Readers may love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back

Updated

Matt DeRienzo pointed out a truth in Ken Doctor’s “10 numbers that define the news business today” that I missed when I read it originally.

We seldom see much reporting of buyouts and layoffs these days, as some publishers concluded that the industry’s problems were only being exacerbated by its reporting on its own staff changes.

This applies to TV stations, too. In fact, they rarely report when they lose staff. Because TV news is so competitive, the last thing a TV anchor will acknowledge is that his or her station doesn’t have the largest newsgathering staff. But I have more experience with papers so….

I had to insist when we laid off journalists that we report it. (I specify journalists because I never seemed to know when people in other departments were laid off until days or weeks after it happened.) It was the one story my publisher insisted he read behind me. To him, publicizing a management decision that would reflect poorly on the business was crazy. I suspect that’s common. “Why tell customers that your business is in trouble?”

Thus, the typical statement from publishers when layoffs are announced: “We are adjusting to the changing media environment. Our coverage of the news and the community will be as strong as ever.”

Perhaps in the first wave of layoffs in 2007-8, this was true. Many newsrooms could absorb one hit. The best used it to focus their vision, move people where they were needed and get a jolt of energy with the new reality.

But after that, the idea that coverage would continue unabated was false, and everyone from publishers to editors to readers know it. More wire stories appear. Fewer enterprise and investigative stories that take are published. Agencies and organizations that used to be covered aren’t. Coverage of the environment, medicine and religion dwindles. More light community-generated content is published to fill pages.

Why does transparency matter?

Newspapers tend to be one of the older institutions in town, and they want to be of the community. Lopping off employees — many of the long-serving journalists — sends community knowledge out the door. Factual errors creep into the paper. Five years ago, the ombudsman at the Washington Post acknowledged the problem. It’s only gotten worse.

More important, readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when the product they are paying for is getting weaker. Every editor in the country should be studying how the Post and Courier in Charleston has responded to the massacre in its midst. The Post and Courier isn’t large, but it gave the community (and nation) outstanding coverage. Its journalists knew what to do and how to do it. The detail on its iconic front page is an example, but the inside the paper coverage isn’t slack, either.

There’s a great deal that is lost when newspapers cut staff. Stories and photos. People’s names and achievements. Detail. Exposure of government incompetence and corruption.

There’s no measure for it, but readers know it when they see it. Not acknowledging it won’t make it go away. But acknowledging it might help you. People rally for products and ideas they like and want to keep. Let your readers know you’re hurting and need help. See what happens: they might rally to help. If they don’t, that might tell you something.

Among journalists it’s said that you can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love you back. This is also true: Readers can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back. So, turn it on its head. Try something different. Love readers back. Talk honestly with them. Hear what they want and involve them in figuring out how to get it to them.

Think of the possibilities if you decide you’re going to love your readers. They have an open invitation into your house. They are treated with dignity and appreciation when they call, regardless of whether it’s a complaint. They get an announcement of their event published. The correction of the error you made gets prominent play, not buried. Stop messing with the comics and games.

This doesn’t mean you stop with your First Amendment responsibiities or that you back off of shining light into the community’s dark corners. That’s love, too.

The possibilities are endless.

Sunday sampler

Many of the Sunday newspapers have front page stories about the impact of the legislature’s budget negotiations on their communities: teacher assistant jobs being cut, community college tuition increases, how sales taxes will be distributed, etc. That’s good. People should know what kinds of mischief are being discussed in Raleigh. There are other stories, too.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times continues its string of interesting, out of the ordinary stories. Today’s is about two suicides in the same jail, four months apart, and what the jail – and the SBI – is saying about them. There is no smoking gun right now, but a good newspaper shines light into dark corners, and it writes about the poor and struggling. That’s what this story does.

Durham: If you were a pastor of an AME church, would you think twice about a white person joining the congregation? If you were a pastor of a “liberal” church, would you think twice about a new face entering the sanctuary? If you were a pastor of any predominantly black church, how worried would you be today? The Herald-Sun visits the issue of security at churches in the wake of the deadly Charleston shootings.

