Sunday sampler

Courtesy of the Newseum

Courtesy of the Newseum

Fayetteville: The heroin “epidemic” has arrived in Fayetteville. Over the past year, more and more newspapers have written about the increase in heroin overdoses in their communities. The Observer does a fine job describing the effect of unintended consequences. “Medical professionals say a major reason is a government crackdown on prescription opioid painkiller abuse. Opioids are synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of opium, the base ingredient in heroin.”

Gaston: I had forgotten about the Legislature’s misbegotten effort to dictate what is taught in public schools. You know, there’s nothing better than letting partisan politicians tell you what’s important to learn. The Gazette reminds us. “The reformed American history course established by lawmakers in 2011 teaches certain principles as truths rather than as debatable ideologies, according to Buchenau. He says experts could reasonably question some of the information the course presents as fact.” We know that politicians like to have debates over ideas rather than political philosophy!

Raleigh: In case you wondered at the value to a community by having a powerful legislator, wonder no longer. The News & Observer ran the numbers on this year’s N.C. budget and surprise, surprise! The two legislators who brought home the most bacon were the House speaker and the Senate’s chief budget writer. Watch the GOP struggle to justify what they had previously complained about when the Democrats were running things. Yes, it rings so hollow that even the conservative Civitas Institute is critical.

Winston-Salem: Appalachian State University has 584 African American students among its 18,026. Let that sink in. It’s making an effort to improve that.

My Twitter is still very much alive

Umair Haque wrote a fine, well-circulated piece last week titled Why Twitter’s Dying (And what you can learn from it.) In it, Haque writes:

“I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates….”

“The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all.”

I’m not going to argue with Haque: he’s a major leaguer; I’m still in single A ball. This is likely a good example of what he’s talking about. His overall point about the promise of the social web and media companies and abuse is right. But his experience with Twitter and the social web is different from mine.

For me, Twitter — and to a lesser extent, Facebook — is a cocktail party where all sorts of conversations take place. I can choose to participate, eavesdrop or ignore. I can hang with smart people, with celebrities, with politicians. How else could I get a response from an industry leader or a movie star? I can make new friends and I can argue with, ignore or block new acquaintances.

I am pointed to links that teach me things. I tune into discussions that make me think deeper about topics I thought I knew. I laugh at jokes and snark and memes. For me, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can be both libraries and playgrounds.

Have I faced harassment? Not really. Yes, I’ve been flamed, but it was more the flame of a match than of a flamethrower. The closest to a threat was when I posted something about gun control and a wingnut posted a photo of my house and wondered if it had an alarm system. It irritated me, but didn’t worry me. (I resisted the urge to respond: “Yes. It’s called a Glock.”)

Perhaps because I was a newspaper editor for so long, I am used to the town square being a place of smart people, passion, loud voices, and fistfights. After all, my newspaper tried to figure out the online town square concept 10 years ago. (Thanks, again, Lex Alexander.) Maybe that made me used to the comments of dumbasses and bullies.

Perhaps Haque gets more than his fair share of abuse because he’s an industry leader. The average number of followers a person has on Twitter is around 200. Hague has more than 1,000 times that — 235,000. What he writes resonates beyond a small group of friends. It routinely bounces around the world.

And of course, I’m not a female. And, sadly, that matters to many of the nutballs out there.

The crazies are everywhere, of course. I know that I deal with crazies every time I drive to Chapel Hill on the interstate. I see them emotionally abusing their children in the aisles of WalMart. You see it in the political process and in how some corporations treat people. But the sense of the web is that you’re inviting them into your home, into your life. I get that.

Is Twitter dying? I have no way of knowing. My community there is hardly the ghost town that Haque describes. I still benefit from the conversations I participate in and the ones I simply listen to. I hope that doesn’t go away.

Hague is arguing for a better web. It’s a plea, really, for the social web to fulfill its potential, for the social web creators to do something to stop the abuse and, of course, for us to put aside our coarser natures and stop the abuse. I hope people listen.

P.S. Dave Winer extends the conversation, explaining why he thinks Twitter is pivoting.

