Sunday sampler

Coach K is about to hit 1,000 victories, which is the story that made many a newspaper’s skybox. So, I’m not posting any of them, which is fine because there are plenty of other good stories from N.C. newspapers’ front pages.


Asheville — The Citizen-Times explores whether marijuana will become legal in N.C. I say not in my lifetime — did you notice that Republicans control legislation in Raleigh — but some others quoted in the story aren’t as doubtful. Meanwhile: “Against a backdrop of growing public acceptance of marijuana, the illegal marijuana market is thriving in the Asheville area. Buncombe County has seen a spike in large-scale busts starting in early December, with local officers confiscating more than 100 pounds of pot.”

Burlington — The Times-News writes about the efforts that law enforcement agencies in Alamance are making to investigate human trafficking. I don’t know how big of a problem it is in Alamance, but how many cases does it take to make it a big problem? Not many, in my view.

Fayetteville — Speaking of the legislature, the Observer harks back to a time when the partisans in Raleigh knew about compromise. “A wise lawmaker makes friends, Floyd said. ‘The objective’s not to go up there and just be a stubborn elected official,’ he said. “You’re not going to get anything to bring back.’”


Gaston — The people in every city I’ve lived in have created an image of another city so that they can look down upon them. Kudos to the Gazette for writing about Charlotte looking down on Gastonia. And the other cities that look down on and are looked down at. “So, does Gaston have an image problem? It depends on who you ask. Redneck, lint head, backwater — ask around about Gaston County’s public perception and you might not like what you hear. ‘We’ve heard those kinds of terms a lot,’ said Elaine Lyerly, owner of Belmont’s Lyerly Agency public relations firm. ‘Not exactly positive language.’”

Winston-Salem — The Journal writes about a criminal case I don’t know anything about, but that’s not why I’m posting it. It’s here because I get annoyed when elected officials who are paid by and are supposed to represent the public decline to be open about their actions and decisions. More than three years ago, some members of the Winston-Salem City Council who appeared in favor of the city supporting Kalvin Michael Smith’s federal appeal suddenly changed their minds after two closed-door meetings. The public still doesn’t know why.” Happens everywhere.



Who had the French Laundry’s stolen wine?

On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 76 bottles of wine worth at least $300,000 were stolen from the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Ca., one of the most famous restaurants in the country.

Sometime this week, the Napa Valley Sheriff’s Department came to get them back from a private cellar in Greensboro. The sheriff’s captain won’t say who had them, telling Robert Lopez of the News & Record: “The person who had it was an unsuspecting or unwitting buyer,”

Is the captain withholding the name of the person who had the wine to protect an innocent, or is the person more a part of the investigation than we know? We don’t know. We do know that the person’s name will come out as the investigation continues, but for now, nada.

It’s the talk of Greensboro, if you’ll allow me that cliche. Who has such an intense interest in rare, expensive wine? What collector would actually receive the wine without knowing that it had been stolen? Or perhaps he or she did know it and alerted the police. And how glamorous this makes Greensboro!

Here’s the question for those who like to think about those things. Say the person is innocent and had nothing to do with the theft and was horrified when he or she discovered it.

Do we have the right to know his or her identity?

If you’re a news editor, the answer is yes. Or, at least, to me, it is yes. It’s of intense public interest, the person has a major role in a crime or the solving of a crime. And yes, it’s one helluva crime story with a Greensboro figure, if not in the middle of it certainly standing close enough to the middle to touch it.

But there is a respectable case to be made to withhold the name. If the person doesn’t want his or her name released. If the person can make the case that doing so will embarrass him or her, or it will put him into some sort of danger. It is an argument that journalists hear all the time.

So, if the person is an innocent in this case, does the public have the right to know his or her identity?

How college students get the news


This is how one of my student’s began the diary of her day’s media interactions:

  • 8:15 a.m.: phone alarm sounds, snooze it
  • 8:30 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, snooze it
  • 8:45 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, turn it off
  • 8:50 a.m.: begin checking phone
  • Check text messages, respond
  • Check UNC emails
  • Check personal emails
  • Check Facebook
  • Check Twitter
  • Check Yik Yak
  • 9:05 a.m. Turn on laptop and begin work

That’s pretty much how she ended the day, too, minus the alarm.