Raleigh: Want to know how bad government works? Read the News & Observer. This week’s story is on inefficiency and possibly corruption within the state Department of Health and Human Services. Again. This time involving Angie Sligh, who is in charge of the state’s Medicaid billing system. “Sligh was responsible for at least $1.6 million wasted over three years through excessive pay to temporary employees, paying temp agencies instead of the state’s less expensive in-house service, paying unjustified overtime and giving holiday pay to ineligible employees. At least 15 people with personal connections to Sligh had been hired in her office, at least seven of whom were not qualified for the job or were paid higher than the established pay scale, sometimes both.”

Winston-Salem: Know the leading cause of death in Forsyth County in 2013? How about 50 years earlier? Or 100 years ago? They were all different. Society changes in many ways: sometimes the courts do it, as they did this week; sometimes science does. This is an interesting story in that it tells you how we have changed. Oh, it’s cancer in 2013, heart disease in 1963 & TB in 1913.

“Love wins” and other N.C. front pages

On Twitter yesterday many journalists were expressing sympathy for Page 1 designers because there was so much news: same-sex marriage, Obama’s eulogy, terrorism attacks and New York escapees. I laughed to myself, thinking that it shouldn’t hard for most papers. What will matter the most to your readers the next morning?

Dramatic news demands dramatic design. Big emotion demands big play. And the most dramatic, emotional news for most people, is the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. (To say nothing of the historic import — newspapers will be bought and saved by a lot of people… who hardly ever buy a newspaper.)

It’s a mixed bag in N.C. None of the front pages I saw blew me away. Many of the smaller papers had only a promo line sending readers to an inside page…or no mention at all. It is worth noting — and quickly dismissing — that polls show that most North Carolinians oppose same-sex marriage, some passionately. Newspaper journalists should be aware of that, but not beholden to it in their news judgments. (And I say that knowing that I was once scolded by an angry publisher for putting a photo of two women kissing on the front page.)

So, here we go. Images courtesy of the Newseum. Front pages from three usually reliable newspapers — the Burlington Times-News the News & Record of Greensboro and the Star News of Wilmington — aren’t on the site. I also include some of the larger national papers at the bottom of this post.

Meanwhile, Mashable has collected front pages from around the country.

I like Asheville the best because they play it big with strong art and a headline that I like and that many might say is “biased.”

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Fayetteville, which usually plays big stories big with bold, compelling art, was more conservative than I thought it would be. The headline doesn’t really describe the news: analysts had been predicting this ruling for a while. And the photo is routine; it could be people cheering a soccer goal.

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Charlotte went with two stories dominant. I suppose they felt the need to get Obama’s eulogy in Charleston high on the page because their S.C. readership. It was a helluva speech — I watched it on TV — but the printed word can’t compete with video on this one.

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Good for Hickory. Small town, but they gave the story the front page…and had a big photo of men hugging.

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Sunday sampler

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It’s not a North Carolina front page, but I’m breaking the rules because it is what front pages should be: Powerful, memorable and touching.

It’s Father’s Day and many N.C. newspapers have stories marking the day. I am not noting those.

Charlotte: The Observer marks a milestone: for the first time, a woman is the highest paid CEO in N.C. “Susan DeVore, chief executive of Charlotte-based health care company Premier, was the highest paid executive among the top 50 last year, with total compensation of $24.9 million, according to the Observer’s annual review of executive pay. That’s the first time a woman has topped the list.” (She is only 3 of 50, though.) 

Greensboro: The News & Record begins a series on law enforcement officer-involved shootings — 33 people have died in 61 shootings involving law enforcement officers since 2000. “All but one of those 61 cases were ruled to be justified, and in the one case found not to be justified, an officer paid a fine for a misdemeanor.” Equally interesting — and damning — is the difficulty the newspaper had in getting information from law enforcement.

