Sunday sampler

Asheville– With so many questions being raised about Duke Energy’s operation of coal-burning plants and its stewardship of the environment, it’s no surprise that news organizations are taking a look at Duke operations nearby. The Citizen-Times — four hours away from the Dan River coal ask spill — does just that. “A monitoring well at Duke’s Lake Julian plant in Asheville sits about 200 yards from his condominium. Evidence of a toxic metal has been found in that well, and Gibney fears he knows more about what happened in the Dan River than he knows about contamination happening near his own backyard.”

High Point and Greensboro — Both the Enterprise and the News & Record have stories reminding readers that the deadline to sign up for Obamacare is near. Both start with similar anecdotes of women who benefit from the Affordable Care Act. Bias? I’m sure some will say so. It’s my bias that I think that the vast majority of people will benefit. (For the record, my health care costs go up because of Obamacare.) Most people in N.C. think Obamacare hurts health care. Efforts to educate people to the benefits of the law of the land are good journalism to me.

Lenoir — “Call 911. I think I just killed Danny!” The News-Topic tells the compelling story of two neighbors who shared a driveway, but that was about all. Now one is dead and the other charged with murder. Not every murder case is as human, but this one is a helluva read.



Message to the International Civil Rights Museum: Stop digging

When you’re in a hole, you stop digging, as the cliche goes. It’s a lesson the folks at the International Civil Rights Museum need to learn.

The museum — a wonderful showplace of an important part of national history — has money problems. It also has Greensboro City Council members questioning the tax money the city committed to the museum last year. And it’s not small change: $1.5 million.

So, complaining that the city is treating you unfairly is not just bad form, it is the epitome of working on the wrong thing. It’s almost as if, at every decision point along the way, the museum makes the wrong decision. Now, its response to questions about whether it will get the promised city money has the mayor talking about hiring a lawyer and anticipating litigation.

The museum has always been opaque in its dealings with the media and, evidently, with the city. This most recent controversy could be a textbook case on how to raise public suspicion. (And a textbook case on how not to build public support.)

Here is what Donna Newton said about it on Facebook:  ”I can tell you from being on the boards of some other nonprofits that have received support from the City, the questions asked of the Museum are reasonable – only with other organizations, they have typically been asked and answered before the money was awarded. Moreover, the other recipients I know about have to submit regular, very detailed reports to the City. It is the City’s fiduciary responsibility to know the details of how public funds are being used.”

Simple. Fair. And right.

Transparency isn’t difficult. In fact, when you’re expecting to be paid with tax money — some of which is my money — then it’s required. That’s pretty much how most Greensboro taxpayers feel, I suspect. Complaining about it does nothing except make people think that you’ve got something to hide. Why plant that in peoples’ minds?

An open letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, Part III

Updated with the records submitted!

Two days after the report, suddenly, the records are given up!

The university provided its athletic department’s social media policy, which requires each team to have a coach or staff member regularly monitor student-athletes’ social media accounts and says that players can be asked to remove posts or photos. UNC also released a contract with the company that monitors student-athletes’ posts, job descriptions for staff whose job responsibilities include monitoring posts, as well as team-specific policies for the women’s basketball, field hockey, fencing, women and men’s lacrosse, baseball, women’s golf, soccer and softball teams.

Updated with a P.S. Thursday

Dear Chancellor Folt,

I am proud of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m proud of its long, storied history. I’m proud of its academic rigor and integrity. I’m proud of its stellar faculty, knowing full well that I’m an exception. I’m proud of its students who work hard and want to go beyond what we ask.

Yes, I’m well aware of the recent unpleasantries with academics and athletics. I’ve laughed and brushed aside the jibes from people because they have merit and defensiveness serves no purpose. I am happy to say that I have taught six varsity athletes in my classes and all have been outstanding students. And I say that on social media whenever the subject comes up.

So when I read a story in which our university is listed as the worst in providing basic public records, I get embarrassed. Embarrassed for the university.

“The hardest was North Carolina — they just refused to give anything up,” Zlotnick said. …

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than five months after receiving a request from a student, has yet to release any records. Officials haven’t hinted when they might.

This comes just two days after the News & Observer published a scathing indictment of public officials’ openness and responsiveness to public records requests. Included in the story are examples of the university’s sluggish response to requests for basic information. An observer might even call it active resistance.