Sunday sampler

It’s a disappointing day for the Sampler. A lot of election stories on front pages of N.C. papers today — a lot of local election stories, which are notable for their communities but not for me. Two of my usual go-tos for this feature — the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer — have softer stories on their front pages, and they only vaguely interested me. (Well, that the N&O led the newspaper with a feature story on demolition drivers at the State Fair interested me, but for a different reason.) That leaves me with…

Asheville: The Citizen-Times strips a story about doctors who refer patients to a local hospital getting “lavish rewards” across the top of its front page. But I can’t find the story on its website so….

And that’s it.

Smart politics makes N.C. look stupid


imagesThe News & Observer has an excellent story this morning about the controversy over the search for a president of the UNC system. It would be funny if it weren’t such a sad statement about our political leadership, university system and academic freedom.

Oh, you’re right, you have to laugh at the pouting, the arrogance and the stomping of feet by people old enough to be considered adults. It’s just a shame that they are embarrassing the state. Again.

A quick reminder: The legislature and governor, newly controlled by GOP since 2012, replaced most of the Democrats on the Board of Governors. Then, just certainly coincidentally, the Board of Governors decided it wanted its own person to serve as president of the university system because the current one, Tom Ross, was a Democrat. Everyone on the board said politics had nothing to do with Ross’ ouster, but they give no other logical reason for firing a man who by all accounts has done a good job.

Now, to today. From the N&O’s story:

“The UNC Board of Governors has been called to an emergency meeting Friday to get an update on the UNC presidential search and to talk with leading candidate Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary in George W. Bush’s administration, according to three people with direct knowledge of the search.

“The meeting has touched off a storm with leaders in the legislature, who wrote to board members Thursday, saying that the gathering could run afoul of new legislation that requires the search committee to bring forward three candidates to the full board for discussion.”

It sure did. The House Speaker and the leader in the Senate couldn’t believe any body would do something they didn’t like, calling it the “Board’s attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina.” (Take note: It doesn’t say the overwhelming will of the people, but of the “elected” people. Big difference.)

Thom Goolsby, a former legislator and now member of the Board of Governors, complained that the people of North Carolina has lost trust in the chairman of the board, John Fennebresque. (I agree, but not for this act. For the ouster of Ross in the first place.)

It does seem as if Fennebreque is sticking a finger in the legislature’s eye. Note, however, that the legislation referred to above isn’t yet law because it hasn’t been signed by the governor.

So, let’s do a brief accounting before today’s meeting:

* Freedom to conduct the hiring process the way we want gone? Check.

* Political gameplaying entering the world of the state’s university system? Check.

* Appointees not doing the political bidding of the legislature? Check.

* Citizens of North Carolina embarrassed by the behavior of all involved? Check. And double check.

Carter Wrenn, a Republican, wrote an unrelated blog post yesterday about the political leadership in the state. It rings true here. “Governor McCrory isn’t one of those politicians who lusts after power; he’s more like a genial movie star or an actor who walks onto the stage, speaks his lines, listens to the applause then moves on to the next act.

“The Bull Mooses in the State Senate do lust for power. They bulldoze the Governor. And the House. And don’t allow pesky critters like facts get in their way – they bulldoze them too.”

All of the players in this drama with one exception are members of the same party. The one exception is Ross.

He’s also the only one who has behaved with the dignity of an adult throughout this whole debacle.

A breath-taking Sunday sampler


Last week, I wrote about the declining number of news stories on the front pages of North Carolina newspapers. The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer — both owned by the same company — routinely have two stories on their Sunday fronts now. This morning the N&O mocks me by publishing only one story on its front. (OK, they likely don’t even read this blog.)

Raleigh: But it’s a humdinger by Mandy Locke. It is the first of a four-part series on the state Labor Department’s inability indifference passivity in representing workers who are trying to get paid by their employers. The N&O “reviewed reports from nearly 50 cases in fiscal year 2014 that resulted in little or no money for workers. If a company owner pleaded poverty or refused to pay, state investigators nearly always gave up, If the employers simply ignored them, the department closed the case.”

A breath-taking dereliction of duty.

Greensboro: The Civil Rights Museum represents a nationally historic moment in time and should be honored as such. And I’m glad the mayor and city manager have done the heavy lifting in trying to get the museum on the path to solvency. (Oh, did I say solvency? I guess we need to take everyone’s word for that.) But I continue to be stunned by the museum board’s stubborn refusal of even a breath of transparency in its actions. “Despite that infusion of the public’s money, neither Deena Hayes-Greene, museum board chairwoman, nor John Swaine, the executive director, will answer basic questions from the public about debt, fundraising or long-term plans for the museum’s survival.”

