Sunday sampler


Had to publish this front page of the Daily News in Jacksonville. Tina Brooks’ photo is an award winner. (Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Raleigh: One of the many values of newspaper journalism is that while the world moves on from catastrophe, newspapers revisit it. The N&O reminds us that though Hurricane Florence hit the N.C. coast 16 months ago, its impact lingers. “While about 720,000 people received temporary disaster food benefits in the three months following Florence, state and federal programs addressing food security often are geared toward the immediate aftermath of a disaster, not the long-term recovery. That has left a mixture of nonprofits, volunteers and officials trying to fill holes the storm blew through pocketbooks, even as survivors scramble to save every dime to rebuild. The Food Bank distributed 15 million pounds of food, water and supplies for disaster relief in the first year after Florence.” Charlotte and Greensboro published the same story on their front pages.

Winston-Salem: The Journal reports: “In early September, 12 university Wake Forest faculty and staff members received racist and homophobic emails that called for a purge of minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. The emails came months after Wake Forest found itself at the center of controversy after images surfaced of white students in blackface and posing in front of Confederate flags in old editions of The Howler, the university’s yearbook.”

Asheville: The Green New Deal has gone local, the Citizen-Times reports. A city council member “is proposing a local ‘Green New Deal,’ including what he said would be the state’s largest “community” solar farm and a renewal of the 1970s “dollar-a-lot” program to help lower-income residents buy homes.” “We need tangible efforts to strengthen our climate resilience, get more people riding the bus, and prepare families to move from a position of surviving to thriving with better jobs, better homes, and better lives,” he said.

“I read that book”

Speaking of Media Hub, admission to the class is by application and it’s competitive. Most of the writers I admit to the class I’ve taught before so that I know how good they are. One semester, a former journalist whom I respect recommended a student writer I didn’t know. The journalist-turned-professor said, “She’s a little raw, but she’s really sharp.”

When I was in college, I was a little raw and as sharp as a brick, but a professor gave me a chance. So, I paid it forward and put her in the class.

Her first two stories were awful. She committed all the writing sins you expect from a first-year journalism student — overwriting, rampant use of adverbs and adjectives, vague descriptions without detail, etc. Except she was a senior, not a first-year.
I was going over her second story with her, asking questions, working on the rewrite, when she said, “I want to make this really good because I really need to get an A on this.” I responded too quickly, “Oh, you’re not going to get an A.”
She burst into tears. (The pressure to get good grades in college is way too intense.  I’ve just told you what type of student I was.)
After she calmed down, we talked about how she can get better. I pulled “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark out of my briefcase, and handed it to her. I use it as a text in my Feature Writing course.
“Buy this book and read it,” I said. “Then start using the tools.”
I didn’t expect much because she had four other courses and a job to worry about. (It’s always a crapshoot when you ask students to do something not required.)
A month later, she submitted her next two stories. They were exceptional; they flowed well, the excess verbiage was gone, and the sentences were muscular and telling.
I’ll called her aside and told her how good they were.
“I have to ask,” I said. “How did you improve so much so quickly?”
“I read that book,” she said, and she cited a few of the tools she used.
Because I can tell a student to read a book, I must be a great teacher.
Here is this semester’s class on the LDOC yesterday.

Get me rewrite!

One of my Media Hub students was on a school-sponsored networking trip to D.C., and the group visited a U.S. House member’s office where a UNC grad was working as an aide. The aide was an alum of both my Media Hub class.

(Media Hub is a capstone course for seniors and grad students, and our goal is to create such remarkable journalism that news organizations will publish it. To do that we operate as closely to a newsroom as possible, which is to say, not all that close. But because I know what editors and news directors look for, I set a high standard for our stories.)

When the House aide learned that my student was in Media Hub, she groaned and asked, “How many times did he make you rewrite?”

When I heard that, I beamed with pride. Damn skippy, I make them rewrite. Rewriting is learning. This is real life. And we’ve had some success.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: In stark terms, the N&O outlines how out of balance the governing board of the university system is with the student population. “Men hold the majority of positions of power but women make up the majority of students. White men make up 73% of the board but only 25% of students. There are three black board members (11.5%), while 20% of students are black.” Should be damning for the GOP legislature which appoints the Board of Governors, but it won’t be.

Greensboro: It’s true, I’ve always believed the stigma that adopting teenagers is fraught with trouble. The N&R tells me that in Guilford County, out of 103 adoptions last year, 14 were teenagers. And I’ve been schooled. “If I would have caved in to the doubt,” Allred said, “I wouldn’t have two beautiful daughters, I wouldn’t have two beautiful grandchildren, an awesome daughter-in-law — all this stuff I would miss out on.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has what looks like an interesting story about how the city has lost 6.4 percent of its tree canopy over the last 10 years. And, the story says, it “is spurring a move to restrict tree cutting on private property.” But I can’t find the story on the website, but here is the front page, courtesy of the Newseum.