I had 35 students in one of my classes record every interaction with media they had over the course of two days. The exercise surprised most of them with how reliant — addicted, in the words of several — they are to their phones and to social media. Putting aside the above student’s wake-up routine, it’s worth noting where her first stops of the day are not: No newspaper, no TV for news or otherwise, no CNN website. If it isn’t on her social media, she’s not going to get it.

That’s not uncommon, either. In fact, it would be more common if you add two more stops: “Check Instagram.” And “Check Snapchat. Respond to Snaps.”

That shouldn’t be news to news organizations; it’s been like that for at least five or six years. But it should be chilling to news organizations because it means that all the efforts they’ve made to try to get the millennials — and there haven’t been all that many — have failed.

83206ae67da70662c246b9cca0b92d2da77cae199a14e8d23e102739d5192b2eBefore you read on, you should go to their blogs, which I’m curating daily here. These aren’t slackers.

There are opportunities — they are a fertile audience for news — but news organizations must change their behaviors and their actions.

Other observations from their media diaries:

* They are swamped with media. One student said she logged one-third of her waking hours interacting – reading, listening, watching or posting – with media. (For the record, I exempted school work from this exercise.) But most of them considered their media diets to be high on fat and carbs and low on nutrition. “My diet is not very balanced. It is missing news sources giving me information-based nutrition.” That statement is from a student who reads the Skimm and checks Google News “incessantly.”

And most of it they used for entertainment. “The most common way I read information-based ‘nutritional’ news was either from short posts from NowThisNews on Instagram or from a front-page story in the Daily Tar Heel. The posts take less than a minute to read usually, and the paper articles take at the most five minutes. At the same time, I spent 45 minutes to an hour watching Beyonce and other artists’ videos on YouTube.”

“This exercise made me consider how much time I would have to take in information-based media if I cut out some entertainment media.”

Truth be told, their media diets aren’t nearly as bad as they think they are. Most of them know what’s going on in the world, either through social media, through discussions with friends or from classes. They simply don’t access a great deal of mainstream news media outlets in their course of the day. They often get the news indirectly. But they still get it. (I was a college student once pre-Internet and they know a lot more about what’s going on in the world than most of my classmates did.)


* Much of them are led to news sites by tweets or Facebook posts. “Then, if I’m interested enough, I will read the entire article at its original location.” But the percentage of times that students click through to news articles is low.

“The first thing that stands out is that I did not look at the news at all in these two days. I spend a lot of time on social media, and sometimes I do get some news from that, but I never seek out and look at news. This is definitely a weakness of mine, and I should probably have been kicked out of the j-school for it.”

* They don’t pay for content. For many, the only subscription-based media they use are Netflix, Spotify or Amazon Prime, and they’re often using the passwords of their parents or their girlfriend’s step-father’s brother or some such. (Note to self: add ethics discussion to syllabus.) Many also say they can’t imagine ever paying for news content. “Why pay for something like a newspaper/magazine subscription or bigger texting packages when we can find ways to find or do it all for free on the Internet?”

On paywalls: “I need to be somewhat judicious with my visits to the Times or the Globe, though, as their arcane paywalls only permit non-subscribers to read 10 monthly articles. This is the most overt instance of moneymaking that I encounter in my daily consumption. It is also the most irritating. Paywalls are the devil’s work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to charge a user after they’ve consumed and enjoyed content rather than immediately erecting barriers to entry and assuming readers will reach for their wallets?”

* They are all over the place on digital advertising.

On Twitter: “They are ineffective as I tend to ignore native ads. When I see a post by someone I don’t follow, I just scroll right past it.”

On Facebook’s targeted ads: “I think it’s better to have something related to my interests on my screen than a random ad.” And another: “I notice that Facebook has started showing me ads of travel agencies and offers in London as it knows that I’m traveling there over Spring Break. I actually like these advertisements because they remind me of my upcoming trip.”

