Sunday sampler

With Martin Luther King Jr. holiday tomorrow (his birth date was Jan. 15), several N.C. front pages had stories about him or civil rights. That’s fine and appropriate and browse them (High Point, Charlotte and Asheville) as you like. I show the front page of the Citizen-Times because I like the design of the story.


Meanwhile, on to a few other front page stories.

Raleigh — The week’s story with the biggest, long-term repercussions for the state was the firing Friday of the president of the UNC system, Tom Ross. Surprising to me, only the News & Observer followed it up with another story today. Everyone — except the Board of Governors — sees the firing as political. No one on the board commented except the chairman who said it wasn’t political. Even the staunchly Republican man who just gave UNC-Chapel Hill $100 million said he thinks Ross is a great leader. Sad performance by the people supposedly looking after the university system.

Fayetteville — As the Raleigh politicians begin to argue – again – about Medicaid in N.C., the Observer dives deeper into to show what happens to people who fall into the gap of coverage. “Denise Johnson works six days a week in the laundry room of a hotel on U.S. 301. The 58-year-old Fayetteville resident doesn’t work enough hours to be considered full-time and doesn’t receive health benefits. Johnson applied for Medicaid at the Department of Social Services, but she was ineligible because she made too much money. Then she tried signing up for subsidized health insurance coverage under Obamacare. Turns out she doesn’t make enough money to qualify for subsidies.” Tough, says, Sen. Phil Berger.

Greensboro — The News & Record has a fine outrage column about court overreach by editorial writer Doug Clark, but I can’t find it on the website. Maybe it will go up later.


When you want to call a commenter an asshole

Truth: A lot of people don’t understand what newspapers do or why they do it. It’s as if they were absent the day the First Amendment was discussed in high school history.

Axiom: Most newspapers don’t explain what they do or why they do it worth a damn. It’s as if they don’t pay attention to their own editorials about transparency.

Truth: A lot of people hate newspapers. I used to deal with them all the time.

Axiom: Consequently, a lot of people hate newspaper editors. I used to deal with them all the time.

Truth: Newspaper editors have to make hard, ethical decisions every day that are bound to piss off some people. What stories to cover, how to cover them, where to play them in the paper, what will the headline say, what will the photo look like, do we get all sides, do we quote people who say things that are simply untrue and, if so, how do we frame that, etc.

Axiom: Editors hate to acknowledge that they made the wrong decision, but it happens less often than people who write letters to the editor think.

Truth: Newspapers are expected to be a big tent where diversity of views are welcomed. I mean, it’s not like they’re turning prospective customers away at the door.

Axiom: I was always taught that it was expected that reasonable people can disagree.

Truth: Newspapers, trying to carry their 18th century role as the village square into the digital world, continue to juggle story comments and social media.

Axiom: Most of them don’t do it well because sometimes the world turns into a sewer, and despite what a lot of people think, most journalists aren’t sewer rats.

Truth: Social media policies at most newspapers mandate civility in dealings with people, regardless of the tone or content of what is being thrown your way.

Axiom: Journalists know how to swear well enough to make Charlie Sheen blush.

Truth: Many commenters know how to get under the skin of editors.

Axiom: Many journalists tend to be thin-skinned, particularly now when so many people distrust you and talk smack.

Truth: No matter what, newspaper editors should always be the adult in the conversation.

Axiom: That means you don’t call people assholes, even if they are and you want to. It never, ever, turns out well.

Full disclosure: As an editor, I don’t think I ever called anyone an asshole to his face. As a private citizen, yes. I have invited people to not read the damned newspaper for all I cared.

Sunday sampler


(Paula Broadwell)

Because the N.C. General Assembly convenes this week, several newspaper published stories about that.

Raleigh’s is the most comprehensive, which isn’t surprising, given that state government is its largest beat. Rob Christensen, the dean of state government reporters, writes about the continuation of the conservative revolution. Bottom line: Maybe, maybe not. The High Point Enterprise and the Wilmington Star News round up the issues confronting the legislature, quoting “both sides” of them. The Winston-Salem Journal writes specifically about the backlog at the state crime lab.

Meanwhile, there are good pieces from other papers.

Charlotte: The Observer revisits the Gen. Petraeus and Paula Broadwell story, pegged to the Justice Department’s recommendation that charges be brought against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. In truth, I list it here because the Observer did something for this story that many newspapers would not have done. A reporter went to Broadwell’s house and knocked on her door to get a comment…or no comment, as it was in this case. With phones and emails and social media — coupled with fewer reporters to cover more news — straight-up shoe-leather reporting is to be celebrated.