We teach students in your journalism school to call BS on such hiding, which is a form of the verb the student who requested the information used. Hiding.

And here the university they attend is doing it.

Now what do we teach them?

I appreciate the efforts you’re making to open things up. We both know that the university hasn’t been effective or speedy in either getting to the bottom of what happened or in being transparent about it. As I said in one of my earlier letters, you inherited a hot mess not of your making. But it’s yours now, and you’ve got to address it, answer all the questions about it and move on.

The people’s trust in the university has steadily eroded since the beginning of the scandal. You’re in your job because your predecessor decided it was better for the university to step down. Ask the public relations professors in your own school how to restore trust and they will tell you that transparency is key. So far, the university has not been transparent. When you have people saying that you’re hiding things, you’re in trouble.

Change that. Tell the lawyers to release the requested documents. And to do it fast. This has gone on for too long.

Respectfully yours,

John Robinson

P.S. The Daily Tar Heel Thursday reported on the dinner you hosted at your house for the Athletics Committee. The paper quotes you this way:

Folt agreed with Dean, stating that the University had provided the public a large amount of information about the scandals.

“It’s not like we haven’t given oodles of very specific information to every news agency,” Folt said.

“We cannot control what they put in the newspapers, the articles that are written… but we can respond, and we have.”

I may be misinterpreting those remarks, but they seem to suggest that you think you’re doing a lot. Perhaps you are. But I respectfully suggest that the university isn’t doing enough. So much of the request the students made above are not difficult. You can make it happen.

Sunday sampler

Basketball — college and high school — is all over the state front pages today. Still, there are other things going on.

Asheville — The Citizen-Times reports that prescription drug abuse is a bigtime problem in the mountains. “It’s completely an epidemic,” said Julie Harwell Huneycutt, director of Hope Rx in Henderson County, where Ware and Huggins live. “If this were any other disease, there would be quarantines. There would be all sorts of uproar and outrage.”

High Point — I admit I have a weakness for stories about elected officials who can’t pay their debts (or cheat, steal and otherwise conduct criminal activity while in office). And, according to the Enterprise, it looks as if the city of High Point is going to lose this one. High Point spent about $20,000 in a failed attempt to recoup a decade-old debt from City Councilman Foster Douglas, and it’s money that the city won’t be getting back.

Raleigh — You know that public employees oversee public records. The key word is public. The state doesn’t seem to understand that. Thank you, News & Observer, for listing all the ways that state officials abuse state law and treat citizens with arrogance.

Wilmington — Yikes! Deaths from heroin overdoses in North Carolina rose from 38 in 2010 to 148 in 2012. Thirteen of those 148 were in New Hanover County. The NHRMC emergency departments treated 851 overdoses in 2013. Not all of those overdoses were related to heroin or opiates.



Putting the readers in charge

When the boat stops running, you can do several things to get it going.. You can work on the engine, you can hoist the sails, you can start rowing, you can call for a tug or you can abandon ship.

Like the boat, newspapers have done several things to keep from stopping. They have cut staff and cut pages, focused on certain geographies or specific topics, made deals with advertisers and cut circulation regions.

One more possibility for them to try: recruit their readers to help select their coverage.

Last week, NewsWhip showed what the front pages of national and international newspapers would look like if editors paid more attention to what readers were reading and sharing. And the results are not only not bad — they are improvements.

From BuzzFeed’s report: “Using Spike, a tool that monitors social activity to find the “most shared” stories across a particular site, NewsWhip swapped the front page stories of major newspapers with each paper’s most shared stories. The results touch on an interesting truth: that the front page isn’t so much a comprehensive collection of the most important and popular stories on a given day as it is a reflection of editorial whims….”

The front pages devote less space to the institutional and governmental, and give more space to the lifestyle and helpful. The daily update on the Ukraine conflict is replaced or downgraded on the front page. Local news takes on greater prominence.

Letting readers participate has been kicked around for years. Maybe it has had a good rigorous trial at a paper or two. But it certainly hasn’t taken hold in the industry. When I was in charge, we feared that readers would ignore important news for stories about stabbings and the Kardashians and store openings. It was a legitimate concern, but one we should have gotten over. It showed a distinct lack of trust in the judgment of the people who bought the paper.

