Sunday sampler

Not a lot of enterprise that is notable — to me on today’s front pages. But two caught my attention.

Raleigh: The News & Observer reprints a breathtaking story from the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth detailing sexual assaults and rape by fundamentalist ministers, including 17 cases in North Carolina. “For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found….The Star-Telegram discovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions, spanning 40 states and Canada.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times doesn’t waste any time localizing the government’s National Climate Assessment that the Trump administration pooh-poohed. “Jim Vose, senior research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station in Asheville, said these plagues are already upon us, as evidenced by record rainfall in Western North Carolina over the Memorial Day weekend, and the historic fires in the fall of 2016 that burned some 30,000 acres of forest and killed 14 people in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, after an arson fire escaped from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an event that was mentioned in the report.”

UNC’s Media Hub: Producing remarkable journalism

At UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism, I’m honored to teach a course of seniors and grad students called “Media Hub.” Students focusing on print, broadcast, photography, design or PR are divided into teams and work together to produce stories. The course has three main goals: to create remarkable journalism; to teach students with differing skills and priorities to work together as a team; and to create as much as possible a real newsroom environment. (It’s not all that possible.)

And if the PR team can pitch stories to professional news outlets, all the better.

The students produced some excellent work, and several stories found homes in the Charlotte Observer, the News & Observer, the Durham Herald, the News & Record, WRAL, the Charlotte Post, CBS17, the Progressive Pulse, and Poynter.

You can find all the class work here.

I’ve worked with a lot of journalists in my time, and I’d put work like this, this, this and this up against any of the work I did and saw as a working journalist. And those are only a few of the stories that are worth reading, watching or listening to. The drive, passion and commitment of these students make me optimistic about the future of journalism.

A promo video for the course that Brittany Catucci, one of the PR students, made.

“Journalism is a short-term weapon when it comes to changing the world”

Every semester, I ask my feature writing students at UNC-Chapel Hill to write a quick essay — I give them 15 minutes — on the topic “why do you write.” Their answers, across the board, inspired me. Here are some excerpts:

“I write because there are stories I want to read, and no one else has written them yet.”

“I hope someone can read my work and put off whatever they had planned that day because they just want to keep turning pages. I hope a woman’s mom or dad or spouse finds her sitting in the same spot from hours before and asks, “you’re still reading?” And it’s something I wrote.”

“I write because journalism is a short-term weapon when it comes to changing the world.”

“Journalists are the ultimate public servants. They hold a sort of unpretentious power in our society. Without them, a democracy wouldn’t work yet they receive endless critique from their audiences. I think there is nobility in that.”

“Sometimes I get my subjects to tell me things they haven’t told others before and how am I supposed to not write after that?”

“Hopefully, my writing will be good enough one day to take people out of their bubble and force them to feel genuine empathy, at least for a few seconds.”

“Getting the message from (my subject’s mother) that the story was something she would cherish forever, that meant something to me. She said she could hear (her late husband) laughing. She hasn’t heard his laugh in 10 years, but my words let her feel that, even if just for a moment. I don’t know if I ever knew my writing could do that, and it brought me to tears in the moment I realized that sometimes it could.”

“I love the feeling of the story unfolding before me in my head, sometimes planned and sometimes not, and crafting a bunch of stats and interview questions into a compelling piece worth reading.”

“That (fourth-grade) teacher doesn’t know she was the one that inspired me to keep writing. She doesn’t know that her belief in me, and her encouragement of something I enjoyed, led to me pursuing writing as a career. I should probably tell her. I should definitely tell her.”

And a poem by Sam Doughton:

I write to enlighten.

To explain things that haven’t been explained and to teach what needs to be taught.

To give someone the feeling that I get when I read a break down of the triple-option offense in football, or the way Clayton Kershaw throws his curveball.

The “holy-shit-how-cool-is-that” feeling one gets from learning something new.

 

I write to inspire.

To remind people that humanity is, by and large, good, and there’s so much in life to celebrate.

(Sometimes, I’m writing just to tell myself those things).

To allow people to take a second to find joy in the stories or personalities of others.

 

I write to take a stand.

To say something meaningful about the world around us, and shine a light on those who do wrong.

They may be few, I believe, but that only makes them all the more worth highlighting.

Even if joy cometh in the morning, as scripture says.

 

I write to create.

To leave behind some sort of legacy in this world that someday, years from now, someone might come across and learn something about me.

Because when I learned music, and drawing, and acting failed me, the pen and paper didn’t.

And it still takes my breath away that I can create anything when I see a blank paper in front of me.

 

I write because I’m human.

Because I think, feel, have things to say, have stories to tell.

Like we all do.

And though there’s lots of minutia to deal with,

and it is a grind,

at the end of the day,

writing is best place to both lose and find yourself in the world around you.

 

And humans aspire to do both.

Sunday sampler, snow edition

The worst kind of snow storm for a newspaper: one that happens overnight. The front page is automatically old AND delivery people are hard-pressed to deliver the paper anyway.