* They don’t go to the movies much. Certainly not on the days they monitored, but in discussions, they said they are more likely to go to Netflix or Google-Plus or Amazon than out to the multiplex. And cable. “The only reason my house buys it is because it comes in a package with our Wi-Fi and costs us each $11 a month. If it didn’t come relatively inexpensively with the wi-fi, which is a social necessity, there is no way we would still subscribe to it.”

* They aren’t reading books. I don’t make too much of this, given most of their book reading is school related, which I exempted.

* Like the Boomer Generation, they waste a lot of time. “We now waste away huge chunks of time perusing the Internet because it’s easier to lie on the couch and look at something in your hand than to actually get up and do something.”

We had a good discussion about who is responsible to add news information to balance their diets that are heavy on carbs and sugars. They disagreed over whether it was their responsibility to seek out more whole foods, or whether it was the industry’s responsibility to serve it up.

They appreciated the efforts that advertisers were taking to personalize products and to slyly position ads so that they would, at least, be noticed subconsciously. While many thought the collection of personal data was intrusive, an equal number accept it as the price of being on the grid.

The challenge to news organizations is to be as aggressive and innovative as advertisers and marketers. Personalization. Branding. Positioning. All strategies that news organizations have been trying to figure out.



Social media: Where to find college students

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Andrew Watts, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas-Austin, wrote a well-circulated piece about how he and his friends use social media. In brief, he says that his peers gladly use Instagram and Snapchat, but only tolerate Facebook because they must. Twitter, he says, is overrated and not used by many. Yik Yak is on the rise. Pinterest is female-dominant. It’s worth a full read.

Much of what he says coincides with what most of my students believe about their own social media use. Last week, I asked 60 UNC-Chapel Hill students a series of questions about their social media habits. * Their biggest disagreement with Watts’ piece is that Twitter isn’t a mystery to them. They use it as a news wire service, a place to muse, a way to connect with celebs, and a way to broadcast conversations with friends.


I asked them to rate 12 different social networking sites on a 1-to-5 scale with 1 meaning “sucks” and 5 meaning “love it.” A zero meant you weren’t on it or didn’t use it. The results:

* Instagram got the most love, with 33 students giving it 5s, followed by Snapchat (28), Youtube (24), Twitter (18) and Facebook (3).


* Coinciding with Watts’ position that students are on Facebook because of its omnipotence, virtually every respondent (58 of 60) was on Facebook. The same number of students had an opinion of Youtube. Twitter was listed by 56, Snapchat (54), Instagram (53), Vine (43), LinkedIn (41), Pinterest (39), Yik Yak (38), Tumbler (27), Tinder (21) and Google+ (20).

* In the end, the top three places by average evaluation were close. Snapchat rated 4.1, Youtube 3.9 and Instagram 3.8. And note that Facebook — which all students except two used — had a lower average rating.

* They easily spend the most time on Instagram, which was followed at some distance by Facebook and Twitter. Snapchat, at 4th, was farther back.

* They create the most content on Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter and Facebook are in their dust. There is some national speculation that Snapchat has peaked, but that doesn’t show up in this group of students.

Both Instagram and Snapchat are photo/video social networks. Draw whatever conclusions you may. Mine is that taking a photo is more fun, easier and more enticing (it’s visual) than primarily text-based services such as Twitter and Facebook.


One expert on teen use of social networks, danah boyd, in response to the online discussion of Watts’ piece, notes that Watts is a white, college student. His experience does not reflect the millions of Twitter users that age who aren’t in college and who are of color. Most of the students in my classes are white and female; this group of 60 had 10 males and six African Americans.

Despite her concern, news organizations continue to face the challenge of how to speak with this audience. I do not have a bead yet on how much of the news of the world these students follow and where they get it. My experience is that they follow the news relatively closely. Where they get it, though, is probably from everywhere. We will have that discussion later this week. I’ll update this post.

News organizations are relatively active on Twitter and Facebook. But my observation is that many of them still use it the old-fashioned way, which is to broadcast their own stories, but not to interact with followers or to discuss competitors content. Individual journalists tend to be better, although many stick to the straight and narrow when it comes to traditional objectivity. Fine, except none of that resonates well with college-age folks on social media.

