I apologize to librarians, writers & publishers everywhere

When I was a senior at St. Andrews University, I did this wonderfully terrible thing: I wrote in a library book.

I spent a lot of time in DeTamble Library. And when I say “a lot” I mean every day. It wasn’t that I was a good student. In fact, I wasn’t a good student; I needed the study time.

As one of my last acts before graduation, I took down a book in the 800 section — literature — which is where I spent much of my time; I was an English major.

I pulled down the book, turned to the first blank page, and I wrote a letter to both my future self and to any student who happened upon that page. I loved my time at St. Andrews. The learning I received there and the friends I made have guided me my entire life. I wanted to share that love with others. I wrote about my four years there, and how I expected it would serve me as I became a mature, independent adult. I remember it as well-crafted and charming.

I was at St. Andrews last week and, out of curiosity, wandered into the library to revisit the book and “my” page.

As I walked into the lobby, I realized: I can’t remember which book it was.

And I never found it.

Why go into journalism?

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller with the Tampa Bay Times. She hosts a wonderful podcast about writing, and this week’s is titled “Five Reasons to Go into Journalism.”

She and Maria Carillo, the enterprise editor at the Times, have an insightful and charming discussion about the five reasons. And every sentiment they express and story they tell is exactly right.

Here are the five:

*We love the duality of journalism. What this means is that journalists go out in the world and talks with people they wouldn’t normally talk with, see things they wouldn’t normally see, and learn things they wouldn’t normally learn. Then, they can retreat into their heads, think what they’ve seen and learned, and write about it.

*We love being surrounded by smart, funny, creative people. Ask any journalist who has left the business if he or she misses it and the most common answer is, “I miss the people.” The loving, black humor embrace in a newsroom is like nothing else.

*We love always knowing what’s going on. Scratch a journalist and you’ll find a gossip, maybe even before you find a storyteller.

*We love making a difference. I always tell people that journalists change the world.

*We love learning something new literally every day. Every day is different. It’s impossible to get bored as a journalist. And you’re either interviewing interesting people or reading and shooting interesting stories.

Several of these get to what most journalists say: It’s a calling. Journalism is a public good, and journalists can serve democracy.

Yes, there are also five reasons not to go into journalism, beginning with you’ll never be rich and it has an uncertain future. But you’ll have fun and be fulfilled. That makes a good life.

Dwane Powell, RIP

I was fortunate to be able to call Dwane Powell my friend. He died last night.

The News & Observer, where he was an editorial cartoonist and a vital part of that paper’s personality for decades, has a nice obituary. Read it.

I met him in 1982 at the N&O. He was funny and smart and charming. I wish I had all of the caricatures he drew of me on napkins and envelope backs and scrap paper. Dark eyes. Heavy eyebrows. Nailed it. I wasn’t special; he drew everyone. But he made me feel special, and for a young reporter, that was everything.

Steve Riley points out in the obit that Dwane would often wander into the newsroom right before deadline with a cartoon concept in hand, put it in front of you and ask if it works. Most times, it did. Here are dozens of his cartoons.

A meeting of the Immoral Minority. Dwane is waving. Courtesy of Sally Bruner Johns

He and his wife, Jan, were original members of the Immoral Minority, a dinner group that eight of us pulled together, giving us an excuse to go out to dinner once a month, drink too much and tell stories. (It was a play on the Moral Majority.) I still have a few of the Immoral Minority pins his wife, Jan, created for us. Most memorable is the time we got kicked out of a greek restaurant. I’ll keep that one among the remaining seven of us.

My favorite Dwane story isn’t funny at all. My mother loved his cartoons. She often told me how he nailed an issue. One time, at a N.C. Press Awards dinner, I introduced her to him. He sat and talked with her for 15 or 20 minutes, acting as if she was the only person there, ignoring the hundreds of journalists and others who milled around them. Then, after I left the paper, whenever we ran into each other, he would ask about her every single time.

The world is worse off today.

Sunday sampler

Winston-Salem: The Republicans in the state legislature like to govern by fiat. They have a history of passing legislation to change the make up and structure of local government boards and council without any input, all to push a conservative agenda. Most times – all times? – affected constituents don’t want it. The GOP in Raleigh doesn’t care. This time, it’s happening in Winston-Salem. Apparently lost on the two Forsyth Republicans filing the legislation is that Guilford County voters kicked out the state senator who did that to us as soon as they could.

Charlotte:  It seems as if the kind of legislation that moves society forward comes from cities (certainly not the state). It’s happening in Charlotte, as this story by Danielle Chemtob shows. “Charlotte officials are exploring a controversial policy that could change the makeup of single-family neighborhoods, as part of a move to boost affordable housing and address the city’s history of racial segregation.”

That time I pissed off the publisher

Many years ago at the paper, I was in a meeting about reorganizing employee parking. I had always learned that you don’t mess with employee seating or parking arrangements, but I guess some people never learn.

As we talked about one possible change, I asked, “If it’s going to piss people off, why would we do it?”

“Excuse me?” Carl Mangum, our publisher, responded.

I don’t know why he was in the meeting. Maybe he also knew that you mess with employee parking at your peril. He was a Southerner gentleman, but I didn’t know him well. I was assistant managing editor for news so I didn’t have much contact with him.

“I said, ‘Why would we do this, if we know it will piss people off.”

Mangum looked straight at me, motioned with his arm at the other people sitting around the table, and said, “John, there are ladies present.”

It didn’t occur to me until that moment that “pissed off” was an objectionable phrase. I said, “Oh, sorry.”

Afterward, I went to my boss, Ben Bowers, to tell him what happened and ask what I should do. He told me to write him a note of apology, which I did.