If I were in charge now, I’d try it. Because I am cautious, I would hold out a slot or two on the front page for editors to exercise their own judgment, but I would be conservative about throwing my weight around. I would also figure out the right mix of most shared stories, most trafficked and most emailed. They aren’t the same thing.

Looking at it with a cold-blooded eye, there’s great upside and little downside. The upside is that you’ve created a front page that readers like AND have contributed to. The downside is that their news judgment may differ from yours or your newspaper’s mission. As I said, little downside.

And maybe you can staunch some of the circulation decline.

A journalism lesson from the ice storm

By the serendipity of advance planning and Mother Nature, I was out of town when the Friday ice storm hit Greensboro, taking down trees, power lines and, eventually, power for hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses. Because I love my hometown, I checked local news websites frequently to see how things were going. And because I love my own house even more, I checked to see how things were in my neighborhood and my street.

Where did I find the most valuable information? Facebook.

There is a lesson there for the news websites. My former newspaper is going intensely local. A local television station’s slogan is “Start local. Stay local.”  Both gave me fine overviews of the situation. But I didn’t want a 5,000-foot view. I could get that from the Weather Channel. I wanted a 10-foot view. And I got that from the social networks.

The opportunity? TV stations and newspapers have viewers and subscribers on every street in the city. Heck, the newspaper has delivery people who drive every street in the county. Could they create a news network of people that lets them know about who has power, where fallen trees have blocked the road, where the power crews are, who needs help with a chain saw, or, simply, who needs help? Could they create a wiki that people can post their own news updates with information or requests for assistance?

That would be a page I would go to often.

A few snows ago, I was up early because I have an 8 a.m. class in Chapel Hill and I wanted to know how bad the roads were. (I needed to know if I could make the one-hour drive safely or whether I needed to cancel class.) Chapel Hill doesn’t have a local television station or daily newspaper to help me. I used the I-40 traffic cams to gauge the interstate, but I could find no information about roads in Chapel Hill.

That would be a page I would go to often.

This isn’t an idea simply for weather emergencies. It’s an idea for everything that people want and need. Here’s the deal: If news operations want to serve the public — which is what most of the journalists will tell you — then they must figure this out. Now that mass no longer works, you must go individual. Facebook has given me individual. News sites can give me individual, if they want to. Yes, newspapers and TV stations cover large areas, but you also have large audiences (shrinking, but still large). Use the people. They want to share. They want to help inform. They want to participate.

It takes work and attention. It also takes a better understanding of what people in your communities truly want and need. It takes a true commitment to deliver on the promise of being intensely local.

But it will keep me coming back.

This is not a new idea. Jeff Jarvis describes it much better than I. It just recently happened to me.

We’re on the cusp of a new news ecosystem

I was trying to watch “The Social Network” on ABC the other night. First commercial at 12 minutes and it lasted three minutes or so. Second commercial at about 25 minutes. Another three minutes of commercials. By the end of the first hour, there was movie for seven minutes and ads for three.

I was witnessing the dying throes of broadcast television.

Other than watching live sports, “among 18- to 24-year-olds, 43 percent didn’t watch any live TV over the past seven days, and 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds said the same.

Why sit through long stretches of ads, inserted without conscience in the middle of movie scenes, when you don’t have to. And with Hulu, Amazon+, GoHBO and, of course, Netflix, you don’t. (Coincidentally and opportunistically, one of the ads on The Social Network was to watch the Academy Award nominated films on Google Play.)

There are a lot of implications in the poll referenced above, not the least of which involves broadcast television. Both Politico and Clay Shirky examine its impact on political advertising. I’m pleased on that level: the fewer people watching attack ads that misrepresent a candidate’s record, the better. We know the attack ads work, and when they spew misinformation, they hurt the political system.

But I am worried about the lack of political engagement that will result. As more people leave commercial television viewing — and newspaper reading, for that matter — they are less informed about the civic issues of the day. Elon University Poll just released information showing that 64 percent of registered voters in North Carolina know little or nothing of a massive coal ash spill in the Dan River. The spill has dominated newspaper front pages across the state, made the national TV news and the New York Times. It has raised political repercussions as people wondered whether the government has been defanged in its environmental oversight.

More tellingly, 80 percent of the 18-30 age group had heard little or nothing about the spill.  Fifty-two percent of the 65+ age group had heard little or nothing about it.

