Sunday sampler

Many of N.C. newspaper front pages have stories about high school graduations and coronavirus. I was surprised that some of the smaller papers had race/protest stories. (Sometimes I can be a small-minded elitist.) I’m looking at you Mooresville, Kannapolis, and Hickory.

To the metro papers, the News & Observer has two good pieces on the protest. The first is a simple but compelling compilation of protesters’ voices explaining why they are marching. “History keeps repeating itself, and it’s time for change. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to help be part of the change. Sitting around doesn’t make me feel good. I want change not only for myself but for future generations.”

The second story is about next steps for the protesters in Raleigh. “Active civic disobedience I don’t think will go away anytime soon,” Zainab Baloch said. “The crowds might diminish on the ground, but regardless of that, people are passionate and ready and want quick bold change.”

In Winston-Salem, artists took to the streets, literally, to paint “in big, block letters ‘END RACISM NOW #BLM, in the middle of the road. Every letter is its own art piece, with one artist responsible for each character — except for the hashtag, which had three.”

Burlington, Jacksonville and Kinston all feature an Asheville Citizen-Times story on North Carolina’s census count…and how way too many people aren’t filling it out. I can’t find the story online, though.



Finding story ideas: ‘Mine your own life’

Jessica Contrera, a remarkable journalist with the Washington Post, visited my post-grad UNC journalism group last night. I’ve followed her career as a writer since she was winning awards at Indiana University six or seven years ago. When members of the group asked to hear from someone about story ideas, I knew just who to call. (I started this informal group of grads to chat to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs.)

Contrera’s bio says she “reports on people whose lives are being transformed by major events and issues in the news.” Recently, she’s reported on the protests & COVID, but she’s also notable for her insightful feature stories. She spoke about covering the protests, finding stories, and quieting her dog, and took questions group for 45 minutes. I’ve excerpted a few of the topics, with light editing for clarity.

Advice for coming up with story ideas

“Mine your own life. If there’s something that you’re really interested in, the chances are that there are other people who are interested in it, too.

“I think that you have to read a lot. Right now that can be kind of an exhausting activity, so I don’t recommend non-stop reading and never taking breaks, but sometimes dedicating yourself to every morning, you’re going to read what’s on the homepage of The New York Times and The Washington Post and in your local paper. You know you’re not just skimming headlines right you’re actually reading because so often story ideas are hidden in a little paragraph in the middle of the story.

“So I would just encourage you read a whole diversity of things. Read fiction and as you’re reading be looking for story ideas, be looking for something that kind of sparks that curiosity in you and makes you want to know more.

“And then the last one would be to just try to develop sources. In my job, I don’t cover like a specific beat. I’m not the education reporter. I’m not the basketball reporter. So there’s not a very obvious like ‘oh, here are my sources that I need to form relationships with.’

“So for me, forming sources is a lot about just, anytime I do any story, I say to people, ‘You know, you have my number. If there’s ever anything you think we should be writing about please give me a call.’ Sometimes I’ll say that to like strangers who I meet where I’ll carry business cards and give them to like Uber drivers. You can do that with all kinds of people. You can post that on Facebook, you know, if you if you wanted to read a story right now, what would you read. Oh, you guys aren’t using Facebook;  Instagram. You only have two eyes and two ears, right? But if you can kind of utilize a network of people who can bring new stories then it multiplies you know your options.”

On deadlines and rewriting

“You want to meet your deadlines. You want to meet those expectations that people place on you. But what I really tried to do is carve out more time for writing, more time than I think that I need. Because the first time you write it, it’s not going to be like it’s going to be fine. It might. It might be actively bad. A lot of times what I write the first time is actively bad. I just know that if I keep working at it, it’s going to get better every single time I rewrite it. And so when I have a big project to turn it, I will leave even like one or two days on the end where all I’m doing is just revising. If I’m on a really tight deadline, maybe only an extra five minutes that I give myself but that kind of helps.

How you pitch for communities you’re not familiar with

“You want to read everything that publication has done as far back as you can manage. And then I think Twitter lists are an amazing thing. So every time I started a new internship or a new job. I would create a Twitter list about that place, and I would find all the local TV stations, all the local radio stations, all the local food bloggers, and reporters, and add them all to that Twitter list. Then start going through that. You can do that with a hashtag on Instagram too.

“When you guys arrive in these new places — and I think that being fresh is like the biggest benefit that you can have — you’re seeing a place with totally new eyes.  Just driving around, walking around you can see story ideas.