Exactly the place I need to be

In high school, I was what I generously describe as an average student. My parents, who had three other children who were straight-A students, thought I didn’t try hard enough, which was probably true. I applied to four colleges: ECU, Wake Forest, UNC and St. Andrews Presbyterian College.

ECU was my safety school, and I got in. Wake was my first choice, and I didn’t get in. Carolina was where all my high school friends wanted to go, and I was admitted. But I didn’t grow up in North Carolina; UNC wasn’t in my bones.

St. Andrews was a late addition. My mother, who knew me better than anyone, suggested I check out the small school in Laurinburg. I drove down, primarily because it got me out of school, and I fell in love with the campus and the people. I chose St. Andrews, and it was exactly the place I needed to be at that time in my life.

When I was passed over as the editor of the News & Record in the early 90s, my dear wife said that if I wanted to move and work at another paper, we’d move. I didn’t even consider it; Greensboro was exactly the place I needed to be.

And in a different place with a different job, I’m exactly the place I need to be at this time in my life: At UNC.

I had quit the newspaper business in 2011 without a plan, but a door quickly opened at Elon University. It shut after a semester there, but Dr. Chris Roush, senior associate dean at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the time, called to offer me two courses in the fall of 2012.

My two daughters had graduated from UNC; one of them from the J-school. My wife graduated from the J-school. The school – one of the best in the business – gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself as a teacher after years of being a newspaperman.

I can’t imagine what I’d be doing if it weren’t this. The students energize me, and their total engagement fulfills me. And as I look at the traditional retirement age in the rearview, they keep me young. I’ve made friends that will last me the rest of my life

So on this Thanksgiving week, I’m thankful for the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the students there. It’s exactly the place – and it’s filled with exactly the people – I need to be.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: Both the N&O and the Charlotte Observer include Andrew Carter’s compelling story about Riley Howell, the UNCC student who died saving others in the mass shooting on campus. Actually, it’s about those he left behind, too. I’m not going to quote any of it because it’s all so good. Read it, hug your friends and relatives, and try to be a better human.

Greensboro: The News & Record features a story of redemption, of an illegal drug bigwig who, after prison, is rebuilding his life as the owner of a fitness studio and as an inspiration to a U.S. congressman. “Hunt’s book, “From Prison to Prosperity,” influenced legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro on criminal justice reform that would enlist several federal agencies to train inmates in such fields as manufacturing and health care so they are better prepared to succeed after their release.”

Kinston: Want a breath-taking lead? Or, in this case, a second paragraph: “Human trafficking is second only to the drug trade in its profitability.” The Daily News outlines efforts by True Justice International, “a nonprofit organization focused on eradicating human trafficking with a Christian mindset,” to help young women – girls, really – escape the life. It’s not the best story, but it’s interesting and tells me things I didn’t know, which is good enough.

Poetic scenes from the classroom

“Poetry is the use of words where music is heard but none is playing.” — Elvis Costello

Each semester, I spend one of my feature writing classes using poetry to emphasize the importance of writing with cadence, imagery and precision. I tell students they should read poetry to improve their skills, range and imagination. As I prepared the lesson, I emailed the students, asking them to send me their favorite poems.

Within two minutes, I got this one by E.E. Cummings, which is also one of my favorites. Over the course of the next few days, I got this, and this, and this, and this, and this. (Love and angst, which pretty much sums up college.) In all, I got eight poems, which isn’t great from a class of 20 students, but it’s better than last semester when only two students sent me their favorites.

So far, so good.

In class on Monday, after my lecture, I asked the students to talk about their choices. It was going fine. The first few students said they were introduced to their poems in high school.

I asked one of the three male students about his choice: “Well, I Googled ‘inspirational poetry….'”

We all laughed and he explained his choice.

I went to the next guy, and he said, “Well, I Googled ‘good poems….'”

By the time I got to the third male student, I said, “You’d better not mention Google.”

My conclusion: I have three types of students: Those who read poetry; those who follow directions even if they don’t read poetry; and those who ignore me entirely.

This coming Monday, I’m doing music. I’m encouraged.

“Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” — Thomas Gray

Bell ringers, beware

I was ringing the bell next to Salvation Army’s big red kettle in front of Barnes & Noble one night 10 years ago. It was part of my duty as a Rotarian and I did it happily. People smiled as they came up and tucked a dollar bill or two into the slot. I smiled, wished them Merry Christmas and kept ringing the bell.

