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.”




An open letter to Warren Buffett

Dear Mr. Buffett,

I am a 31-year subscriber to my hometown newspaper, the News & Record, which your company, Berkshire-Hathaway, owns. The editor-publisher of the paper, Jeff Gauger, resigned yesterday. This gives you a golden opportunity before it is too late to do a solid for newspapers around the country. No, it’s more than a solid and it’s for more than newspapers. You can throw a lifeline to news consumers everywhere.

In 2012, you said that you love newspapers. I’m hoping that remains true.

You wrote in your annual letter to shareholders: “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time. We do not believe that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication. Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. …Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”

I love that. Right now, your operation here isn’t coming close to your goal. It is cutting staff and page count, reduced subscriber services, and watched readership decline across the region. The paper isn’t serving its readership or contributing what it should to the health of democracy. It isn’t doing what you pledged to shareholders.

So, this is your opportunity: Hire a publisher who is empowered to lead the News & Record into the future rather than one trying to hold onto the past. Use the N&R to try new approaches to news and revenue generation. Adopt the idea that successes by the N&R could be tried in some of the other dozens of newspapers your company owns. And make this not about the printed product, but about how news companies can generate and distribute news and information that serves the community.

My advice for his or her first moves to include:

>>>>Refocus the newspaper’s mission: Right now it seems to be attempting to be intensely local. It’s not a bad mission; it’s one I argued for some years ago. But it isn’t working the way it is being executed. The staff is too small to handle an area this large. In truth, it’s not in the readership’s DNA to want a newspaper that is intensely local to the detriment of everything else. Most of the newspaper’s readership lived in a time in which newspapers were more comprehensive and displayed big national stories on the front page alongside big local stories. Seeing local — no matter how unimportant — trump bigger national stories proves only that the editors can follow a policy but not their own news judgment. It’s not what your readership wants.

>>>>Conduct market research to find out more about why people get the paper…and why people don’t. That would help drive the refocus on the mission. Me, I would emphasize investigative reporting on stories that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Too often the project reporting that gets done doesn’t. Case in point: This week the paper is publishing an eight-part series on a murder that occurred four years ago in a county outside the newspaper’s home county. It’s still unclear to me why the paper has spent the time and multiple pages telling this story.

Instead, focus on stories change readers’ lives for the better or that will right wrongs in the system…those are the stories that make readers notice. Those are the stories readers talk about. And those are the stories that a news organization can point to with pride. (If you’re going down, go out with your head held high.) Consider and adopt – or adapt – all of the possibilities suggested by Jeff Jarvis on service journalism.

>>>>Decide that it’s time to overhaul the paper’s digital presence. Like many newspaper websites, yours is terrible. It’s hard to navigate, it loads slowly and ads are all over the place.  Throughout the day, the content is heavily crime-related. I assume there is data that shows that that brings traffic. It adds little value, though. Plus, you do know that there is evidence suggesting that most people are not going to your home page, at all, right? Your future customer finds the news on his and her phone, either on an app, on social media or from a newsletter like the Skimm. Evaluate your presence on those platforms and you’ll find opportunities galore.

Let the editor and his lieutenants figure these things out. The publisher and her ad staff can figure out how to reinvent the revenue side. That’s well outside my scope.

This is just the beginning. I have other ideas, but I’m no expert. You have smart people working there. There are many smart people who can help. Bring them in. Heck, start with Steve Buttry. He wrote this about the Boston Globe, and it’s a good a starting place for ideas and inspiration as any.

It will cost some money. You have it. In the scheme of Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings, it will be negligible. But it has the potential to boost the earnings of your newspapers and fulfill your stated goal.

Full disclosure: I was the editor of the paper for 13 years and worked there for 27. I contributed to the smaller staff by laying off more than my fair share of good reporters. I tried various strategies to build readership. I missed opportunities to pursue great investigative projects. I had my chances and didn’t make the most of them.

Let me close by quoting you back to you, from that same 2012 letter: “And people will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost.”

You are exactly right. You have the opportunity right now to put the force of your organization behind that statement and shape the future of journalism. I hope you will.


John Robinson

P.S. You might enjoy the slogan below from the front page of the 1939 Greensboro Daily News, a predecessor of the News & Record. “Adequate News Coverage In All Sections Of The State.”


Sunday sampler

Courtesy of the Boston Globe

Courtesy of the Boston Globe

No, this isn’t a North Carolina paper; it’s not even a front page. It’s a section front of the Globe, and I wish that every paper would do something like this on each candidate. Of course, it would scare the bejesus out of voters. But it wouldn’t be hard to do. Newspapers already create mock — and mocking — front pages when staff members leave.

Here’s a promo to an inside story: “A Trumping to Remember,”  the president’s first romance  novel, was yanked from the  shelves after the publisher acknowledged portions were  cribbed from a May 1986 edition of Penthouse. T9″

OK, on to North Carolina front pages.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times continues its look at how the background of teachers is checked before they are hired…and it’s damning. Using the case of a private school teacher convicted of molesting a student in his class, the paper lays out the case for legislation: “Currently, while Public Instruction licenses teachers, criminal history checks are left to the state’s 115 districts, with no overarching standard in place for delving into an educator’s past. Charter schools are required to follow background policies set by the district where they are located, but are obligated under state law to license only half of their teaching staff.”

