal activist judges have flipped that around. So, traditional marriage is going the way of common sense.

In 2006, women all over this great state were dying because of botched abortions! You probably didn’t know that, but our legislators did. Because they care deeply about the health of girls in our state, the General Assembly passed some of the nation’s most stringent laws limiting abortion. Protecting women is what they do in Raleigh.

We couldn’t frack and we couldn’t drill for oil off our coastline. Whiny environmentalists didn’t like toxic chemicals pumped into the earth or the possibility of oil spills on the coast, like that would happen. The legislature took care of that, allowing fracking. (If the tree huggers didn’t like the toxic chemical stew poured underground, well, fine, the Raleigh folks made the ingredients a secret.) Obama flip-flopped on oil drilling off the coast — figures — but he won’t be in office much longer.

In 2006, the UNC system was one of the best state university systems in the country but it was getting too much money! The state took the sharp knife to that budget. (Got rid of the president of the system, too, who just happened to be a member of the wrong party.) How many gender study and philosophy majors does one state need? Community colleges are fine. They train people for manufacturing jobs so that we’ll be ready when the furniture, textiles and tobacco plants return to N.C.

Know what else was happening in 2006? Bums were living on unemployment checks forever! The legislature took care of that, too. The politicians cut the maximum benefits and the maximum number of weeks people could get benefits.That is savings for you and me.

Oh, and before you forget, people who got welfare were using drugs. Well, most of them, probably. The legislature now makes welfare getters to take a drug test. Lo and behold, now hardly anyone who wants welfare fails the test. It costs us a lot of money but it’s worth it so we don’t waste money.

One more thing, 10 years ago, Hollywood people were here making subversive movies and TV programs. I mean, have you seen “One Tree Hill”? Don’t worry, though, the General Assembly put a stop to that, killing the wasteful incentive program for the state film industry.

There are more, but this is a good start. So, remember those achievements when you worry if the state isn’t stepping boldly into the future.

*A satire.

Sunday sampler

HB2 continues to make the front pages, but first, a fascinating story:

Fayetteville — The Observer’s lead: “The civilian found living in the barracks of Fort Bragg’s 3rd Special Forces Group was a ‘con-artist’ who had never served in the armed forces, but had enough knowledge of the military to dupe others into believing he was a soldier, according to an investigation obtained by The Fayetteville Observer.” Wait. What? Yep. It seems as if a guy posed as an explosive ordnance disposal expert and lived in a barracks for months. Whoa.

Greensboro — The News & Record visits the Furniture Market in High Point to get a ground-level look at how HB2 is affecting the market and market goers. “But others didn’t think boycotting the furniture market was the best way to express their feelings about the law. The market is too big of a financial investment for them to just scrap, they said.”

Raleigh — The N&O is in High Point, too, and it takes a broader look at how businesses and corporations are reacting to HB2. “There are a lot of companies that are just not concerned about it,” said Ernest Pearson ofNexsen Pruet law firm in Raleigh, who is president of the board of directors of the N.C. Economic Developers Association. “For every one that is affected, there will be many many companies that won’t be affected.”