Fayetteville: The Observer revisits Fort Fisher, and why the Civil War battle there is not well known. I’ve lived in North Carolina for 40 years and the story told me many interesting things I didn’t know. That, to me, is a mark of good journalism.

Images are powerful, but they need to be seen

It’s the first day of class. Forty college students, ranging from sophomore to senior, in a mass communications class. Some of them budding journalists, all of them smart.

I showed them this photo from the New York Times.


One or two of them had seen it before and knew it was from Ferguson.

I showed them this photo from AFP.


One person knew it was an ISIS killing squad.

I then showed them this cartoon.


A few of them had seen the cartoon by illustrator Lucille Clerc, which was shared across the Internet yesterday.

I finally showed them this photo….


…of Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper magazine, every one in the class had seen it.

Do they all subscribe to Paper? No. They had seen the photo shared on their social networks.

I wouldn’t make too much of this, but it is worth noting. The first three are compelling images of dramatic news events, but the students didn’t universally recognize any of them. Kim’s Photoshopped photo isn’t a dramatic news event, but it’s certainly compelling. My guess is that the first three images were not widely shared on their networks.

They were shared widely, though, because I saw them on MY networks.

Historically, most of my students say they get their news from Twitter or Facebook. The original tweets and status updates come from friends and a news source, such as CNN. (I say historically because I haven’t asked this class about their news sources yet.) And the students were well aware of each of the news events so this isn’t a condemnation of their lack of news literacy.

But one of my goals with all of my classes is to encourage students to expand their social networks to include smart people — those in their fields of interest and those who are, well, just smart.

In one way, this is an unfair comparison. The Kim cover is sexy, celebrity and fun. The other three are imbued with tragedy. It’s unrealistic to think that college students — or anyone else in America — wouldn’t be taken with this viral image of a TV reality star. The challenge is to get them — and everyone else in America — to be familiar with some of the other spectacular images of worldwide news events.

The best photos and cartoons can change perceptions. A black man in Ferguson walking down the street and encountering those police officers. The murderous ISIS. A simple powerful cartoon. They all do speak 1,000 words. Look for them.

Annoying customers is bad business

When you click on a story at the News & Observer’s or the Charlotte Observer’s website, you first run into an intro ad – they call it a “welcome page” — and then a second ad comes up in another tab.  Other newspaper sites employ rich media, in which an ad expands across the page when you move your cursor over it, which I do accidentally too often.

It annoys everyone — well, it annoys at least one person. I’m on my way to a destination, and the website tries to pull me away from it. I have intent; it interrupts me. Worse, it’s not like Google or Facebook, which tries to deliver ads based on my searches. These ads are generic. The N&O ad is for Progressive. Thanks, Flo, but I don’t need you.

Now there is a study that suggests that such aggressive tactics cause visitors to leave news sites. “We’re basically saying that [publishers] would have to compensate for the ad annoyance with an increased value of the content they’re delivering, or the exclusivity of the service they’re providing people,” said Dan Goldstein, a principal researcher at Microsoft. “It’s not really free to run these ads, though it shows up as a short-term profit.”

In truth, annoying ads don’t cause me to leave websites. They just annoy me. (One exception are the autoplay ads.) But newspaper paywalls do cause me to leave websites, either because I don’t want to “waste” a click on a story that isn’t as advertised or I avoid the site because I know it only allows five or 10 free views. Eventually, I stop going to it altogether. I am usually able to find the information I need elsewhere or decide it’s not important enough to worry about.

I know that newspapers need the revenue; I’ve lived it. My argument has always been to stock sites with content that is indispensable and unique, and make the process clean and easy. Those qualities attract me — it’s why I pay for the New Yorker and the New York Times.

And the Times seems to have figured it out. Two of the considerations of whether a person will subscribe to digital content:

* “They get access to exclusive content and unique information they couldn’t get anywhere else (e.g., original programming, in-depth reporting, hyper-local information).

* “Users think it could be a primary source for this type of content or information.”

Go to your newspaper website right now. How much of the content is exclusive? How much is indispensable? (My experience is that much of it is small-bore (to me) crime or government news. Heck, right now, across many N.C. newspaper sites, a major story is that it’s going to get cold.)

I assume that the business people at Raleigh and Charlotte don’t care much about me. I’m unlikely to patronize the local businesses there so the ads aren’t really directed to me. But I think they would like my traffic, if only so they could use it as a selling point to advertisers. But I think — and I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong — that there are a lot of people in Raleigh and Charlotte who think as I do. And the papers do want those folks.

And, as I just read here, “My former colleague Alexis Madrigal likes to say that when a media organization violates its audience’s trust, the company doesn’t suddenly explode like a volcano. Instead it wilts slowly, at first even imperceptibly, like a tire with a small hole, whistling a current of air until the driver suddenly realizes that his wheels have deflated beyond use.”