Put another way, 48% of the group most likely to read newspapers and to watch broadcast television news said they had heard a lot about the spill. Only 20 percent of the group most likely to skip newspapers and live television had heard a lot about it.

If you believe the idea espoused by a student several years ago that “if the news is that important it will find me,” then the nation’s third largest coal ash spill that threatens wildlife and vegetation for miles isn’t important yet.

Except, of course, that it is.

In my classes, students’ primary source of news is the social networks. They follow links that their friends post if they’re interested. So, in a small, unscientific and informal poll last week, most of them knew about the Ukraine, about the Duke porn actress and about Girl Scouts’ cookie sale outside marijuana dispensaries. Few knew about Pussy Riot…or the coal ash spill.

I am an Internet optimist and a great believer in the intelligence and resourcefulness of the “younger generation.” But the idea that “once people get out of college, get a job and settle down, they’ll pay attention to the news” hasn’t been true for 20 years. So as with so many other new technologies, we’re at a new age of engagement, I think. My students are excited about Facebook Paper, for instance. Instagram’s news feed is popular, too. News organizations are getting smarter – yes, still aways to go – about how to effectively use Twitter.

The tools are emerging, and they still aren’t established. Someone smart is going to come up with a killer news app.

Sunday sampler

Have you ever noticed that much of the time the promos at the tops of N.C. Sunday newspapers are more interesting that some of the stories on the front page?

Burlington– A school with no textbooks? A student’s dream? The Times-News writes a surprising — to me — story about how schools without money for textbooks are coping. (Thanks, General Assembly.) In the transition, Alamance-Burlington Board of Education member Patsy Simpson said, her children are stuck with print-outs. “I’m frustrated to see the crinkled up, copied 100 times — that I can barely read — piece of paper come home,” Simpson said at the February board meeting. “I’m frustrated that somewhere there’s been a decision that textbooks aren’t needed.”

Charlotte — Think the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River was bad? Yes, Yes, I do. The Observer looks at the possibility that the Duke Energy dikes near Charlotte will hold…and it doesn’t really like what it finds, such as it is. Clouded by protective legislation, company secrecy and security concerns, the paper trail about Duke’s ash ponds is a foggy path.

Hickory — The Daily Record also has a story speculating on a coal ash spill into the Catawba River, but I can’t find it on the website.

Greensboro – The News & Record continues its work getting to the bottom of who knew what when in the coal ash spill last month. For more than a decade, a series of engineering inspectors repeatedly flagged the drainage pipes under Duke Energy’s Dan River ash basin as potential problems, but the utility never did more than visual inspections to ensure their structural integrity. For more than a decade, indeed — four reports in 13 years.

Fayetteville — The Observer has an in-depth advance story on the sexual assault trial of Brig. Gen. Jeff Sinclair. Given what’s going on in Washington pertaining to sexual misconduct in the ranks, it’s timely. Given the detail in the story, it’s fascinating.

Burlington and Wilmington — Both papers publish a meaty AP story about the amount of work that highly paid consultant for the Department of Health and Human Services conducted. A government contractor credited with saving North Carolina taxpayers millions left behind little documentary evidence of that work. Joe Hauck was paid $310,000 in less than 11 months as a consultant to state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos before returning in December to his job as an executive at a private company run by Wos’ husband. It continues the opacity of that state department.

Open letter to Gov. McCrory, Part V

Dear Mr. Governor,

In the past, I’ve suggested ways to stay out of controversy. This time, I’m suggesting you invite controversy, but in a good way, particularly if you take the long view.

Come out in favor of the repeal of the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. This could be your Branch Rickey moment.

That’s right. But before you call me a crazy, hear me out.

We — you and everyone else — have seen the courts shred state laws and amendments that prohibit same-sex marriage. This week, it was Texas — TEXAS! And when I say shred, I mean shred, in six states so far.  And of course there is Arizona, which became the poster state for discrimination (and ignorance) when it tried to pass a law allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people. It has done nothing except to show people the lengths that power and money will go to be unfair to fellow citizens.

Why would you want to stand on that side of the line? You know that North Carolina’s time in court is coming. You know the polls of North Carolinians show that nearly 60% of people support legal recognition of same-sex couples.

