Find a new way to tie your shoes

I was in my 40’s when my 5-year-old daughter taught me how to tie my shoes.

I had always tied my shoes using a twisting, convoluted, bowline-like process. That’s how I was taught and how I’ve always tied my shoes. One day my daughter came home beaming.

“I learned how to tie my shoes today,” she announced. And she showed me.

I was gobsmacked. It never occurred to me that there was, (a) another way to tie shoes, and (b) it would be easier. Actually, it never occurred to me to even think about it.

My bad.

Ever since then, whenever I encounter a challenge I have trouble cracking or I see I’m approaching something in “the usual way,” I think, “There is always more than one way to tie my shoes.” (Google “how to tie shoes” and you’ll find there are more than two ways.)

This is a story I tell students when they are stuck with a piece of writing. Approach it differently. Delete what you have and reinvent it entirely. Tempted to use a cliche? Come up with something fresh and unique instead.

Find a new way to tie your shoes.

Creative people do it naturally. Me, it took 40 years.

Life advice: Take your time

Last week, two students asked me to write recommendations for them for grad school. No big deal, except that one graduated in 2015, the other in 2017. Both have been working in various jobs at various places, and both were ready to get master’s degrees. (Neither is getting a master’s in journalism.)

Both had to work in the real world to find their true passion.

Their requests affirm what I have always believed: College teaches students to think and, if students are lucky, it teaches them to work hard. But what a student majors in — particularly in the non-STEM fields — do not dictate what field the student ends up in. Certainly, the lessons and skills taught in journalism school prepare you for all matters of trades and professions inside and outside of journalism.

I didn’t get a journalism degree. My college didn’t even offer a journalism course. After graduation, my occupations were, in order: junior high English teacher, unemployed beach bum and construction worker. It wasn’t until it was a sub-freezing day laying rebar on the construction site that I decided to try reporting. (Anything to get out of the cold!)

And there I found my passion.

When I talk about this to students, my shorthand is, “You’re going to hate your first job. Everyone does. The purpose of your first job is to find your second job.”

And eventually, you’ll discover what you are born to do. (And yes, I’m aware that many students love their first jobs.)

One of the students who asked me for a recommendation majored in journalism but became a juvenile counselor after graduation. She found out that she’s good at working with foster kids who need help. She wants to get a master’s in social work. The other majored in environmental science, but she ended up in a communications job. She wants to attend grad school in public policy.

Both want to change the world for the better.

I’m honored to write them recommendations — no matter that neither is pursuing  journalism. They know how to think and to analyze and interpret information. They’ve found the field they are passionate about, and they’re going to be good at it.

So, ultimately, my advice is, take your time. You have a long professional life ahead.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O has two stories on its front page worth attention. One is about the failure of the General Assembly to do anything about gun violence. Yes, there is a lot of talk and interest immediately after a mass shooting, and opponents to gun regulations just wait it out and know that the passion will die down. And it has. The other story is about the high level of toxic chemicals discharged by the Chemours plant into the Cape Fear River.

Concord: Local person makes good gets me every time. In this case, the Independent Tribune features a Concord native who is the lead writer and showrunner for Netflix’s newest television series, “Raising Dion.” “My family is everything. I’ve always been really close to my family, and I go back home all the time,” Barbee said. “I used to say, ‘I don’t stay special for very long if I don’t get back to North Carolina.’ I just have to go home and be with the people who have known me and loved me my whole life. I love my home, and I am very proud of it.”

Kinston: The Daily Press gives me the chance to spotlight this story reprinted from the News & Record. It reminds us that five years ago, a judge order struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, and people lined up to get married in Guilford County, among other places. “I love when I hear, “How is your wife doing?” said Greensboro police officer Latoya Anderson, who married her longtime love, Ashley Benton, a few months after the ruling. “Years ago, most people were only comfortable acknowledging Ashley as ‘my friend,’ and I believe that speaks volumes on how far we have come as a society.”

My first job

The Athletic has started a new series titled “My first job” in which sports journalists write about their first jobs in the business. I can’t think of anything less interesting, so I’ll write about mine. (You have to subscribe to the Athletic to see its series; mine is free!)

My first job was at the Monroe Enquirer-Journal. I wrote about how I got there earlier. I was one of four news reporters. We also had two sports writers, one features reporter/editor, and one society columnist. It was a Monday-Friday afternoon paper with a 10 a.m. print deadline for that day’s paper.