Important note: I’m picking on Raleigh and Charlotte because they are the big guys in the state, but I believe that all papers in the state with paywalls should take note. People might tolerate the annoying ads for the convenience of using your site for free. But I doubt they will pay for a subscription if they aren’t getting unique, indispensable information.

A lesson for Thom Tillis to remember

If there is one thing Sen.-elect Thom Tillis should have learned from his own campaign is that he cannot afford to tie himself too closely to the party leadership. Six years ago, Sen. Kay Hagan should have learned that from her own victorious campaign against then-incumbent Elizabeth Dole.

This fall, Tillis hammered Hagan for voting with Obama “95 percent of the time.” Six years earlier, Hagan constantly reminded voters that Dole voted with Bush 92 percent of the time.

Tillis ought to stencil his own criticism of Hagan onto his office wall. He needs to remember it. He hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but is already standing with his party’s leadership on the major issues.

Here is the first paragraph in a story Dec. 10 about torture: “U.S. Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, who was in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, said the release of the report on CIA interrogation practices during the Bush administration could harm U.S. relations with other countries. His comments echoed those made by his soon-to-be Republican colleague, Sen. Richard Burr.”

Here is the first paragraph in a story Dec. 17 about Cuba: “North Carolina Sen.-elect Thom Tillis said Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s decision to make sweeping changes to American and Cuban relations now is a bad idea and should have come only after more Cuban government and human rights reforms.”

Here is his response to a question about immigration  in a story on Dec. 28: “We need to first and foremost have a credible strategy for sealing the border. What the president has done has actually made that task even more challenging because by saying that he can grant amnesty — at least temporary amnesty to some 3 to 5 (million) already here illegally present. He’s sending a signal to those who have not yet come here that maybe if you get here you’ll be afforded the same treatment.”

Each parrots the party line. In fact, in the AP Q&A, he doesn’t refer to himself in the first-person as much as he uses the third-person: “What we’ve said” and “when we came into the legislature.” It’s not entirely clear who the inclusive “we” is.

Of course, he’s toeing the party line; he was elected as a Republican and changing the position of the woman he defeated is expected. It makes perfect sense. Plus, he needs to get along with the leadership as part of the bargain to get on the committees he wants to.

So, I don’t blame him.

But I will remind him – before he takes office and his positions matter – that North Carolinians like political rebels — Jesse Helms — and outsiders — John Edwards. While siding with the party certainly makes life easier right now, but it hardly guarantees political longevity in North Carolina.

Sunday sampler

Seems as if every Sunday paper in North Carolina did a “Year in Review” story because what else are you going to do during the slowest news week of the year? But there are a few notable stories on the front pages.

Charlotte — The Observer reports a damning story on inefficiency and incompetence in the N.C Medical Examiners system. “North Carolina medical examiners almost never go to infant death scenes and sometimes flout a state requirement to look at the baby’s body – two steps that national experts say are vital to competent inquiries. A recent Observer series revealed that the state’s medical examiners often fail to follow crucial investigative steps, raising questions about the accuracy of thousands of death rulings.” The state’s response is weak.

High Point — Gov. McCrory has made a big deal about the need for trained employees and, at the same time, criticizing liberal arts colleges. The Chamber of Commerce in High Point commissioned a study on its companies’ needs. Technical skills is only part of the issue, according to the Enterprise. “The report also noted that workforce skills are in short supply in areas of critical and analytical thinking, problem solving and communication. High Point Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer Rachel Moss Gauldin said many job seekers lack these types of “soft skills,” and this was a key in factor in more than 1,500 difficult-to-fill positions noted in the survey.”


Sunday sampler


“The Sunday before Christmas

and all through the hood,

the papers were stirring

their stories were good”

Charlotte — Want to know why North Carolina can’t have nice things? The Observer looked at state emails about incentives to lure companies to the state and explains its clearly: We don’t spend enough. (Thank goodness.) “To win a new plant being built by the Keer Group, a Chinese textile company, South Carolina dangled an incentives package 10 times larger than North Carolina’s, the emails show.”

Fayetteville – Fayetteville law enforcement spent $35,000 policing two protest rallies earlier this month. Nothing especially notable about the story except that the Observer wrote it. Too often citizens don’t realize the cost of protest and protecting protesters.

Meanwhile, based on a promo on the front page, the Observer also has an 18-page section called “Coming Home: A tribute to all who served through 13 years of war in Afghanistan.” Impressive. Certainly worth the paper’s $1.50.