Charlotte: It’s never made sense to me why public money is given to private schools, and the Observer’s article confirms my fears, as most of it goes to religious schools. “In Covenant’s science classes, lessons about the origin of Earth start with the premise “In the beginning God created …” then explore a range of interpretations, including evolution, said Head of School Mark Davis.” There’s a place for this, if you ask me, and it is in church, not school. And given the animus toward Muslims, I’m impressed that the legislature hasn’t done something to stop a Muslim school from getting the second most amount of state money.

Raleigh: There is support for HB2 throughout the state, as the News & Observer writes. It’s always good to read differing views to make sure your view is informed. “They agreed with Republican lawmakers that the Charlotte bathroom provision posed a safety risk. They couldn’t recall ever meeting a transgender person. And they weren’t familiar with the law’s other provisions, which include a ban on filing state court lawsuits over employment discrimination claims.” To me, the law — and people’s misunderstanding of it — seems to play on people’s fear of the unknown.

Read more here:


Sunday sampler

It’s not all that common that one non-breaking news story captures the attention of so many of the front pages of the state’s newspapers. Say hello to HB2, which is the state’s new anti-anti-discrimination law.

Raleigh: Gov. McCrory seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism for signing the legislature’s sweeping bill that stops transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with and prevents cities from adopting their own anti-discrimination ordinances. And he’s particularly thin-skinned about it. The N&O puts his position into perspective.

Greensboro: The News & Record takes it down to the personal level with the compelling story of a UNCG transgender student. “If you go into a bathroom and invade someone’s privacy, you’re already a criminal,” said McGarry, 20. “And criminals don’t follow the law — that’s what makes them criminals.“Transgender people aren’t there for that. We just want to use the bathroom.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal examines the repercussions beyond the gender identity issue through the eyes of attorneys. There is a lot of information in the piece. I’ll just exerpt: “He said the law takes away communities’ ability to pursue the best contracts possible since they can no longer require private contractors to pay a wage that’s in line with the local economy. ‘It was essentially a preemptive strike against municipalities who are more liberal than other parts of the state,’ Rainey said.

“Laura Noble, with The Noble Law Firm of Chapel Hill, said that with HB 2, ‘our representatives inexplicably chose to protect employers who discriminate against their employees from our state’s system of justice.’”

And then one story that’s not about HB2.

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of a man imprisoned for a murder that the paper suggests he may not have committed. It’s hard to tell because today’s story is the beginning of a multi-part series. It’s written in an unusual style — a mix of first-person and third-person, and because it is written by a masterful reporter and writer – Elizabeth Leland – I’m going to read every word, every day.


Needed course requirement: Media Literacy

With an update at the end

I’m a journalist. It’s in my DNA that government records should be open and easily accessed.

I’m a citizen. I believe that government records should be open and easily accessed.

In this time when trust in government — see Donald Trump — is at a low point, it should be the belief of all government agencies, employees and representatives that government records be open and easily accessed.

Sadly enough, it isn’t. Most recently, some members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees said they want to make members of the public who want records pay more for them. (There is a sizable charge for large requests already.) The board members want the money…or want to discourage citizens from knowing what their appointed representatives have done and are doing.) But I’m not going to prattle on about open records. Anyone in favor of good government should welcome open government rather than build walls to discourage it. (About the only people who don’t like open records are the government officials.)

Instead, this episode — and an earlier one at the UNC Board of Governors — exposes a flaw in the education system and one that a good liberal arts curriculum would fix: widespread media illiteracy.

Imagine requiring every college student learn about media and journalism in the same way they must take an English or a history course. Given how people get, spread and use information — nearly universally coming from media — this could be a game-changer for students and, ultimately, society.

Dan Gillmor introduced me to this idea some years ago. He wrote: “Persuade the president (or chancellor, or whatever the title) and trustees of the university that every student on the campus should learn journalism principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year.”

Imagine if everyone knew the value of journalism and how to sort through all the noise to get to the signal. What if they reflected upon journalism’s independence, its role as a monitor of power, and the ethical decisions made by journalists every day. Imagine if everyone understood the importance of transparency and openness in government. Think about how powerful it would be if everyone knew how to make public record searches and freedom of information requests.

Why, such skills would strengthen citizens ability to stand up, speak their minds and hold the powerful accountable. It would plant, fertilize and nourish new and entrepreneurial journalistic efforts that we old folks haven’t thought of.

I wouldn’t stop there: the course should also include social media, video, viral content, shaming. It could include spamming and trolls.

Because media surrounds us — have you seen people with headphones on looking at their phones? — it’s part of a vital curriculum in the 21st century.