I got the note back the next day. Mangum had written, “Forget it. I have.”


It’s all about showing up

It was pouring rain that day in Raleigh, a cold rain that worked its way inside you so that you never could get warm. Eric, my roommate, and I were sitting in my car outside the work site. We were construction workers; this was after college and we were trying to find our way in the world. We were waiting for the boss and the crew, who drove over  from Durham. We usually got there before they did. Start time was 7:30.

Another group of workers was in a car in front of us, waiting.

The rain showed no sign of letting up. Eric and I talked about whether we’d get sent home. We were building a mental health hospital in Raleigh and were working outside. We sort of wanted to get sent home because we didn’t want to work in the rain, but it also meant we wouldn’t get paid. We needed to get paid.

8 a.m. came and still no crew. 8:15. Nothing.

“Should we go home?” I asked. “Maybe they aren’t coming.”

“Let’s wait a little longer,” Eric said.

The other guys in the car ahead of us must have had the same discussion. They came to a different conclusion. They drove off.

“Should we go?” I asked.

“Let’s wait until 8:30 and see what happens,” Eric said.

At 8:25, the crew rolled in. The foreman stepped out, saw us and motioned us onto the work site and gave us our job, which involved laying rebar on the top floor of the building.

“Have you see the other boys?” he asked. We told him that they left. He nodded.

We worked the day. It never stopped raining and we never got warm. But we got paid.

The next day, the crew had just arrived as the other car with the guys pulled up. The foreman walked over to the guys as they were getting out of their car and fired them. “Ya’ll go home,” he said. “You’re not on this crew anymore.”

Walking away he looked at me: “We worked yesterday. As far as I’m concerned they laid out. Can’t rely on people who do that. I need people I can rely on.”

Sunday sampler

Asheville: The Citizen-Times does a deep dive into how liquor is sold in N.C. and the possibility of privatizing its sale. “But there are some major pitfalls in peeling away the system of government control: Public health problems after the proliferation of liquor stores, higher prices for consumers and pressure on local taxpayers if government revenue dips.”

Charlotte: The Republican Party leadership in N.C. is a mess. The Observer reports that a conference call today among members of the GOP central committee will begin the sorting out process. They are putting a good face on, though. “The party is functioning and running as it’s supposed to. It’s bigger than one man and frankly its rules are set up in a way to protect itself from errors made by any one elected officer,” he said. “Those rules and protocols worked very well here.”

Greensboro: Pastor John Cao, a Christian missionary has been in prison in China for two years. China unjustly sentenced him to seven years in prison,” Heil said, “for publicly living out his Christian faith.”

Raleigh: The N&O takes a broad look at what the Republican bribery scandal might mean about about the excess of money in campaigns. (My view: Nothing.) “This just unfortunately creates more of the jaded cynicism that people across all spectrums have toward democracy and politicians,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina.

Sucking up to the boss

The other day, after the dean had approved a reporting trip for one of my students, the student said to me privately, “I’m not very good at expressing gratitude. Maybe I should write him a card?”

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Van King when he was newspaper publisher and I was editor.

Van King

Van and I had our disagreements because, well, he was a publisher and I was an editor. We were supposed to disagree some of the time. But I knew he always had my back because he was, at his core, a journalist.

This time — I don’t remember what — he had done something good, and I wanted him to know it.

“Van,” I said, “I don’t want to be a suck-up here but –.”

“Oh, go ahead,” Van said. “Nobody ever sucks up to me. Even publishers need to be told they did something right.”

It’s an inverse corollary of “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” In this case, leadership mistakes are met with catcalls, and success met with silence.

Laying off journalists: “We’re killing our seed corn”

“about 26 gone per day.”

That’s about how many journalists I had to lay off one day in June 2007. (I wrote about it here.) The paper wasn’t hitting its profit margin expectations, and it was determined we had too many journalists. (Other newspaper employees were laid off, too, but the newsroom carried the heaviest load.)

That day, the supervisor of the press room said to me “We’re killing our seed corn.”

He knew that readers came to the paper primarily because of the stories journalists produced. Eliminating journalists eliminates local coverage and makes the paper less compelling. More dispensable.

As it turned out, truer words have never been spoken.



Sunday sampler

On the heels of a survey that shows news readers are interested in “prices,” both Charlotte and Greensboro feature stories about stores and prices.

Charlotte: Harris Teeter, Walmart and Food Lion are the biggest grocery stores in Charlotte, but Target, Lidl and Publix are taking their market share, the Observer reports. “Harris Teeter holds 18.7 percent of the local sales, down from 19.8 percent the prior year. Walmart has a 17.8 percent share, down from 18.6 percent. And Food Lion has a 17.3 percent market share, down from 18.1 percent.”

Greensboro: Some people in Guilford County don’t want a dollar store in their community.  “It’s an ugly box store, I don’t care how they decorate it up, that’s what it is, it’s a box store whose money is going into shareholders’ (pockets),” Robin Heath of 3327 Alamance Church Road told commissioners. “It’s not going to help our community, there’s nothing about it that’s going to help our community.’ (The county commissioners approved the rezoning anyway.)

Raleigh: The N&O features a piece by my UNC Media Hub students Alex Zietlow and Callie Williams on a tale of two immigrant generations: the father who found his way to America to make a better life for his family and who expects his son to go to college, and the son who doesn’t want college.

And, like the N&O story, the Charlotte Observer published UNC Media Hub student Sophie Whisnant’s story about how Native American history is taught (or not taught) in public schools today. “Not only is it not accurate, there is a significant portion of information missing,” said Locklear, now the program director for the First Americans’ Teacher Education Program at UNC-Pembroke.