Does your organization have a strong Instagram presence, posting photos on the service with snappy cutlines and a healthy dose of hashtags? (Check out @mynytimes.) What better use of your professionally produced photos and videos? You have to have some fun with it, though. (It’s always been a disconnect for me: while many journalists are hilarious; most news organizations make the No Fun League look like Chris Rock.)

I didn’t think there is anything mainstream journalists could do with Snapchat, an ephemeral one-to-some social network. But then I Googled it and found lots of experiments news organizations are doing or have done.

This isn’t about saving print; it’s about going where the people are gathering. If you believe digital is your future, then social is the biggest play.

* I stole the idea of asking students to measure this from someone I follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who so I can’t properly give him credit. I apologize for that.

Sunday sampler

With Martin Luther King Jr. holiday tomorrow (his birth date was Jan. 15), several N.C. front pages had stories about him or civil rights. That’s fine and appropriate and browse them (High Point, Charlotte and Asheville) as you like. I show the front page of the Citizen-Times because I like the design of the story.


Meanwhile, on to a few other front page stories.

Raleigh — The week’s story with the biggest, long-term repercussions for the state was the firing Friday of the president of the UNC system, Tom Ross. Surprising to me, only the News & Observer followed it up with another story today. Everyone — except the Board of Governors — sees the firing as political. No one on the board commented except the chairman who said it wasn’t political. Even the staunchly Republican man who just gave UNC-Chapel Hill $100 million said he thinks Ross is a great leader. Sad performance by the people supposedly looking after the university system.

Fayetteville — As the Raleigh politicians begin to argue – again – about Medicaid in N.C., the Observer dives deeper into to show what happens to people who fall into the gap of coverage. “Denise Johnson works six days a week in the laundry room of a hotel on U.S. 301. The 58-year-old Fayetteville resident doesn’t work enough hours to be considered full-time and doesn’t receive health benefits. Johnson applied for Medicaid at the Department of Social Services, but she was ineligible because she made too much money. Then she tried signing up for subsidized health insurance coverage under Obamacare. Turns out she doesn’t make enough money to qualify for subsidies.” Tough, says, Sen. Phil Berger.

Greensboro — The News & Record has a fine outrage column about court overreach by editorial writer Doug Clark, but I can’t find it on the website. Maybe it will go up later.


When you want to call a commenter an asshole

Truth: A lot of people don’t understand what newspapers do or why they do it. It’s as if they were absent the day the First Amendment was discussed in high school history.

Axiom: Most newspapers don’t explain what they do or why they do it worth a damn. It’s as if they don’t pay attention to their own editorials about transparency.

Truth: A lot of people hate newspapers. I used to deal with them all the time.

Axiom: Consequently, a lot of people hate newspaper editors. I used to deal with them all the time.

Truth: Newspaper editors have to make hard, ethical decisions every day that are bound to piss off some people. What stories to cover, how to cover them, where to play them in the paper, what will the headline say, what will the photo look like, do we get all sides, do we quote people who say things that are simply untrue and, if so, how do we frame that, etc.

Axiom: Editors hate to acknowledge that they made the wrong decision, but it happens less often than people who write letters to the editor think.

Truth: Newspapers are expected to be a big tent where diversity of views are welcomed. I mean, it’s not like they’re turning prospective customers away at the door.

Axiom: I was always taught that it was expected that reasonable people can disagree.

Truth: Newspapers, trying to carry their 18th century role as the village square into the digital world, continue to juggle story comments and social media.

Axiom: Most of them don’t do it well because sometimes the world turns into a sewer, and despite what a lot of people think, most journalists aren’t sewer rats.

Truth: Social media policies at most newspapers mandate civility in dealings with people, regardless of the tone or content of what is being thrown your way.

Axiom: Journalists know how to swear well enough to make Charlie Sheen blush.

Truth: Many commenters know how to get under the skin of editors.

Axiom: Many journalists tend to be thin-skinned, particularly now when so many people distrust you and talk smack.

Truth: No matter what, newspaper editors should always be the adult in the conversation.

Axiom: That means you don’t call people assholes, even if they are and you want to. It never, ever, turns out well.

Full disclosure: As an editor, I don’t think I ever called anyone an asshole to his face. As a private citizen, yes. I have invited people to not read the damned newspaper for all I cared.