Update: On Facebook, my friend Mark Binker of WRAL suggests correctly that the course should also include education about “the journalism mindset. It is something that people really don’t understand. Why it is we think something is news, place an emphasis on accountability over fluff, etc…”

Sunday sampler


Given that it’s Easter, many of North Carolina newspaper front pages feature stories about Easter or Christianity. Few go quite so far as Hickory’s.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times looks north for a piece on the impact of HB2, the embarrassingly controversial law about LGBT and bathroom use. A Virginia transgender student has filed suit in federal court, fighting to use the boys’ restrooms in his school. He argues that Title IX forbids discrimination in public schools based on sex. I don’t know the law well enough — N.C. legislators scoff at this interpretation of Title IX. Regardless, a ruling is expected any day.

Raleigh: Meanwhile, the News & Observer looks at the legislature’s continued power grab, telling cities and towns what they can and, most often, cannot do. If you really thought that these Republicans believe that local government governs best, then you need to reassess. “Since Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, they’ve curbed zoning powers that allow localities to regulate how land is developed and how homes are designed. They’ve changed how school boards, city councils and county commissioners are elected in a way that favors GOP candidates. And they took control of Asheville’s water system and Charlotte’s airport from those cities’ leaders.”

Read more here:

The dispossessed: When your voice isn’t heard

I am aware this will sound like a white privilege whine. Please bear with me.

No one actually represents me in Congress or in the state capital. Oh, a number of elected officials will say they do, but they don’t. My voice isn’t heard, and I’m not alone. In North Carolina, there are millions of us. We’re Democrats.

Over the last 40 years, N.C. has usually been represented in the Senate by one Republican and one Democrat. Much of the time, I had confidence that my viewpoint would be registered in Washington. My argument may not have prevailed, but at least it was counted. Now, with the state having two GOP senators, about half of the state’s voters essentially have no reliable voice in Washington with the exception of President Obama. (In 2008, Obama won North Carolina. In 2012, Obama lost the state to Romney, 50-48. But both votes indicate how evenly split the state is.)

Normally, this wouldn’t disturb me because I know how representative civics works. But on the issue of the Supreme Court, it does. Neither of my senators has indicated they care what the state’s people want in terms of the Supreme Court vacancy. Almost as soon as Sen. McConnell handed down the party line, Sen. Burr and Sen. Tillis adopted it. They didn’t consult with their constituents then, and they aren’t listening to them now. (Polls are clear that most North Carolinians want a Senate hearing on the nomination.)

In Mississippi, U.S. Rep. Karl Oliver wrote the words to a constituent that I have to believe are similar to what North Carolina senators must think.

I see you are not a native to the Great State of Mississippi nor do you and I have similar political views. The people of our Great State overwhelmingly share my same or similar views on Government responsibility. I appreciate you going to the trouble to share yours with me, but quite frankly, and with all due respect, I could care less. I would, however, recommend that there are a rather large number of like-minded citizens in Illinois that would love to see you return.”

(For the record, I wasn’t born in N.C., but neither were Sens. Burr or Tillis.)

The lack of representation doesn’t stop with the U.S. Senate. I live in Greensboro, which is a predominantly Democratic city. I have — and have had for years — Republican House members. Fair enough. They rarely vote as I would prefer. Best I can tell, the current House member does exactly what the House GOP leadership wants him to.

So, in Congress, I can get great constituent service and passes to all the sights in D.C. when I visit Washington. But if I want to weigh in on an issue of interest? I may as well be talking to my dog. And I don’t have a dog.

The same holds true in Raleigh, where the governor and both the state House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. OK, thanks to gerrymandering, that’s the way it falls. But there isn’t exactly a contingent of people making decisions in Raleigh that cares about what I or an awful lot of people who have a (D) after their name in the voting rolls think.

So, you might say, you have power at the local level where things that affect you most directly happen. Yes, Greensboro City Council has wonderfully caring and committed representatives. So does the local school board. Yet, the politicians in Raleigh get offended by things the local elected officials do and they start meddling. In my county, the General Assembly has changed the way the local council and school board are elected. Did the General Assembly ask the opinion of the school board or council or residents? No.

And Greensboro is hardly alone in being messed with by the General Assembly. Every sizable city in the state has felt the wrath of the bullies in Raleigh who somehow think that the best government is the one they control, regardless of whether local citizens want it.

Before you say that this is what Republicans faced for years under Democratic control, I’ll make two points:

  1. North Carolina has had at least one Republican U.S. senator since 1973.
  2. National politics didn’t used to be this polarized. Democrats and Republicans would negotiate and compromise. Things got done. Now, not so much.

I’ll say again, I’m a student of government and politics. I know how it works. Elections have consequences. The politicians dance with the ones that brung and fund them. But they represent me, too, and that representation only exists on an organizational diagram. And I crossed party lines and voted for some of them.

Do I have a voice? Of course. Please note, though, that despite dozens of protests and tens of thousands of protesters participating in Moral Mondays in Raleigh, little attention was paid by the legislature or the governor. In fact, at least one influential legislator called them Moron Mondays.

I know minorities have felt for years that their voices weren’t heard. I suspect Republicans have thought that, too. Well, now millions of Democrats in N.C. are right there with them.

The dispossessed.