A breath-taking dereliction of community goodwill.

Winston-Salem: Have a question for your doctor that he or she can likely answer quickly in an email? Expect to pay a fee at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. I can’t say that it’s wrong because email takes time and why should the patient pay. It is an interesting evolution of telemedicine.

Shelby: So let’s end with the Star’s story about a Bible study group that serves beer because, why not?



The decline of the newspaper front page

When I started in the newspaper business 40 years ago, the norm for medium-sized newspapers was six stories on the front page. Then it drifted downward to five, then four, then three. Now in the six of the state’s larger cities, two and three stories on the front are the usual, particularly on Sunday, the largest circulation and revenue day of the week.

Below is a sampling of last Sunday’s front pages, courtesy of the Newseum.








Three main reasons why this is happening:

First, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually made their front pages narrower. Starting five stories on the front makes the page looked cramped, and makes it difficult — believe it or not — for readers to find stories.

Second, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually cut back their staffs; many newsrooms are half the size they were 10 years ago. Fewer reporters means fewer stories are being produced. Many newspapers can’t afford to allow reporters enough time to produce in-depth Sunday front stories.

Third, in an effort to increase readership, newspapers have been told that readers like large photos and so photos are played larger and, presumably, more dramatically. In addition, many newspapers have increased the space given to promotions to other pages in the paper. Three or four promos seem to be the norm. The result is that they use space that could be used for stories. (Newspaper marketers also know that many many readers look only at the front pages of sections and rarely go to inside pages.)

Let me stop you before before you think this might be for single-copy sales. Sales from the box and the stores are plummeting.

I long for the days of more choices on the front pages. If your two or three stories on the front page don’t interest me, then I’m not likely to buy your newspaper

In Greensboro, if I don’t care about a murder case or the mayor’s primary race — only 4% of potential voters voted yesterday — then I doubt I’ll buy the paper. In Raleigh, I have a choice between a bluegrass festival and gay couple’s anniversary celebration. In Fayetteville, I can read a rainy weather story, a wire story or an odd story about a college no one has heard of. (The college story is fascinating: A “university” that fields a football team, but has no campus, no classes and no accreditation.)

But here’s what makes me scratch my head. Two years ago, 78 percent of newspaper readers were 50 years old and older. Now, I’d wager that to be more like 85 percent. These are people who are sticking with the daily newspaper because they like the ritual or they like the habit or they like the paper.

I suspect they realize they are getting less for their money. Fewer front pages stories of interest — fewer choices — suggest less relevance in their lives. (It seems to me that the trend is also away from hard-edged enterprise stories and toward more feature-ish stories, but I could be wrong about that.)

In a way, I’m mourning the good old days, and I hate to feel that way because that’s not me. I’m really mourning the loss of choice. I’m worried about the stories I’m not getting — the enterprise story that will inspire me to do something or the investigative piece that is important. Are they on the local news front, which has less readership than the front page? Are they moved to another day, which has less readership than a Sunday?

Want to know what’s funny sad ironic? Journalists aren’t actually making these decisions. Business managers are. They’ve got to keep the profit margin high. Cut the number of pages and sections. Cut the newspaper staff. Then try to sell the idea that you’re providing something better or something that readers want.

I don’t think it’s working.

Sunday sampler

The weather dominates many N.C. papers’ front pages. That, coupled with newspapers putting fewer stories on their fronts, means that I have less good enterprise to offer here. But….



(Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times does what newspapers can still do well: Look at the big picture and help its community figure out and define a future. Today marks the first of a series of stories to “foster ideas and help find solutions. We want to join Asheville in taking charge of our own destiny.” Today the paper takes the reader on an entertaining history tour.

Burlington: Everyone knows the wheels of justice grind slowly. The Times-News documents a murder case in which the suspects have been in jail since December 2011 and won’t go on trial until 2015. Five years of innocent until proved guilty. Five years of no speedy trial. I have no idea if they are guilty or not, but five years without a trial?

Fayetteville : Do you know that there is a school in Fayetteville called the University of God’s Chosen? And that their football team’s name — yes, they have a football team — is the Disciples? Oh, it doesn’t have a campus or hold any classes and it isn’t accredited. In fact, the 45 people – I’m not calling them students — on the football team is the entire student body. Well, you have to read the Observer’s wonderful story about this university football team.