“You can do a lot in a coffee shop. You say, ‘I just moved here and I’m gonna report and I need story ideas and you hand over your card and say what’s been going on.’ Get yourself in that mode of when you’re out in the world, you can be reporter even if you’re not technically on the job.”

Advice for covering a protest

“Not to get in the middle of the crowd for a very long period of time. And putting your back against something, especially when you’re going to be on your phone typing is just safe. Because something could fly to the air or whatever. At the very first protest that I covered, I got hit in the head really hard because I was just trying to duck under these guys and get in the middle of the scrum, which I don’t know why I needed to do that because I can’t actually see anything.

“I’m constantly looking for ways to get myself up high. So a lot of like where I spent last week was like hanging on a light pole. Right. I was only two feet off the ground. I could look around and then when I saw a mother carrying her 2-year-old for the protest. I was like, I gotta go. And I like chased her down, and very respectfully asked her if she’d like to be a part of the story.”

On chasing ‘your’ stories

“You figure out ways to juggle your time, which is really important. If you care about a story, do the story, even if you if you have to find a more creative way to do it. Because when you care about a story, you’re going to do it well. And when it’s done well, people are going to read it and respond to it and your editors are going to go, ‘Great. Let’s do have her do more of that.’ So you have to be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to be brave and to not just stay in your lane and write about only things you know.”

In Sepphoris, finding a voice

A year ago today, I was in Sepphoris, Israel, with those^^ guys in a UNC-sponsored course to report on the excavation of a 5th century Judaic temple in Huqoq. I’ve written about why here.

But Sepphoris was our first stop, before we even began reporting on the dig in Huqoq. As the Wikipedia entry about Sepphoris says, “In Late Antiquity, it was believed to be the birthplace of Mary, mother of Jesus, and the village where Saints Anna and Joachim are often said to have resided, where today a 5th-century basilica is excavated at the site honoring the birth of Mary.”

Our guide told us that it was only about six kilometers from Nazareth where Jesus grew up and lived as a craftsman. He pointed into the distance and said that, while it isn’t known for sure, it’s likely that Jesus walked over that hill and cut the stone at the very site where we were standing. That idea – that I stood where he worked – took my breath away.

By AVRAMGR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Today, I finished reading “The Book of Longings” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a novel about Ana, fictional wife of Jesus, who grew up in Sepphoris. She was a writer at a time when only men were worthy of writing. Once she and Jesus married, she moved in with him in his home in Nazareth. Monk writes: “He was still traveling to Sepphoris to work on the theater and it seemed he should’ve been on his way by now, but he appeared to be in no hurry.”

The theater is to the left foreground in the photo above. We sat there.

And later: “He would leave tomorrow as a journeyman, traveling from village to village as a stonemason and woodworker. The theater in Sepphoris was finished and jobs there had disappeared as Herod Antipas erected a new capital to the notrh, name Tiberias for the Roman emperor.”

In one room in Sepphoris is a mosaic of a beautiful woman known as the Mona LIsa of the Galilee.

In “The Book of Longings” the model is Ana. Monk’s description: “I could barely bring myself to look at it. The tiny tiles replicated my face with near perfection. They shimmered in the dimness of the frigidarium, the lips seeming to part, the eyes blinking, a deception, a trick of light.”

Alas, in the author’s note, Monk writes that the amphitheater was built decades after Jesus’ death, and the mosaic dates to the third century. She did what all great writers do: she imagined it and made it real in my mind’s eye. That is one of the things that I try to teach writers to do: take what they know to be true and communicate it so that readers can see it.

Monk ends her author’s note this way: “If Jesus actually did have a wife, and history unfolded exactly the way it has, then she would be the most silenced woman in history and the woman most in need of a voice. I’ve tried to give her one.”

Monk tells a compelling, enthralling story. These days, it seems as if a lot of people need to find their voices and break their silence.

Sunday sampler

Today’s front pages were dominated by protests for the most part. The papers that bungled last Sunday’s front pages with a planned package of stories unrelated to the protests going on across the state and country didn’t miss this time. Greensboro, Wilmington, Kinston, Jacksonville, Burlington and Hendersonville used the Fayetteville Observer’s story on the memorial service of George Floyd in Raeford.

Otherwise, papers featured their own protest stories, including Winston-Salem Journal, which featured the compelling photo above. (Photo courtesy of the Newseum.) From the Journal’s story: “For the eighth straight day, protesters marched through Winston-Salem’s downtown, demonstrating their commitment to the fight against racial injustice. With temperatures in the low 90s, more than 1,500 people — the largest crowd yet — filled the city’s streets at noon, chanting and screaming for justice while remembering the people of color killed by police in America.”