I was 22, got paid $100 a week and was happy to have it. I covered the county commissioners, Indian Trail, Stallings and politics as my core beat, but with a small news staff, I covered cops and courts with routine.

I loved it. The expectation was that we’d have a story in the paper every day, and it wasn’t hard to do because I was young, worked long hours, and stories were all over the place.

I was there when Jesse Helms, Skipper Bowles and Henry Hall Wilson were in their powerful prime. They were classmates, growing up in Monroe. Helms was in D.C., of course, serving as a U.S. senator. Bowles had just been defeated by Jim Holshouser in the governor’s race, but he was still influential across the state. Wilson served as a senior advisor to President Kennedy and President Johnson, and later became  president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Board of Trade.

A town of 10,000 produced three politicians only two years apart in age and they all had national reputations

Because I was with their hometown paper — and they often returned home to visit family — my phone calls always went through. Because they were Southern gentlemen, they asked about my parents and my rearing, and they mentioned it each time we spoke.

Because they were politicians, our interviews didn’t light any dark spaces that I recall. Because I wet behind the ears, I didn’t know any better. But I always got a story.

I once told Helms that my Republican parents lived in Raleigh, which was his home when he wasn’t in Washington.

“Oh,” he said, “what’s their phone number? I’ll call them next time I’m home.”

I told him, and added: “They aren’t fans of yours, senator.”

I told him about that my mother used to watch Helms do editorials on WRAL, which he did every weeknight on the 6 o’clock news. We had just moved to Raleigh from Oklahoma in 1968. “Oh my god, he’s so awful,” my mother said night early on. “What kind of place did we move to?”

He laughed at that story and said, “Yes, some people had that reaction, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”

After we hung up and I wrote my story, I called mom and told her when he said. She said: “I hope he does call. I have a few things to tell him.”

He didn’t call.



Have stories, will travel*

At UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, I teach a course in which journalism students produce professional-caliber, publication-ready stories — print, video and photo. A group of public relations students pitch them to news outlets, such as the News & Observer, WRAL, the News & Record, WFMY, UNC-TV, etc., for use for free.

We’ve had some luck getting them placed across the state in past semesters, including on several newspaper front pages. Now, a new semester, new students and new stories. Take a look, and, if you work at a news publication, let me know if you want to publish any:

* A reference to “Paladin,” a 1950’s television Western.



Sunday sampler

Several N.C. newspapers displayed an AP story about the Franklin Graham tour out of Greenville on their front pages. I can’t say that I have much respect for the Rev. Graham, given that he doesn’t preach the llove-your-neighbor kind of Christianity that I believe in. I got as far as this quote before I stopped: “I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before Graham took the stage. Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.” When Christians believe that Trump is supporting Christian principles, well, the church is in a bad place.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has two good ones on its front page. First, a story about Shannon Dingle, whose husband, Lee, was hit by a rogue wave off Oak Island in July and it broke his neck. It’s a sad, courageous story of both Lee and Shannon, and worth your time.

The second story is about a group that wants to stop “a program in which students meet regularly in circles to talk with their classmates and teachers about their feelings, hopes, dreams and concerns….Wake school officials say the use of “Community Circles” is helping to build a sense of community in schools and empowers students to take responsibility and resolve conflicts….The group says the circles are putting students at risk of having their privacy being breached when they discuss sensitive personal matters.”

What’s it like in a newsroom? This

I’m occasionally asked what it’s like in a newsroom. I don’t know what it’s like now, but I know what it WAS like, and it was like this:

“The Paper,” directed by Ron Howard in 1994, should be near the top of every top 10 list about newspaper movies. (It’s not.)

This four-minute scene in metro editor Michael Keaton’s office captures the state of play in a newsroom. It has:

  • A half-crazy columnist (Randy Quaid)
  • A cranky executive editor (Robert Duvall)
  • An editor who neglects his spouse (Keaton)
  • That same editor focused on getting the story
  • Reporters busting in to the metro editor’s office, talking passionately about a story
  • A reporter bitching about his chair
  • An assistant looking for who stole her stapler
  • Two reporters bitching about having to share a story
  • The classic line by a journalist about his newspaper: “I don’t read this newspaper.”

And unlike “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” and “The Post,” “The Paper captures the manic atmosphere, the black humor, and the “get-the-damn-story” drive that permeates newsrooms.

Or, at least, used to.

“Punch it over the goal line”

When I was at the N&O, the school system was my beat. It was a full, time-consuming beat because it was one of the favorites by the editor, Claude Sitton. He routinely passed down story ideas for me to pursue.