Hickory: The Daily Record takes a quick look at immigration through the words of those to whom it’s important. “One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world and he speaks in an unvarnished fashion 140 characters at a time. One is an immigrant working to become a citizen of the United States. One is a pastor working with a congregation to, as he says, plant seeds of hope along Springs Road and open a door to non-English speakers.”

Charlotte: Capitalism often hurts the poor. The Observer has a good example: “After the Great Recession, the nation struggled with millions of soured mortgages, foreclosures and abandoned properties. Wall Street private equity firms and hedge funds started buying tens of thousands of single-family houses and renting them out. In some cases, they got help from the federal government, which sold them distressed mortgages at steep discounts.” And they’re jacking up the rents.

Raleigh & Charlotte: Both papers have the same story about the long, reprehensible history of possible election fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. “It’s at least the fifth time since 2010 that state officials have looked into Bladen County elections. District Attorney Jon David, in a January letter to the State Bureau of Investigation, wrote of the county’s “troubled history of political groups exploiting the use of absentee ballots” to skew results for their candidates.”

Sunday sampler, Veterans Day edition

Nearly all of the N.C. newspaper front pages feature Veterans Day stories. Some papers went all the way or close to it – GreensboroHickoryStatesville, Winston-Salem, High Point, Forest City. Good for them Two newspapers honored veterans with more unique, specialized and, to me, interesting stories:

Fayetteville: The Observer features a fascinating war story about the 30th Infantry Division protecting Hill 314 in WWII. Want to read about American heroes — men who were younger  then than the students I teach now — read this.

Charlotte: Speaking of heroes, don’t describe the four brothers who served in WWII and are still alive to talk about it. “The real heroes are those who gave their lives during the war,” Rufus Dalton said. “We’re just four guys who outlived everybody else. And we were just part of the unified national effort to take three dictators out and put the world back in shape again.” Also, heroes.

Sunday sampler

Mooresville and Statesville: The Tribune and Record & Landmark publish basically the same story by the Record & Landmark’s reporter on coal ash disposal sites in the region. “Mooresville has more coal ash structural fills than any other area in the state. Nearly 1 million cubic yards of ash is buried in the town. And that represents the sites that NCDEQ knows about.” Good journalism, letting the public know about the sites before something terrible happens.

Wilmington: New Hanover County is booming, and the hospitals are running to keep up with the sick people. The Star-News tells how. Already, New Hanover Regional Medical Center is focusing on children and stroke victims. More is to come.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has a fine story about prosecuting drug dealers for murder when ODs occur.  “Charging opioid suppliers with murder in fatal overdoses is increasingly common in North Carolina. No one keeps track of the total across all 100 counties, but prosecutors have brought at least 20 cases in the last two years as the state’s opioid crisis worsens.”

Sunday sampler

Morganton: Mistreating the ill and infirm is despicable. So I appreciate the News-Herald keeping abuse allegations the J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center front and center. (The story on the front page is a later, write-through version of the story I link here, but I can’t find the staff written story on the website.) “Carl Lanier, the Summit area director, told police that staff used a lanyard to snap or pop at and hit the resident in the back of the head, back and shoulders, the report said. Lanier also told police that the resident was told by a staff member to go after another staff member and hit them, the report said.”

Charlotte: Tracking how public money is spent is a key role of good journalism. The Observer reports that the city has spent or committed $124 million to build affordable housing, but: “More than 70 percent of the new rental and home ownership units that the City Council helped developers build aren’t affordable to those most in need — families like Simpson’s whose incomes the federal government considers “extremely low.”

Greensboro: In April, a tornado swept through east Greensboro, leaving $48 million in damage. (Hurricane Matthew victims will appreciate this.) Clean up is sloooooow, the News & Record says. “Six months later and the path a 135-mph tornado took through east Greensboro is still easily traced from the trail of downed trees, new utility poles and tarps covering houses here — but also the few new roofs along the streets of Cottage Grove, the second-oldest African-American community in the city.”

Wilmington: Speaking of storms, Wilmington is trying to learn from the devastation left by Hurricane Florence. The Star-News has a comprehensive look at the problems the storm caused.

Sunday sampler

Several notable Hurricane Florence follow-ups today. The News & Observer devotes a 12-page section to the storm. On it’s front page is a separate story about people living near the flooded Cape Fear River will ever return to their homes. The Charlotte Observer features a general update, primarily based on people left homeless. The Fayetteville Observer reminds us that many in the Cumberland County city are still waiting for government reimbursement for repairs to their homes caused by damage from Hurricane Matthew two years ago. The Wilmington Star News has a similar story as it involves Pender County. And I can’t find the story n the website of the Daily Courier of Forest City, here it is on the front page.

High Point: The Enterprise lets school officials explain that the “education lottery” really is: A way for state legislators to take tax money from schools and replace it with lottery money. As the chief of staff of Guilford County schools said, “The net to schools is not a gain.” Your government, faking you out. (And to read this story, you’ll bang into a paywall. Some of it is here.)