Greensboro — This is personal. The News & Record writes about one of the nicest people I know and his wife. James and Djuana Parker’s 18-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident in 2010, and they have established a foundation to honor Arielle. Ari’s Heart provides support for families like the Parker’s — those who have lost a child. James used to work for the News & Record; he is a masterful photographer and an outstanding man. And Nancy McLaughlin’s story capture him perfectly. (I’ve met Djuana, but can’t say I know her.)

Winston-Salem — The Journal profiles Jimmy Broughton, the new deputy chief of staff for Gov. Pat McCrory. And if you liked the McCrory whose staff released a 34-page salvo about an AP reporter’s year-long coverage, I have the feeling you’ll love Broughton’s McCrory. At least based on the first anecdote in the story.

Gov. McCrory and the Associated Press

Dear Gov. McCrory,

Before we start, I should make you aware of a few things.

First, I voted for you in 2012, based on your comments and your experience in Charlotte. Following the troubled Easley and Perdue administrations, you and other Republicans said you were going to be above board and honest in all your dealings. I liked that. But, as you may recall, I haven’t been particularly happy with your move to the right.

Second, I don’t know who is right in this spat between you and the Associated Press. I do know that a reporter’s job is to seek the truth, and a politician’s job is, well, something else. But, I’ll repeat, I have not fact-checked the AP story in question.

Third, we don’t know each other, but by all accounts, you’re thin-skinned — more thin-skinned than most politicians who get as far as you have. I suspect my calling you thin-skinned will annoy you. I hope not, because its intent is constructive; there are ways to set the record straight, but this isn’t one.

I’m sure you were angered by the report by Michael Biesecker that revealed the special payment you received from serving on a corporate board. I know the idea that your personal ethics were being questioned must have got on your last nerve.

But I wish there had been an adult in the room when you decided on your response because you went all in, and, as a result, you look like a 2-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.

Your staff released a 34-page list of grievances against Biesecker, dating to last February. Keeping a list and checking it twice? It’s complete with snarky comments from you or your staff that are more in keeping with cynical newspaper chatter than the dignity of the governor’s office.

Your campaign operatives wasted no time using it as an opportunity to send out a fund-raising letter, accusing, once again, unfair media treatment. The letter refers to an attack with “false claims and innuendo,” which could also apply to your own 34-page list.

In the News & Observer, Claude Pope, leader of the N.C. GOP, called AP’s story about you a “smear campaign.” When I first read the story, I had to make sure whom he was referring to as the victim of the smear.

Maybe this is good politics as you prepare for your next election. No one likes the news media, after all, so reporters are fair game, as you’ve demonstrated a few times. Me, I’d have stopped at your statement insisting that you did everything by the book. If the story had no legs, it would have died quickly in the December news doldrums. Instead, you’ve kept it alive for at least a few more cycles.

Maybe that was your political intent. But protesting so vociferously — and childishly — over a straight forward story makes you look small, and, well, kinda guilty. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have done that, although, I’ll admit, Jesse Helms probably would’ve.

You’re better than this. At least, that was what I was hoping when I voted last time.

P.S. three days later: Had I known that you had appointed a Helms representative as your deputy chief of staff, I wouldn’t have written “probably” in the paragraph above.

Sunday sampler

Asheville — If our elected officials truly believed that the government closest to the people governs best, they’d let cities decide their fate when it comes to things like minimum wage. But, of course, they don’t really believe that. The Citizen-Times examines how the Asheville City Council, which supports raising the minimum wage – as does most of the state’s population – is unable to do anything about it.

Burlington — Are drug treatment courts, which help drug offenders get their lives straight, worth the cost? It seems so, but the General Assembly cut state funding in 2011. The Times-News examines the issue.

Fayetteville and Winston-Salem — At least two of the state’s papers didn’t forget that today is Pearl Harbor Day. (Newspapers that don’t have a story today will hear about it from readers.)

Greensboro — Greensboro’s civil rights museum, which inhabits Greensboro greatest claim on history, the Greensboro sit-ins, is a wonderful monument to civil protest. Yet, it is being run into the ground by the egos of the very people whose vision created it. It’s a shame, as the News & Record’s story today illustrates.

Winston-Salem — The Journal has a package of stories on the president’s immigration policy. The one I like is the one that calls out Gov. Pat McCrory for joining the suit against the president. ‘Gov. Pat McCrory, one of 17 governors and attorneys general supporting legal action against President Barack Obama’s temporary deportation policy, said last week that “the president’s actions are likely to put even more financial strain on our state’s government services.’  Ryan Tronovitch, the governor’s spokesman, provided no statistics to back up the comment when asked by the Journal.” Because facts aren’t important when it comes to political positions.