Sunday sampler

A lot of high school graduation stories this morning. A big deal it is. And there’s other stuff:

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Asheville: It’s difficult for this city folk to imagine the joy of bear hunting, but it’s clearly a thing. The Citizen-Times does what good newspapers do: searches through documents to tell a compelling, important story about people and government.  “Operation Something Bruin has pitted a slice of mountain life against the government. Wildlife law officers maintain that they targeted bear poachers whose hunting tactics were neither legal nor sportsmanlike, taking animals without regard for the hunting season or as they fed over candy used as bait.”

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Charlotte: My wife was Dorothy at The Land of Oz so this story about vandals stealing pieces of the partially-closed attraction hits home. “Land of Oz is falling prey to an Internet fad called ‘urbex’ for urban exploration. Adventurers seek out deserted places and post eerie pictures of their expeditions on sites specializing in what is called ‘ruin porn.’” Thanks, Facebook.

Fayetteville: I’m sorry to see Rep. Rick Glazier is resigning to become the executive director of the N.C. Justice Center. His voice was loud and clear in the General Assembly. He cut through so much of the crap. The Observer discusses his importance as a progressive in Raleigh.

Raleigh: And on the other side of the aisle, the N&O profiles Sen. Tom Apodaca, who is part of the political muscle moving the state back to the 1940’s. Want to see how rough-and-tumble politics works, read the story. It remind you how silly what you learned in civics class was.

N.C. politics: What happens when your governor is a loser

Updated

Imagine if Democrats controlled Congress and ignored what President Obama wants. Think about him vetoing bills they passed and both houses overriding his vetoes. Congress passes legislation that he thinks is unimportant but when he sets a major policy goal, oh, that’s another matter. The Democrats said, well, maybe. We’ll think about it.

It would be embarrassing for Obama, a wonderful opportunity for Republicans to make fun of his lack of leadership ability and a campaign issue that the man can’t even control his own party. (Update: When this happens nationally, this is how the N.Y. Times describes it.)

Welcome to North Carolina, except that it’s the GOP mocking the governor.

Republicans control the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion. But there’s no visible sign that Gov. Pat McCrory, the top-ranking state official, wields much power. He’s more like the mayor in a weak-mayor city. He can do ribbon-cuttings and political rallies, but he has no vote. Let’s look:

* He vetoed legislation that  gives businesses the right to sue employees who expose trade secrets or take pictures of their workplaces. It was overridden, no problem.

* He vetoed legislation to allow some state employees to opt-out of performing same-sex marriages. It was overridden, no problem.

* He opposes — along with the state’s sheriffs association — an omnibus gun bill that would loosen handgun restrictions. It hasn’t passed yet, but it could be.

* He has expressed mild dismay.about the legislature meddling in local government affairs, which hasn’t slowed legislators down one bit.

* The legislature continues to place further restrictions on women’s access to abortion, with no regard to McCrory’s campaign statement that he would not support any restrictions. (He doesn’t pay any regard to his statement either, redefining the meaning of the word “restrictions.”)

* His big ticket item, the thing that he travels around the state campaigning for, are two  bond packages totaling $2.8 billion for road construction, infrastructure and college buildings. What do the leaders of the legislature think? Speaker of the House Tim Moore: “I think there’ll be some significant differences in what the bond proposal that I’ve seen with the executive branch and what our bond proposal would look like.” Senate leader Phil Berger: “I don’t think there’s substantial support for the transportation side of the bonds.”

No, the governor isn’t having the best year, bless his heart. I’m wondering why the legislature continues to embarrass the governor of its own party. When the Democrats controlled two of the three branches of state government, they never did their governor this way — even if, say, one of the more recent ones deserved it.

Some possibilities:

* The GOP legislators have the power and they ain’t giving it up for anyone. Period. And they don’t care what happens as long as they get their way right now.

* The GOP legislators are true believers in their causes and aren’t stopping for any objections.

* The GOP legislators don’t care for the governor and enjoy making him out to be a loser.