I watched as an older model white Lincoln Continental drove up and stopped in front of the store door and, essentially, me. It was one of those landboats that old people drove, and I was admiring its lines because, even then, I was an old person.

A man got out of the back seat, left the door open, and walked the five feet to the kettle with a bill in his hand. He acted as if he was donating, and I looked away, believing it is rude to watch people put money in. When he said “The sergeant major told me to pick this up.” I turned back and see that he had unfastened the kettle from it’s chain. By the time, I realized what happened, he was back to the car with the kettle. I shouted “Wait!’ and started after him, but he was in, the door was closed, and the car drove away.

I carry a pen all the time — a longtime journalist’s habit — and wrote the driver’s license on my hand. I pulled out my phone and called the police. I reported what happened, an officer took the information, and said someone would call me back the next day. OK, I thought, it’s not a major crime but the next day? I had his plate number, and it was a distinctive-looking car.

I called the Salvation Army contact, told them what happened, and they said basically, “Well, it happens on occasion.”

The police did call me the next day. I told them everything that happened, gave them the license plate number, and said I would recognize the guy. He could have passed for the old L.A. Lakers guard Norm Nixon, except he was about 7 or 8 inches shorter. They thanked me for my time and hung up.

Never. Heard. Another. Word.

I was furious and ashamed. Furious that those guys — two in the front seat and the thief in the back — would steal from the needy. Ashamed because I had been responsible for the kettle and its money, and I lost it.

And I felt guilty. Guilty enough that I wrote the Salvation Army a check for $100, although I had no idea how much money was in the kettle. It didn’t help me feel better, though.

Sunday sampler

Bitch all you want about the declining quality of America’s newspapers, but the fact is that when newspapers stop looking at how our governents do business, corruption grows, and civic engagement drops. That brings us to the News-Topic in Caldwell County, which fought and won a legal case to open sealed records involving a lawsuit against the Caldwell school system. (Paywall protected; here’s the front page.)

Editor and Publisher Guy Lucas writes: “The News-Topic found out in September that a civil lawsuit had been filed against the Caldwell County Board of Education and quickly settled. We wanted to tell you, the taxpayers of Caldwell County, who pay for the Caldwell County Schools, what it’s about and what the settlement was. But all sides in the lawsuit agreed to have the entire court file sealed by a judge.”

The News-Topic doesn’t have deep pockets – what paper does? – but it did what good papers do: It challenged the seal in court. And won.

Lucas again: “When someone asks why they should pay for a newspaper when there are websites that provide some of that information for free, this is yet another answer.”

Damn, right.

Greensboro: The News & Record localizes a Charlotte Observer about doctors – 28 in N.C. — getting millions in speaking fees and other payments from drug and medical device companies from 2014 through last year. Two of the docs are from Greensboro. “For years, the relationship between doctors and drug and medical device companies has raised conflict-of-interest concerns and may make some patients nervous that those payments could influence the doctor’s treatment plan.”

The kids are alright*

I’ve been thinking about this editorial that the Daily Northwestern, which is the student newspaper of Northwestern University, published earlier this week. The basis of the editorial is wrongheaded, but I’m not going to beat up on the students. It’s a tough job being a newspaper editor in a university environment where your classmates don’t understand journalism and they’re are beating up on you.

From a former Daily Tar Heel editor and student of mine:

I do regret, though, that the editorial can rightfully be used as an illustration that college students are snowflakes — “overly emotional, easily offended and unable to deal with opposing opinions.”

I regret it because, at UNC-Chapel Hill where I teach, that isn’t my experience. I occasionally have students who worry that something they write might trigger a reader. (Not a bad concern so long as it doesn’t prevent you from writing the truth.) And the Daily Tar Heel occasionally warns students of emotional content in its stories. But I think a lot of “adults” would be surprised at how strong they already are.

Yesterday, I had students in one of my classes write first-person stories. I had lectured on how the best first-person pieces contain emotion and express a universal truth that readers will grasp. I want them to reach deeply, get beyond the surface, and tell me what their story is really about.

And every semester, I’m reminded how tough students are. They experience pain and trauma that I didn’t at their age. Some topics:

  • Parents divorce
  • Death of a mother
  • Death of a brother
  • The expectation of an arranged marriage
  • A father with cancer
  • Bisexuality
  • Being the one who finds a friend who hanged himself

Some of them are still processing what happened to them. (Writing about it often helps.) The lessons they learn from these experiences are always exactly what you want them to have learned.

There are a lot of reasons to worry about the state of journalism. But don’t waste your time worrying about the state of college journalists. They have their shit together.

*Headline copied from what Lex Alexander always says when I write about the wisdom of my students. Lex, I presume, took it from an album of The Who.