Sunday sampler


(Paula Broadwell)

Because the N.C. General Assembly convenes this week, several newspaper published stories about that.

Raleigh’s is the most comprehensive, which isn’t surprising, given that state government is its largest beat. Rob Christensen, the dean of state government reporters, writes about the continuation of the conservative revolution. Bottom line: Maybe, maybe not. The High Point Enterprise and the Wilmington Star News round up the issues confronting the legislature, quoting “both sides” of them. The Winston-Salem Journal writes specifically about the backlog at the state crime lab.

Meanwhile, there are good pieces from other papers.

Charlotte: The Observer revisits the Gen. Petraeus and Paula Broadwell story, pegged to the Justice Department’s recommendation that charges be brought against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. In truth, I list it here because the Observer did something for this story that many newspapers would not have done. A reporter went to Broadwell’s house and knocked on her door to get a comment…or no comment, as it was in this case. With phones and emails and social media — coupled with fewer reporters to cover more news — straight-up shoe-leather reporting is to be celebrated.

Fayetteville: The Observer revisits Fort Fisher, and why the Civil War battle there is not well known. I’ve lived in North Carolina for 40 years and the story told me many interesting things I didn’t know. That, to me, is a mark of good journalism.

Images are powerful, but they need to be seen

It’s the first day of class. Forty college students, ranging from sophomore to senior, in a mass communications class. Some of them budding journalists, all of them smart.

I showed them this photo from the New York Times.


One or two of them had seen it before and knew it was from Ferguson.

I showed them this photo from AFP.


One person knew it was an ISIS killing squad.

I then showed them this cartoon.


A few of them had seen the cartoon by illustrator Lucille Clerc, which was shared across the Internet yesterday.

I finally showed them this photo….


…of Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper magazine, every one in the class had seen it.

Do they all subscribe to Paper? No. They had seen the photo shared on their social networks.

I wouldn’t make too much of this, but it is worth noting. The first three are compelling images of dramatic news events, but the students didn’t universally recognize any of them. Kim’s Photoshopped photo isn’t a dramatic news event, but it’s certainly compelling. My guess is that the first three images were not widely shared on their networks.

They were shared widely, though, because I saw them on MY networks.

Historically, most of my students say they get their news from Twitter or Facebook. The original tweets and status updates come from friends and a news source, such as CNN. (I say historically because I haven’t asked this class about their news sources yet.) And the students were well aware of each of the news events so this isn’t a condemnation of their lack of news literacy.

But one of my goals with all of my classes is to encourage students to expand their social networks to include smart people — those in their fields of interest and those who are, well, just smart.

In one way, this is an unfair comparison. The Kim cover is sexy, celebrity and fun. The other three are imbued with tragedy. It’s unrealistic to think that college students — or anyone else in America — wouldn’t be taken with this viral image of a TV reality star. The challenge is to get them — and everyone else in America — to be familiar with some of the other spectacular images of worldwide news events.

The best photos and cartoons can change perceptions. A black man in Ferguson walking down the street and encountering those police officers. The murderous ISIS. A simple powerful cartoon. They all do speak 1,000 words. Look for them.

Annoying customers is bad business

When you click on a story at the News & Observer’s or the Charlotte Observer’s website, you first run into an intro ad – they call it a “welcome page” — and then a second ad comes up in another tab.  Other newspaper sites employ rich media, in which an ad expands across the page when you move your cursor over it, which I do accidentally too often.

It annoys everyone — well, it annoys at least one person. I’m on my way to a destination, and the website tries to pull me away from it. I have intent; it interrupts me. Worse, it’s not like Google or Facebook, which tries to deliver ads based on my searches. These ads are generic. The N&O ad is for Progressive. Thanks, Flo, but I don’t need you.

Now there is a study that suggests that such aggressive tactics cause visitors to leave news sites. “We’re basically saying that [publishers] would have to compensate for the ad annoyance with an increased value of the content they’re delivering, or the exclusivity of the service they’re providing people,” said Dan Goldstein, a principal researcher at Microsoft. “It’s not really free to run these ads, though it shows up as a short-term profit.”

