How do you teach student journalists to be tough?

Some years ago, a city employee threatened one of our reporters when he was asking questions. I don’t know how serious the intention of making good on the threat was, but the reporter took it seriously. I set up a meeting with the city manager said this behavior by a public employee was unacceptable. The city manager agreed.

Then came President Trump, who calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” Naturally, the Trump cult has taken this to heart and scream at journalists doing their jobs. And now Sen. McSally and Secretary Pompeo — again people who are paid by the American taxpayer — have joined in the boorish behavior.

OK, I get it. They don’t like questions that question their dubious, conflicting narrative of events. They play to that base of Republicans who think reporters are biased. They forget the lessons of their mamas and the Bible and lash out. And then they double-down on it.

It takes guts for journalists to stand up to power and do their jobs, particularly when people are screaming at them and calling them names. (To say nothing of the President of the United States praising the guy who berated the reporter and then lied about it. Good for NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly for not backing down.)

Now, imagine being a 21-year-old journalism student getting ready to venture into this world. Many of them don’t quite grasp that they are adults and they belong in the same conversation with a city manager or a U.S. senator or, for that matter, the president. They’ve been taught their entire lives to respect authority figures — teachers and bosses — and now they’re expected to push back, to ask the harder question, to stand while they’re being browbeaten?


“There is a power dynamic that exists in any interview, and you have to figure out who holds the power,” Jacqui Banaszynski told Butch Ward of Poynter, “and with official interviews, I think it’s absolutely important not to cede the power and the purpose and the importance of the journalism, so you stand up as an equal.” (Bold is mine.)

I used Jacqui’s quote in a class yesterday, but honestly, I haven’t figured out how to prepare students to face the browbeaters, intimidators and liars they will face in their future jobs. Encouraging them to stand strong — that bullies must be challenged — is easy to talk about in a classroom, harder to do in practice. Telling them to remember that they represent the public and that their job is to ferret the truth beyond the pat answers and bullshit only gets me so far.

Learning toughness will come with experience, but it can start in the classroom. I’m still searching for a good way to teach it.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The International Civil Rights Museum has been controversial from Day One. Controversial not for its mission or the history it represents but for its founders and its finances. So it is a pleasure to read in the News & Record that it is on stable financial footing. “Harris, a former college professor who works with Swaine to plan ongoing programs, said the International Civil Rights Center represents more to the city than a tourist attraction, though that is a key attribute. ‘A city that has good race relations is good for business,’ he said. ‘This is a place that has a history of progress and you’re not coming to some backward place.’”

Winston-Salem: The Journal has a good story about efforts to attack the opioid problem in Surry County by using the active church community. It seemed a natural fit and interest was high, initially. “Eight months and six meetings later, a call to action directed at the county’s vast faith community, has gone largely unanswered. Corralling people from many faiths and backgrounds to turn words into action proved more difficult than Willis anticipated.”

Morehead City: I own a house at the beach, and I see the beach erosion after every big storm. But the cost of beach renourishment is breath-taking, according to the Carteret News-Times. “Since 2001, Carteret County, state and federal governments have spent $144,153,979 to nourish the tourist-magnet beaches on Bogue Banks, from The Point at the western tip of Emerald Isle at Bogue Inlet to the eastern tip of Atlantic Beach.”

Lenoir: Add Caldwell County to the growing list of counties considering or passing a resolution declaring the county a Second Amendment sanctuary, according to the News-Topic. Because as long as our elected officials are spending time on meaningless activities they won’t do things like pass laws that actually matter. Meanwhile, the News & Record explains why such resolutions are unneeded.

Asheville: I understand that children learn in different ways, but I’m skeptical of this trend of unschooling as illustrated by the Citizen-Times. Unschooling is exactly what it sounds like: Children learn by doing stuff — not classrooms, curriculum or assignments.  “Neither girl can read, which is of little concern to their mother. In fact, the ages when students learn to read is largely insignificant to unschooling supporters. An inability to read, even by the ages of 8 or 9, isn’t a cause to panic to most unschooling parents. ‘They’re learning from real life applications, skills that are more important earlier on,’ Loidolt said of her daughters.”