Statesville: “More than 600 people took to the streets of Mooresville on Saturday afternoon in a peaceful display that demanded police reform and recognition of disenfranchised communities.”

Hickory: “Daria Jackson, an organizer of Saturday’s demonstration, said the event was meant as a call to action. ‘George Floyd’s death was not a call to loot, to hate. But what it was and what it is a call for us to take action,’ she said.

Greensboro: The News & Record reaches back to protesters from a different generation for lessons to pass on. “The legacies of people like Brown who took part in the civil rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s can inspire those struggling to make their voices heard. Their stories also offer a lesson in how protesters can use this collective outrage to make change and just why the movement is still important.”

Charlotte: The Observer does a compelling deep dive into what happened during Tuesday’s protests there, telling the first-hand accounts of 10 witnesses. “Their accounts provide new details of a violent encounter between police and residents protesting police brutality. They also reopen critical questions about the tactics used by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in response to public protests.”

Lindsay Gibbs on freelancing: ‘Be unique and passionate’

I told you earlier that I was “teaching” a post-grad “class” this summer. (The quotation marks are my way of indicating that I’m not teaching it and it’s not a class. It’s more of a collection of newly graduated journalists looking for work. I’m hosting them via Zoom.)

Last week, Lindsay Gibbs came in to talk about freelancing. Lindsay is an accomplished writer, podcaster and freelancer. As she says, she “writes about the intersection of sports, culture, and politics. In other words, I’m a sports reporter who never sticks to sports.”

She was exceptional. Here are some edited excerpts of what she told us.

“You need to be really good and really unique at one thing. You need to have one thing that you can do better than anyone else. That’s always the best place to start when you’re freelancing stories. Do you have access to stories that nobody else does?

“What are the stories you want to be reading about how the current virus is impacting your community or what other stories that are getting completely overshadowed that you have unique connections to that nobody else does? 

“The point of freelancing is, what can you bring to the table stories that other people aren’t already? And once you establish relationships with editors, they’ll come to you.

“I would notice these big sports sites that I would read and they didn’t have any tennis coverage during like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open and so I would pitch them, I would say, “hey, you don’t have this and I can do this. And here the clips that prove that I can do this. And would you like this addition to your site? That’s kind of how I got in.

“Once I decided to go fulltime freelance, I started being more proactive about looking for stories. I set up Google alerts for all these different sports, and I would spend my time  scanning through them looking for things, taking notes, figuring out what the leagues were looking for stories and then pitching them whenever I saw openings.

My editor, you know, he’d say, can you do college basketball for us right now? Can you write this column? Can you do like ’10 NASCAR drivers to watch’? I never watched NASCAR, but I needed the $200 or whatever it was, they’re paying me for article. And so I just said yes. And then I figured it out. So I think it’s always a mix between being able to figure things out quickly and being able to do a little bit of everything because you’re definitely going to be thrown in.

“You need to be nimble. You need to be able to kind of work on the fly, and it has to be  breaking news stories and whatever your specific publication needs at the time.

“I still do think that the best advice is to be unique and to be looking for stories that you’re really passionate about.”

Hearst Journalism Awards national champs

School rankings are subjective and saying one school is “the best” is bogus. But…

For the fifth time in six years, the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media won the national championship in the Hearst Journalism Awards.

“Often called ‘The Pulitzers of college journalism,’ the Hearst program holds year-long competitions in writing, photojournalism, radio, television and multimedia for journalism undergraduates.” UNC students won 1st place in radio and television, 2nd place in writing and multimedia, and third place in photojournalism. Depending on the category, the entries come from 40-60+ schools.

As the school’s announcement says, “The school placed in the top three of all four awards categories. Of the 30 students UNC Hussman sent to the competition, 23 placed in the top 10 of their fields.” (I’m proud that seven of them were from my courses., and that I knew enough to get out of their way.)

Sunday sampler

The big story of the day were the protests — and violence — in America’s cities, and that includes several in North Carolina. In some cases, newspapers covered them well.

The protests were small and peaceful in Winston-Salem and in Morganton. “Saturday morning, more than 50 protesters gathered at the corner of Bost Road and North Green Street, at the site of the old K-Mart in Morganton in a stand of solidarity against police brutality. A diverse mix of demonstrators — white, black, young and old — met for hours and waved signs. ”

Things weren’t so peaceful in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte.