* The governor actually agrees with 99.9% of the laws the legislature is sending him and is truly happy about the way things are going.

* The governor vetoed a couple of the laws to kick-start his re-election campaign, hoping that middle-of-the-road Democrats would think that moderate Pat was back and think, “well, with that Legislature, what are you going to do?”

* The governor (and staff) doesn’t know how to throw the sharp elbows necessary to get things done in politics.

I don’t know which or how many of these are right. To me, making the governor out to be powerless is a short-sighted strategy. It weakens him, both in the eyes of his own party and to moderate Democrats and Independents. And a weakened incumbent against a decent opponent is beatable.

No one likes to be associated with loser, and that’s what Gov. McCrory is shaping up to be.

Earlier smart takes from Thomas Mills and NC Policy Watch.

Update: Gov. McCrory released a statement in response to the legislature’s override of his veto this morning. Its last sentence is interesting: “While some people inside the beltline are focusing on symbolic issues, I remain focused on the issues that are going to have the greatest impact on the next generation such as creating jobs, building roads, strengthening education and improving our quality of life.”

I conclude that he doesn’t care much about the social issues that polarize the state.

Support for citywide wifi

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Susan Ladd recently wrote about the laudable effort to bring citywide wifi to Greensboro. (Read about the proposal by Roch Smith and Andrew Brod here.)Roch asked me last month to write a letter in support. I did. Here it is without one typo Roch pointed out.

Dear Selection Committee:

I am writing in support of Cityfi. There are innumerable reasons that citywide wifi makes sense. I’m going to argue three.

First, it makes smart business sense. Anyone who looks to the future (and our region’s recent past) knows that manufacturing jobs will not return in great numbers, no matter how hard we wish them to. Business and economic growth is in the digital area. The sorts of companies that we want to grow Greensboro with are those creating digital products. By providing citywide public wifi, Greensboro would be doing something that Raleigh, Charlotte and Winston-Salem don’t do. The move would intrigue start-ups as well as established companies that would normally look to locate in the Research Triangle. For innovative start-ups, it would not only send the signal that Greensboro City Council understands the needs of new businesses, it would reduce their costs. Look to Wilson if you want to see the positive business effects of municipal Internet service. Now double the impact by providing public wifi. (It would also please thousands of constituents who want Internet access and dislike being held captive to the expensive bundles of cable companies.)

Second, I have taught college journalism and mass communication students for three years. Every semester we talk about how they get and share information. Every semester the answers are the same: digitally. Young people — all people actually, but young people act upon it — expect services to be cheap and seamless. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere. They consider the Internet — and by extension digital services — to be a public utility. If Greensboro truly wants a “creative class,” there’s no better way to show it than by providing public wifi.

Third, when I was editor of the News & Record, Greensboro received national publicity for its burgeoning blogging community.(The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were among the media outlets that wrote about the city and the paper.) The city came off as a hip place that understood the importance of what was happening in the world of media and communication. For a variety of reasons, we lost that momentum and that innovative reputation. Establishing citywide public wifi would make a bold statement that Greensboro is seizing the future and transforming itself into a place that welcomes new ideas, and forward-thinking people and companies. In the 30-plus years I have lived in Greensboro, the city has had an unclear brand, and, frankly, an identity crisis. Public wifi would provide serious marketing traction and immediately let the world know that Greensboro embraces the future

There are others strong arguments for this plan that I am sure others smarter than I have made. However, if I can provide any further information or support, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

John L. Robinson

Sunday sampler

Asheville — One of the problems with keeping pay low as costs go up is that people can’t afford to work. That’s right. Can’t. Afford. To. Work. The Citizen-Times takes a look at issues that most people aren’t aware of and the GOP in Raleigh doesn’t want to deal with. Thousands of parents in North Carolina are facing the same dilemma as the state has cut back on child care subsidies and raised the possibility of slashing aid even more.

Fayetteville — State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is the most powerful politician in N.C. What he wants done, gets done, regardless of whether the governor or the House want it (except getting his son elected). The Observer has a well-reported profile of the man.