In truth, annoying ads don’t cause me to leave websites. They just annoy me. (One exception are the autoplay ads.) But newspaper paywalls do cause me to leave websites, either because I don’t want to “waste” a click on a story that isn’t as advertised or I avoid the site because I know it only allows five or 10 free views. Eventually, I stop going to it altogether. I am usually able to find the information I need elsewhere or decide it’s not important enough to worry about.

I know that newspapers need the revenue; I’ve lived it. My argument has always been to stock sites with content that is indispensable and unique, and make the process clean and easy. Those qualities attract me — it’s why I pay for the New Yorker and the New York Times.

And the Times seems to have figured it out. Two of the considerations of whether a person will subscribe to digital content:

* “They get access to exclusive content and unique information they couldn’t get anywhere else (e.g., original programming, in-depth reporting, hyper-local information).

* “Users think it could be a primary source for this type of content or information.”

Go to your newspaper website right now. How much of the content is exclusive? How much is indispensable? (My experience is that much of it is small-bore (to me) crime or government news. Heck, right now, across many N.C. newspaper sites, a major story is that it’s going to get cold.)

I assume that the business people at Raleigh and Charlotte don’t care much about me. I’m unlikely to patronize the local businesses there so the ads aren’t really directed to me. But I think they would like my traffic, if only so they could use it as a selling point to advertisers. But I think — and I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong — that there are a lot of people in Raleigh and Charlotte who think as I do. And the papers do want those folks.

And, as I just read here, “My former colleague Alexis Madrigal likes to say that when a media organization violates its audience’s trust, the company doesn’t suddenly explode like a volcano. Instead it wilts slowly, at first even imperceptibly, like a tire with a small hole, whistling a current of air until the driver suddenly realizes that his wheels have deflated beyond use.”

Important note: I’m picking on Raleigh and Charlotte because they are the big guys in the state, but I believe that all papers in the state with paywalls should take note. People might tolerate the annoying ads for the convenience of using your site for free. But I doubt they will pay for a subscription if they aren’t getting unique, indispensable information.

A lesson for Thom Tillis to remember

If there is one thing Sen.-elect Thom Tillis should have learned from his own campaign is that he cannot afford to tie himself too closely to the party leadership. Six years ago, Sen. Kay Hagan should have learned that from her own victorious campaign against then-incumbent Elizabeth Dole.

This fall, Tillis hammered Hagan for voting with Obama “95 percent of the time.” Six years earlier, Hagan constantly reminded voters that Dole voted with Bush 92 percent of the time.

Tillis ought to stencil his own criticism of Hagan onto his office wall. He needs to remember it. He hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but is already standing with his party’s leadership on the major issues.

Here is the first paragraph in a story Dec. 10 about torture: “U.S. Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, who was in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, said the release of the report on CIA interrogation practices during the Bush administration could harm U.S. relations with other countries. His comments echoed those made by his soon-to-be Republican colleague, Sen. Richard Burr.”

Here is the first paragraph in a story Dec. 17 about Cuba: “North Carolina Sen.-elect Thom Tillis said Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s decision to make sweeping changes to American and Cuban relations now is a bad idea and should have come only after more Cuban government and human rights reforms.”

Here is his response to a question about immigration  in a story on Dec. 28: “We need to first and foremost have a credible strategy for sealing the border. What the president has done has actually made that task even more challenging because by saying that he can grant amnesty — at least temporary amnesty to some 3 to 5 (million) already here illegally present. He’s sending a signal to those who have not yet come here that maybe if you get here you’ll be afforded the same treatment.”

Each parrots the party line. In fact, in the AP Q&A, he doesn’t refer to himself in the first-person as much as he uses the third-person: “What we’ve said” and “when we came into the legislature.” It’s not entirely clear who the inclusive “we” is.

Of course, he’s toeing the party line; he was elected as a Republican and changing the position of the woman he defeated is expected. It makes perfect sense. Plus, he needs to get along with the leadership as part of the bargain to get on the committees he wants to.

So, I don’t blame him.

But I will remind him – before he takes office and his positions matter – that North Carolinians like political rebels — Jesse Helms — and outsiders — John Edwards. While siding with the party certainly makes life easier right now, but it hardly guarantees political longevity in North Carolina.