Mooresville: The Tribune checked the city credit card expenditures of top city officials and found some expensive expenses or, as the paper describes it, disparities. The town is working on revisions to its spending policies.

Hickory: The Sheriff’s son, who was running to succeed his father, was indicted. The Sheriff’s Office was searched. A closed meeting in a judge’s chambers was held with a representative of the Attorney General’s office, the Catawba County attorney and the Sheriff’s personal attorney. The Daily Record has the transcript and curates it. Compelling reading.

Morganton: The News Herald’s entire front page is devoted to issues involving the Friends for Animals Humane Society of Burke County. Fines, failed inspections, criminal charges, terrible care. It’s not pretty.

 

 

Six years of looking at N.C. newspapers’ front pages

I’ve posted 280 Sunday samplers  — about five-and-a-half years worth — since January 2012. And newspaper front pages have changed significantly over that period, and not for the better.

I love newspapers, and being out of the business for more than six years hasn’t dimmed that love. Sunday sampler is my personal selection of the best stories from the front pages of Sunday’s North Carolina newspapers. I limit it to the front pages because that tends to be — in some cases, that should be past tense — the day newspapers publish their best work. Early on, I described my thinking this way:  “When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know.”

So, yes, personal.

North Carolina has always had a strong culture of newspapers, thanks in part to the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, of which I’m an adjunct. A few times a year, I can’t find anything on the front pages of the 20 or so newspapers I scan each Sunday at the Newseum. Today is one of them. So, I’ll post this, which I prepared a few weeks ago and never got around to finishing until now.

Some observations:

  • Local coverage in smaller community papers seems consistently strong. Or if it isn’t strong in terms of enterprise, it is at least abundant. I have worried about news deserts ever since my friend Penny Muse Abernathy at the university began studying the decline of newspapers’ reach, particularly in rural areas. Many of the smaller papers have front pages that cover vital community affairs with the traditional mix of government coverage of lifestyle features.

  • On the other hand, the state’s larger metro papers — Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville — have reduced the number of stories on their front pages. When I started this blog, four stories on the front page was the routine. Now they often publish two stories with more dramatic displays, hoping to grab readers’ attention and focus. (There is research that supports this practice.) The upshot is that readers get less enterprise. What papers give us is as strong as ever, but there’s less of it. Speaking as a former editor I get it: Fewer reporters on staff translates to fewer enterprise stories. And while many newspapers are working hard to keep their investigative reporting muscle strong, it’s difficult. And it shows.

  • More wire stories — stories available to many newspapers, television stations and websites everywhere — are popping up on front pages of papers where they once didn’t. Another result of the decline in the number of reporters in the newsroom. And because the stories aren’t staff-produced, they tend to be everywhere — TV, websites, Twitter — on Friday or Saturday. Many readers may not be tuned to the news except on Sunday morning — but many others likely know a political fight is brewing over the Supreme Court nomination.

  • Fortunately, some newspapers are sharing content, and they are serving their readers when they do. Owned by the same company, the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer are the prime example. Both front pages featured the Observer’s fish game story the Sunday I looked. The two McClatchy papers have teams that collaborate with each other, including reporters from both papers covering sports and government, and conducting investigations. That stretches their resources and helps them avoid duplicating coverage. And because McClatchy has a wire service, many of the state’s newspapers pick up Raleigh and Charlotte stories. Winston-Salem and Greensboro, both owned by BH Media, also routinely share content.
  • Further collaboration is an opportunity for struggling newspapers. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post encourages newspapers to do just that: “What if journalists could consistently and powerfully get their act together in meaningful collaboration, truly realizing their own strength in numbers? So armed, they might do battle against the crushing tariffs that are jacking up newsprint prices; they might force the tech platforms to treat their editorial content with respect; they might even solve the urgent crisis in local news.”
  • More papers have added hard paywalls, which I understand — content has value. But hard paywalls limit random readers from seeing the news. My experience is that unless your content behind that paywall is so indispensable or compelling, it’s tough to get someone to pay for it. And perhaps for the readers of the High Point Enterprise, say, it is. But it isn’t for me.
  • There has been a major digital change since I started this column, and it’s a good one. A few newspapers are posting their big Sunday stories before Sunday. I first noticed it a year or two ago when the News & Observer published an entire series online before it made the print edition of the newspaper. Now, for Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Asheville, I will often see stories on their Sunday front pages and have to search their websites to find them because they’ve been published Thursday or Friday.

Journalists are not the enemy of the state, and it should offend every thinking American when they hear him say it. The journalists at North Carolina’s newspapers work hard in tough conditions and at low pay to bring news about their communities to the public. When you hear “fake news” it’s a smokescreen spoken by people who want to hide from something — usually the truth.

These papers and their journalists, despite their flaws, are doing democracy’s heavy lifting.

(All newspaper front pages are courtesy of Newseum.org.)