Greensboro: “What started out as peaceful protests turned into a riot late Saturday as people threw rocks into downtown store fronts. Dudley Beauty, Vivid Interiors and Green City Goods on South Elm Street were among shops with shattered windows. Some people broke into shops and carried out items. Some people have been stomping on civilian cars.”

Raleigh: “The event started peacefully, with protesters singing and chanting throughout downtown, but within an hour after the crowd began marching, police released tear gas and pepper spray. Protesters threw fireworks, rocks and water bottles at police and vandalized several downtown businesses. At least one protester was arrested, a Wake County sheriff’s office spokesman said.”

Charlotte: Sorry, but I’m out of free access to the Observer so I can’t quote the story, but the link works so that you can.


One of the problems with planning the Sunday paper is that news doesn’t care what your plan is. The result is that readers wake up and see protests and riots occurring across the country. But they look at the front page of their papers and see what was planned days earlier.

That’s what happened in Burlington, Hendersonville, Wilmington, Jacksonville, and Asheville when the papers, which are part of Gannett, published a syndicatewide series titled Rebuilding America. “Stories debuted on Gannett-owned digital sites yesterday and will appear in print editions on May 31 with a nationwide narrative of what consumers, companies and taxpayers can expect as the American economy begins to accelerate again.”

All of the syndicate’s stories are here. It appears as if some of the stories may be localized, but it’s difficult to tell because they aren’t easy to find on the papers’ websites.

On the other hand, Jacksonville, New Bern and Kinston published a version of the story that was localized to some extent. Again, I can’t find it on their websites. One front is below, courtesy of the Newseum:

Fayetteville also has a piece written by Myron Pitts, its opinion editor, that is focused on Fayetteville. Again, it’s not on the website, which, by the way, is unsearchable.

The thing is, the stories that I read were all good and forward-looking. But if there were protests — as there were in Fayetteville — readers had to look elsewhere.



Sunday sampler

Many North Carolina newspapers feature stories about churches opening for parishioners. All fine. And then there’s this:

Greensboro: 4,000 people go to the racetrack – one in 10 wearing masks — with social distancing non-existent. It’s as if people have decided that being tired of the virus is enough to defeat it. “I’ve done the recommendations for the last two months or so, and this is the first time I’ve kind of been out amongst folks. … I don’t know if this is the smartest thing. I don’t. But it’s outdoors, and I’m just not keen on closed-in spaces right now.” The Winston-Salem Journal has a dozen photos that will really depress the people who believe that the virus exists.

Winston-Salem: Do students forget stuff they learned over the summer? You bet. So what if they haven’t been in school since March? The Journal look at how Forsyth schools are preparing to catch them up before school starts again — if it ever does. “It estimated that students will return in the fall of 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains relative to a typical school year, and 50% of the learning gains in some grades in math. In some cases, students may fall behind a full year in math.”

Charlotte: My bet is that most North Carolinian’s suspect that Sen. Richard Burr did use his inside information to enrich himself, but the Observer examines whether he will be held accountable. It’s not clear. “Lawmakers are barred by the 2012 STOCK Act from insider trading, or using “material, nonpublic information to purchase or sell a security, including using confidential information gained because of one’s Senate position to make a profit or avoid a loss.” The bill passed the Senate 96-3. Burr voted “no.” He would be the first lawmaker charged under the act if he’s charged.”


I started a post-graduate summer school class

Somewhere around the time I was talking with a student about a story on the last two months of her senior year AND telling a student whose internship was canceled what she should do over the summer instead, I had an idea:

What could I do to help students? Could I set something up to help graduates who are facing a flat-lined job market? Something to hone their skills and network and commiserate? And maybe lift their spirits along the way?

So I tweeted about it.

And got a lot of ideas.

Last night, I had my first session. I invited 23 former students, all recent grads, all looking for work. Fifteen showed up and another three let me know they couldn’t meet this week but wanted to be included.

They told me they wanted to hear from smart people on freelancing; on getting a job; on free writing on a blog; on creating social media for a brand; on learning new skills. They wanted to get feedback on their writing so they could keep their skills sharp, and they wanted me to give them writing “assignments.”

As you can see in the photo above, one person — lower right hand corner — is on the phone. While in the Zoom session, she got a call with a job offer at a television station! That jazzed the “class.”

I came away energized and inspired by the entire experience. I don’t know how long this will last, but I’ll keep it up as long as they are interested.

If you’re a media pro and have ideas or want to contribute, let me know.