Sunday sampler

Asheville: I would not be surprised to learn that this story on online shaming is the best read story in the Citizen-Times. Two guys, owners of a popular West Asheville coffee shop, wrote anonymous misogynist online posts about their sexual conquests, and they were outed. And the Internet does what the Internet does. It responded and then doubled back on itself. A fascinating story of online shaming.

Greensboro: Remember when the GOP was the fiscally conservative party? Because the Republicans, which control both houses of the legislature in Raleigh, couldn’t finish their legislative session on time, it cost taxpayers an extra $2 million. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Republicans think it was money well spent. You also won’t be surprised to know that the polls don’t think much of the legislators’ performance.

High Point: The Enterprise reports that the City Council is going to pay more attention to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Traditionally, CVB’s aren’t watched closely.  “Council members said they’re concerned about the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau’s use of $437,000 from its reserves on items that included expenditures associated with its new offices and its regional visitors center. According to the city, some of the expenditures were not listed in the CVB’s annual budgets, which the council approves each June.”

And not on the front page, but how I could not include the best letter to the editor ever in the News & Observer today.

Sunday sampler


Greensboro: “Driving while black.” Doubt it? Don’t. The News & Record is sponsoring a community forum on the state of the young black male this week. Consequently, it has several stories and columns in the runup. The best is on the front page, which only makes sense. It starts with the story of a UNCG student who carries a book bag on campus whether he needs it or not. “But he thought the sight of him and his bag put others at ease — and might prevent him from being singled out by police.

I wish everyone would read this story with an open mind about how so many of our fellow citizens feel…and must act to survive.

Raleigh: Whoa. The N&O reports that Tony Tata, retired General, former N.C. transportation secretary and regular guest on Fox News, had extramarital affairs with two women in his Army career. And there is some mystery around a forged document in the Army’s investigation of him.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times reports that some high schools are no longer recognizing valedictorian or salutatorians. (The reasons don’t really make a lot of sense to me. They want to “recognize more students.” And a new grading scale makes it hard to designate a No. 1.) I, of course, never had to worry about it one way or the other.

Gaston: The Gazette does what only newspapers seem to do in towns — examine whether government agencies are operating in public or conducting business it shouldn’t in private. You won’t be surprised to learn that many of the public bodies in Gaston County hold an awful lot of closed meetings in which minutes aren’t available.

Sunday sampler

Both Asheville and Fayetteville have interesting stories about military vets who took the wrong path. I like the Asheville Citizen-Times’ in particular because of the way it starts.

“CLYDE – We want him to be a bad man, a lunatic even, this unbalanced man who holed up in a church and died after a shootout with police.

“But the truth, as it often does, lies much deeper. Finding it requires a journey through combat zones, a brain injury, lost memories and layers of self-loathing and inner turmoil brought on by post-traumatic stress.

“Nothing is simple about the case of Wade Allen Baker, the 44-year-old Army veteran who drove to Maple Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County on Aug. 19 and then apparentlycalled 911 to lure police there, claiming four people had been shot and killed. Police responded in force, and after a brief standoff, Baker lay dead.”

It’s a powerful beginning and addresses head-on the complexity these cases take. Read it all.

The Fayetteville Observer’s starts slower and takes a while for you to see what post-traumatic stress led a soldier to end up in prison for shooting at police and firefighters. The story is equally sad and compelling.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Charlotte: The Observer has a fine story about border children that are fleeing gang violence in Central America and seeking shelter in the U.S. (I featured its first story about the child who is the subject of today’s story in a July 2014 Sampler.) As Washington discusses how many Syrian refugees the country will accept, states are already trying to figure out how to absorb immigrants from the south. “Charlotte CAN members say they’ve had many victories in the past year, including successful court petitions that permanently reunited families. But there have been heartbreaking moments, too, including kids who brought report cards to legal meetings, desperate to believe good grades would win them a right to stay with their parents.”

I posted the Observer’s front page to note that this is the only full story on the page. Everything else promotes stories inside the paper. Nothing philosophically wrong with it, but it’s hard for the content to make an impact when it’s not on a front page. This is part of the new design of both the Observer and the News & Observer. With respect, I don’t care for it.