Sunday sampler

Well, it appears as if a subset of North Carolina thinks the government is coming to take away their guns. That there is no evidence of that doesn’t matter. The News & Observer reports that 50 GOP lawmakers have signed a letter of support for areas that want to declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, a status that holds no legal power. (Bear in mind that the GOP controls both chambers in the General Assembly.)

Last week, I reported on Davidson County Board of Commissioners considering a resolution naming itself a Second Amendment sanctuary. (It passed.)

Now, Catawba County is considering the same, the Hickory Daily Record reports. “Our forefathers fought against this and this is our God-given rights,” Dickey said. “All government officials were elected by the people to uphold the law of our country. If we don’t take a stand, we are just setting ourselves up to have all our rights removed.” She doesn’t cite the Bible passage in which God mentions firearms.

Meanwhile, the sheriff of Iredell County has a column on the front page of the Record & Landmark explaining his support for Iredell becoming a Second Amendment sanctuary. (It’s not online, but you can read much of it here.)


Here is better news: The Alamance County sheriff supports Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, an effort which the GOP legislature has spurned. “We see the results of untreated mental health problems in our jail,” Johnson said at a news conference organized in Raleigh by Care4Carolina. “This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue. We need to remove the politics. This is a humanitarian issue.”

“We can pay now, or we can pay later,” Johnson said, “and we are paying later with human life, and people’s lives being destroyed.”

Raleigh: The N&O reports that social studies teachers don’t like eliminating some history instruction in the curriculum so that personal finance studies can be added. The story is what you’d expect — change is hard. I post it only to give me an excuse to advocate for required instruction in media literacy. To me, the misunderstanding of what media is and isn’t is one of the great national problems. Media literacy should be a required course the way English, history and foreign language are.

A reporter’s best friend is the telephone

Part 1 of 2

The conversation always goes something like this:

Me: How’s the story coming?

Him: I emailed her but I haven’t heard back yet.

Me: Call her.

Him: At her office?

Me: Home or office. No, wait. You’re right. Don’t call her. Go over there and knock on the door.

Him: Right now? Just show up?


Of all the things I’ve had to learn about teaching students to become journalists, the one that surprises me most is the reluctance — resistance even — that they have to using the telephone to call someone. Put the emphasis on call, as opposed to email, text, tweet Snap or Insta.

It’s inefficient, they tell me; no one answers the phone. It’s intrusive; the person may be in the middle of something. It’s uncomfortable; you don’t know exactly what the person is going to say, and what if they say they won’t talk with you? (Inc. has a whole list of reasons.)

I take the position of every editor in the world: I don’t care what they are doing. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable or if the source is in the middle of planning an invasion. Get the story.

I should have anticipated this because when I was an editor, students would email me for interviews. They always preferred to conduct the interview via email. And when I responded to their questions, they never asked any followups.

Now I tell the student that this is what a source does when he or she gets your email.

(It’s actually an extension of what students do to my emails. They don’t delete them, they simply ignore them until they can’t. They don’t seem to understand that their interview subjects treat email the same way they do.)

Years ago, I deleted an email from someone requesting an interview. I was in the midst of something important — though it wasn’t planning an invasion — and I didn’t want to take the time. I felt guilty about it and, finally, two days later I fished the email out of the deleted file and responded, saying I’d be happy to answer questions. I never heard back.

So, I tell students to call them. It’s much more difficult for your source to say “no” to you when you’re already on the line. Make your pitch, and if the source hesitates, have a compelling question waiting for them that they will want to answer. Then you have them; you just reel him or her in with the next question. Or the next statement that will make him or her want to explain to you or correct you.

Half the time, I think I can see the gears inside the student’s head turning. Sometimes this is what I see:

But not all. Not all.

Coming next Thursday: Part II: Bottom up.