And you certainly know that sooner or later, North Carolina, if not the nation, is going to recognize same-sex marriage. If not now, certainly when the Millennials get the power and nudge us old farts out.

I suspect you’ve heard about the protests by some students at Duke about living in a dorm named after a governor who supported racist policies. Same thing happened with a school in Greensboro.  I bring that up because I know you don’t want your grandchildren to look back on your time as governor and wonder how you could have allowed the state to treat gay people as second-class citizens.

It’s not right, and I have faith that you know it’s not right. That’s why you scarcely talked about it in the campaign. You supported it because you wanted to get elected.

So, here we are. Now, you’re thinking, OK, but it’s bad politics. The people have spoken. Yes, some of them have. But here is why it’s good politics to call for the repeal of the amendment.

First, it puts you on the right side of history. You would be able to stand tall and say you are doing the right thing for all of the state’s citizens. Voters like courage in their politicians. We don’t see that often. That right there would win you a lot of votes.

Second, it shows you have the backbone to stand up to your own party. Yes, I know you say that you do, but the evidence just isn’t there. This will set you apart from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Show that you’re your own man.

Third, it moves you toward the center. Not to the center — that would be too much for the GOP to take — but a step closer to the center. That would remind all the Independents and Democrats who voted for you why they did — that your service as mayor of Charlotte indicated you would be a moderate. Your work with the legislature didn’t show many of us that, but you have time before 2016 to pull us back.

Fourth, it’s not personal, it’s business. The backlash in Arizona shows what business and chambers of commerce think of discrimination. You’re about jobs — the state’s amendment against same-sex marriage is not getting us any jobs, and it could be costing us jobs.

Fifth, it positions you well for your next elected office. I know you’re not talking about that, but I’m betting you’ve thought of it. The Senate or the vice presidency. Maybe even president? I know that FoxNews and your advisers would tell you I am wrong, but America is not going to elect anyone who is staunchly against same-sex unions. Look at the polls. And the support for same-sex unions is only going to increase as young people grow older.

Sixth, you’ll lose some votes, but not that many. Who are the Democrats going to put up against you? There are no strong candidates out there. Hardline conservatives will have no choice but to vote for you. Will you get challenged on the right? Possibly, but it won’t be a substantive challenge.

Seventh — and this is the cynical view, but we are talking politics, right? Ultimately, this isn’t your call. Both houses in the legislature have to call for its repeal and put it on the ballot. Chances of the conservatives in the House and the Senate doing that are slim. So, in a sense, you can have your cake and eat it, too. The General Assembly can be the people who favor discrimination, not you.

Eight, it takes the attention away from the Duke Energy coal ash spill.

When I suggested this on Facebook, people mocked me. But I think you’re smart. I think you can read the tea leaves.

Do the right thing and get on the right side of history.

Best regards,

A Democrat who voted for you


Sunday sampler

Right after the coal ash spill into the Dan River, I read speculation on social media that the news media wouldn’t do much with the story. How wrong that was. The state’s newspapers are all over it, with good reason.

Raleigh and Charlotte do what is essentially a write-through on coal ash production, regulation and problems in the state. The High Point Enterprise suggests the spill could have an impact on the elections this year (although it doesn’t support that claim very well). Burlington Times-News has an AP story that says state and federal regulators still have not taken action to force Duke Energy to “stop the spread of the underground plume of pollution encroaching closer to their homes each year.”

The biggest coverage comes from the News & Record, which takes a look at the money Duke contributed to Gov. McCrory’s campaign, and the toll the spill will take on fish, wildlife and business.

Well done, all around.

Burlington — The Times-News looks at how easy it is to smuggle contraband — drugs — into the county lockup. It’s a fascinating read at the lengths prisoners go. (Just try to imagine yourself doing some of these things.)

Durham — The governor announces raises for “new” teachers. Hooray! The local school board will have to cover some of the costs, eventually. What? Aaron Beaulieu, the school district’s chief financial officer, told the school board last week that the pay raise for those teachers with zero to nine years of experience could eventually cost the school district as much as $1.4 million.

Lenoir — The News-Topic moves past the assurances that the state Department of Health and Human Services that the new computer system handing food stamp cases is now working fine. It talks with county social services officials who say, in essence, “Not so fast.” Good, tough journalism.