That was a pain in the ass. It felt as if I was constantly under a microscope, and now that I’ve been an editor, I realize I was. But so was everyone else.

It had two benefits.

  • My stories made the front page pretty often.
  • I got to work with Pat Stith.

Stith was an investigative reporter – the state’s best, I think (although I put Stan Swofford in Greensboro as 1A).

Stith and I worked together on the investigation of a tip that the Wake County schools superintendent was hiring a consulting firm to do work for the school system, at the same time as the consulting firm was hiring the superintendent as a consultant. It appeared as if there was a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours situation going on.

But I’m not writing about that today. I thought I was, but last Saturday, Stith reminded me that the story we were working on was about a state study on what is the most important factor in determining how well students score on achievement tests. But for the purposes of this blog post, that doesn’t matter, except to note that Pat’s memory is better than mine.

Anyway, it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1980. Pat and I were writing that story, which was to be published two days later on Thanksgiving Friday. We had just gotten the study that day, but we had to finish because Pat was driving to Charlotte to Thursday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving. And because we were a damn newspaper; we put stories in the paper.

We started reporting and writing Wednesday afternoon. The report was controversial and we had a lot of people to find and interview on what was essentially a holiday. We reported and wrote. And we backed up and rewrote. We inserted and we deleted. He listened to me more than I had any right to expect.

Before I noticed, the reporters had all gone. We worked past 11. Past midnight. The copy editors went home. Eventually, the newsroom was empty except for me and Stith.

At about 2 a.m. I heard the elevator door open and someone walking down the hall. What the hell? I thought. Then my girlfriend, who was also an N&O reporter, came into the newsroom, looking for me. I had called her early in the evening to say I’d be late. But I didn’t know I would be this late.

She laughed at us.

I asked Susan if she remembered this, and she didn’t. But Stith filled in the detail: “Susan drove to the office to make sure you were OK, instead of calling you on the telephone, because the switchboard had shut down, and she could not get through to you.”

Telephone switchboard — Yes, the N&O had a switchboard operator in those days.

Anyway, I was fortunate; she loved Stith more than me so I came under a certain cone of protection.

Our story was about finished, and we decided to leave it and go home. Then Pat said a sentence to me that I’ll always be proud of: “The ball’s on the 20; now punch it over the goal line.”

I went back in later that morning to finish the story.


Sunday sampler

Raleigh & Charlotte: The N&O and the Observer teamed up to publish one helluva report on how prosecutors deal with weapons charges against suspects. The story leads with a guy who had 13 consecutive weapons charges dismissed over the year…until he shot and killed someone. “From 2014 through 2018, Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed 68 percent of weapons charges, a higher rate than any other urban county in North Carolina, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. Statewide, prosecutors dismissed about half of all weapons charges during the five-year period.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal features a girls’ AAU team that has sent 148 players into college basketball. “’I realized it’s a lot more than just winning basketball games,’ Robinson said. ‘It’s trying to develop the young girl into a young woman. We went from a more elite program to a more skills-based program. … We started going that route and said let’s develop these kids into becoming good high school players, whatever high school they go to.'”

High Point: The Enterprise is paywall protected so I can’t read more than a few paragraphs of its story on a new Fox animated television show based on the creator’s experience growing up in High Point. So, here is the story from a few days ago in the News & Record. “Spivey loosely based restaurant The Last Supper, where Jenny works, on Carter Brothers Barbecue and Ribs in High Point. The Halloween episode will feature the story of Lydia, the Jamestown bridge ghost. Also, listen for mentions of Harris Teeter. She does use some “creative geography,” she said, locating Charlotte closer than it actually is to Greensboro.”


I joined the Carolina Association of Black Journalists

I am a now a proud, dues-paying member of the Carolina Association of Black Journalists.

No, I’m not black. CABJ’s motto is “Without diversity, there is no excellence” and no truer words have been spoken. Racial diversity in newsrooms has routinely lagged behind the minority populations in the county. (It’s not even close.) And news coverage suffers. (Last month, I wrote about our lackluster efforts at the News & Record when I was the editor.)

CABJ has about 70 members, president Shandel Menezes told me. I joined after a meeting Monday in which I was one of several UNC faculty members who talked with about 25 students in the group. There were a mix of print, broadcast, advertising and public relations students. They are all impressive. Journalism will be better if it can keep them in the craft after they graduate.

I got a T-shirt for joining, and I’ll wear it with pride.