Greensboro — It’s not as if interfering with local affairs is anything new to this General Assembly. The News & Record describes the problems with the legislature first changing how the City Council would be elected and now dragging its feet on its own legislation. But with the bill languishing in the N.C. House Elections Committee since mid-March, prospective candidates can’t yet be sure which seats to file for or whether they’ll be eligible should the bill become law. 

Wilmington — Driving back from the coast, I almost hit a couple drivers who swerved into my lane. They were texting. In fact, it seemed as if every third person I passed or who passed me were staring at their phones. It takes a long time to get there, but the Star-News says it plainly: “With most accidents stemming from crowded roadways and drivers failing to stop or following someone too closely, traffic unit supervisor Sgt. Mike Donaldson of the Wilmington Police Department said he blames distracted drivers for the high number of accidents.” Damn right.

Sunday sampler

This is a first: I’m going to link to each of the stories on the front page of the Fayetteville Observer. I’ll start with them.

Human trafficking: Happening in Fayetteville. Happening in Greensboro. Probably happening where you live; it’s purportedly a $9.5 billion business. The Observer’s story is sad and sickening and deserves to be told. “(Victims) are from your neighborhood, right next to you,” said Fayetteville police Sgt. Carl Wile, supervisor of the department’s human trafficking unit. Advocates say it’s also important to talk to young girls about the topic. “This should be common dinner table talk,” Twedell said. “By age 14, if we’re not reaching out to girls and educating them, we’re too late. Eighth grade is too late to talk to girls about human trafficking.”

Fracking: I’m not a fan of fracking; get that out of the way first. Much of that is based on the way the General Assembly jammed through the laws allowing it without the basic research first. It seems as if the payoffs are short term — jobs — without consideration for the long term impact on the environment. The Observer reviews the people who it will affect the most — the people who own the land or who live near the land where the fracking will occur.

Burr-Hagan: This is actually a story from the McClatchy Washington Bureau. Who will run against Richard Burr in 2016? What’s the status of Kay Hagan…and of the Democratic Party in N.C.? Hagan has fascinated me since her unsuccessful campaign last year. It was a lousy campaign, and she has avoided the news media ever since (including her home newspaper, which is my former employer). She doesn’t speak to this reporter, either.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming:

Asheville: The lead story in the Citizen-Times is a stunner. “The Buncombe County bill for a bungled murder investigation — one for which two men were later exonerated — has so far tallied about $1 million and a continuing lawsuit threatens to tap out liability insurance, potentially leaving costs to taxpayers.” It gets worse. This dates back to the tenure of a former Buncombe County sheriff who is serving a 15-year prison sentence on a conviction that includes corruption charges.

Greensboro: I was the lone editor working the city desk when our police reporter, making cop calls, asked to drive to Winston-Salem to do a story on two people who had been found shot to death in their home. That was the beginning of the News & Record’s covering the Klenner-Lynch case. My friend Margaret Moffett revisits the still-horrifying case 30 years later.

 

 

15 things you should never say to an editor

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See Mila? That’s the look an editor gives to a reporter who said something to her he shouldn’t have. It’s the look that says, “I am angry with myself for being stupid enough to hire you.”

Inspired by this list of things never to say to graphic designers,* here is a list of things never to say to your editor. (Add yours in the comments and I’ll move them into the post.)

1. “I know you gave me 15 inches for the story, but I couldn’t tell it in less than 25. That’s close enough, isn’t it?”

No, it’s not. It’s basically saying that you can’t write concisely, and you want the editor to cut your story for you. While both of those things may be true, they indicate your incompetence for the job.

2. When an editor tells you the competition has a good story, and you say, “Oh, I knew about that.”

You may think you’re covering your ass, letting the editor know you’re on top of things. You’re actually telling her that you have the news judgment of a potato. She told you about the story, which likely means she thinks it’s worth something. By saying you knew about it but didn’t write it gives her another reason to wonder why she hired you.