Your fate is in the stars

I’m a Virgo and this is my horoscope for today, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The moon is in your sign, which makes you more emotional than usual. This happens for two days every month. On the upside, it makes you a bit luckier than all the other signs, which means this is the day to go for what you want. Try it! Ask the universe for a favor.”

Ask the universe for a favor! Pantheism! That’s an awesome suggestion!

When I was a young reporter at the Asheville Citizen, I used to – rarely – wander into the composing room where the newspaper pages were pasted up. This was in pre-computer days, and stories, graphics and photos were sent from the newsroom to the production process on paper. The stories would be run through a waxer and pasted onto a newspaper page before it was ready to be burned onto a plate for the press.

I sidled up to Ed Sykes, one of the editors, who was working on the feature pages and was in the process of adding the daily horoscope onto the page. He reached into a box filled with seemingly random astrology columns, pulled one out, sent it through the waxer and put it on the page.

I looked at the box of columns and asked him: “How do you know that was the right one for today?”

He didn’t even look at me. He kept on with his duties. He said something like, “I know it was the right one because it’s the one that found my hand.”

I laughed and said, “Yeah, but, I mean, how do you know it was the one scheduled for today.”

This time he looked at me as if I was something he had stepped in and said, “John, this isn’t science or journalism. It’s a madeup game. The people who read it will read it.”

I liked his first answer better.




Sunday sampler

Raleigh: David Zucchino, who won the Pulitzer Prize and now writes for the New York Times, has written a book about the murders of African Americans by a white mob in Wilmington and the takeover of its government in 1898. The News & Observer, where Zucchino once worked, tells the story. “Here, in the U.S., he said, the threatening image of the criminal “other” is alive and well, still being used by some white supremacists against African Americans and Hispanics, and by some political leaders, including in North Carolina, are still working to curtail minorities’ voting rights and political access. ‘Some of these same forces are very much at work today,’ Zucchino said. ‘There are some politicians who are willing to stoke those fears.'”

Winston-Salem: Somewhat related to above, did you know that Democrats want to take away your guns? A resolution to be considered in Davidson County — and likely passed by the Republican-majority board of commissioners — declares that the county will not allocate resources or assist in the enforcement of a gun-control law. (My bet is that this is supported by the same people who oppose sanctuary city resolutions, but consistency isn’t an intellectual strength.) Listen to the county sheriff: “Sitting in his office, Simmons said he doesn’t really think people are at risk of losing their guns, but if someone does come for them, he has got a plan. ‘I know what the sheriff will do is protect our people if someone comes to take their rights away,’ he said. ‘I don’t want people to be afraid. I deal in solutions.’ He is vague on the details of his plan but mentioned that it involves deputizing a lot of ‘good’ people.”

Greensboro: Somewhat related to above, the News & Record publishes an N&O story raising the question of the effectiveness of domestic violence protective orders. And the intro is about a guy who was ordered by the court to stay away from his ex-girlfriend, but didn’t. He killed her. “A 2003 federal Office of Justice Programs report still cited today noted that nearly half of all abusers charged with killing their partners had previous arrests, and nearly a third of the victims previously had called police.”

“Best of the best”

As regular readers of this blog know, I teach a course named “Media Hub.” The dean calls it a course for the “best of the best” of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC.

Now, that name is offficially certified. The work of one of our students, Cambria Haro, has been awarded first place in the national Hearst Journalism Awards for her work on television storytelling. First, out of 105 entries from universities around the country.

Her entries are about Peter Norton, a storyteller who couldn’t speak, and Alexis Nye, a audiology student who couldn’t hear. Both are worth a watch.

UNC has done well so far this year in these awards, which are consider the Pulitzers of college journalism. Mary Glen Hatcher won the third place award in feature writing and Margaret High, fifth, out of 156 entries. Haley France won fourth place in photojournalism and Matthew Westmoreland, fifth.

Back to Cambria. She is from LA and graduated in December. She’s a rare talent, but isn’t even sure she wants to go into broadcasting. Maybe she’ll reconsider with this award.