3. “This story is too good to go online right now. Let’s hold it for the paper.”

Sadly, this 2007 sentiment still exists.

4. “Can we just have the photographer set up the photo. I’m too busy.”

It often gets to the point in which photographers prefer to set up the photo because reporters screw them up so badly. But this statement suggests that your time is more important than a photographer’s. Given that photographers carry heavy equipment around all day, it is likely they are stronger than you. And given that most photographers are just this side of Mad Max crazy, I wouldn’t push it.

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5. “I didn’t have the time to edit it too closely, but that’s what the copy desk is for.”

What the editor hears is that your time is more important than hers because she is the one who is going to make the first pass through your story, fixing stupid style, punctuation and grammar mistakes that you should have learned in middle school. She also hears that you don’t care all that much about your own work. Bad idea.

6. “If I write that story it will burn a source and that source is more important to us than the story.”

No, that source is more important to you. But it’s likely the story is more important to your readers. Don’t let an editor know that you put your loyalty to your sources above your loyalty to readers. She may think your priorities are out of whack.

7. Related: “They’ll never talk to me about that.”

Andrew deGrandpre submitted this via Twitter. The “they” here are sources. Not only is it defeatist — why would you want to be defeatist? — but it says that you don’t want to try. If there is a top 10 list of reporter qualities, tenacity is in the top 5. Don’t show you don’t have tenacity.

8. “Twitter is a waste of time.”

Twitter has 302 million active users. How many do you have?

9. “Can’t someone else do the story? How about Jeff? He isn’t working on anything important.”

Want to be perceived as a work-sloughing diva? This’ll do it.

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10. “Can someone else answer my phone? I’m too busy.

Yeah, let’s ask Walter is if he’ll answer it.

 

 

11. “My story has a minor error but I don’t think we need a correction.”

So you put information into your story — a story you couldn’t cut down to 15 inches — and that information wasn’t important…and you still got it wrong? Just fess up that you made a mistake — yes, we note the passive construction of “my story has a minor error” — and fix it.

12. “So you care about quantity, instead of quality.”

I love this one, suggested by Karen Ho on Twitter. It usually comes after the editor has set a deadline that the writer thinks doesn’t give him enough time to “polish” the story. Accusing an editor who cares deeply about quality that they don’t earns you a trip to the woodshed.

13. From Jason Foster  on Twitter: “I once told a reporter to rewrite her lede because it was unclear. Her response: ‘Isn’t that what the headline’s for?’ 

Want to go work on the copy desk learning how to write headlines? Then go ahead and tell your editor that.

14. “That’s not opinion, it’s true”

Eric Riess, via Twitter explains: “In my experience, when I’m editing a reporter’s story, they slide easily from the factual to opinion and don’t realize it.

Additions:

15. “It’s not my fucking job.”

The classic riposte when asked to cover a story off your beat or on a day. When journalists are losing their jobs every quarter, it may be worth swallowing this line and replacing it with, “Sure. Happy to.”

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16. Andy Bechtel: “That’s what the editing/design hub in another state is for”?

17. RoMustGo: “Can you make a proof for me?”

18. RoMustGo: “Can you do some trick or something to make it fit on the page?”

19. My friend Rob Daniels, in the comments: “I’m out of hours for the week.” (Sadly, this is something every overworked reporter in his or her 60th hour should be able to say to an editor, but we all know how the game is played.) 

20. A classic from Deborah Woodell: “I was never any good at math.”

21. Lex Alexander in the comments: “Readers will know what we mean by that.” So what you’re saying is that readers are both smarter and less distracted than you are. One out of two ain’t bad.

22. Jane Dough in the comments: “I don’t think anyone will really care about that.”

23. Mark Miller in the comments:  “I put in a (cq)… That means somebody needs to look that up.

24. Becky Smith in the comments: When asked to clarify the meaning of a murky quote: “But that’s what he said.”

 

Someone else can do 15 things you should never say to a reporter.

* Hat tip to Ben Villarreal for the pointer.