A storyteller in many forms

A new semester started yesterday, and in my feature writing class, this is how the students described themselves in one word:

Stubborn, demanding, curious, inquisitive, dreamer, optimistic, eclectic, decisive, quiet, empathetic, curious, complex, resilient, compassionate, determined, humorous, authentic, concerned and resilient.

All personality traits of journalists, I’d say. About half of the 20 students said they planned to become journalists or writers in some form.

And those one-word descriptions also include lawyers, librarians, teachers, filmmakers and late night hosts, which are some of the non-journalism career aspirations the students listed.

They all come under the big umbrella that one of the multi-skilled journalism students said she planned to be: “A storyteller in many forms.”


Anatomy of a subscription fail

Our bill for our 7-day newspaper subscription came: $281.52. Let’s take a look!

Last year, the cost was $122.14. That’s an increase of $159.38 — about 130 percent.

What didn’t accompany it was an explanation of the need for an increase.

The subscription includes what the paper calls 12 “premium editions” for an additional charge. That includes the Thanksgiving Day paper — which a reasonable person might think is included in a 7-day subscription — and the 1808 monthly magazine, which no longer exists.

Here is what getting 12 “premium editions” means: “The additional charges for premium editions will result in a slightly shortened subscription length in proportion to the additional charges.” Actually, “slightly shortened” translates to five weeks. So, what the bill calls a 52-week subscription is really 47 weeks.

And finally, the paper has tacked on $3.95 “subscription renewal charge” because we pay by mail.

(By the way, if you’re a new subscriber, you can get a year’s subscription for $86. Not available for a 35-year subscriber.)

I am not cancelling the paper because I believe in the importance of a local newspaper, I still have friends who work at the paper, and I can afford it. I worked at the newspaper a long time and I know the idea behind this: They know older subscribers won’t cancel because we’re addicted to print. But with a billing like that, I want to. I’m surprised that anyone renews.

I love my paper but I am not feeling appreciated. In fact, I’m feeling disrespected and taken advantage of in this relationship. What needs to happen?

*Explain in the renewal letter why the price has gone through the roof; don’t force me to pick up the phone to complain to someone in a call center who doesn’t know the answer.

*Stop hiding the additional fees for “premium editions”; no one knows which ones they are. They feel like you’re gouging me for something I am already paying for. And don’t make me opt out if I don’t want them.

*”Subscription Renewal Charge”? I don’t want you to have my credit card number and I don’t want you to automatically renew my subscription each year. Get rid of that.

*Make the business end of BH Media read this from Northwestern’s Spiegel Research Center. “Being able to move a reader to a subscriber, while important, has much less leverage and value than growing the long-term value of that subscriber,” said Tom Collinger, Spiegel’s Executive Director.

“Understanding and then working to grow lifetime value is a well-known goal and measure in the retail and e-commerce space,” said Collinger. (Customer Lifetime Value) is a “far newer and less familiar goal” in American news organizations, but it’s one they should embrace as customer revenue becomes more of a priority and advertising dollars become less of one, he said.



Sunday sampler

The first weekend after the New Year is always tough for newspapers because it is toward the end of what’s basically two-week local news holiday. But a few papers have stories on their front pages that interested me.

Morganton: This poor guy is minding his own business in his own house a few minutes after midnight on New Year’s when a bullet pierced the wall and hit him in the ankle. (Stories about idiots with guns grab my attention.) “If he had been bending over or sitting on the end of the bed, it (would have) clipped him in the chest or in the side of his head,” Holly said. “We keep my 5-month-old grandson quite often, and I thought, ‘Jesus God, thank God he wasn’t here that night.’”

Wilmington: Several months ago, Greensboro stopped picking up glass as part of its recycling program. Now residents either throw the glass in the trash or take it to a central dropoff location. So, I’m interested in the Star-News story about how Wilmington is losing money on its recycling program. Lots of blame to go around, including manufacturers and consumers. Need more boxed wine! (Can’t find the story online; here’s a look at the front page.)