Romney in High Point, for the win

There’s this saying — which I know isn’t entirely true or false — that morning television news has to await for the morning paper to get its news.

This morning at 6 a.m. I went out to pick up the paper. In the house, I had the Good Morning Show on. I stood and listened to the program’s two-minute news update in which the announcer said that Mitt Romney was going to visit North Carolina on his bus tour this weekend. But, she added, the specific cities on his itinerary hadn’t been announced yet.

I unrolled the paper and the lead story on the front page was the announcement that Romney will be in High Point on Sunday.

As a friend noted on Twitter, the TV news folks’ paper must have gotten wet in the morning rain.

Of course, the information about the cities Romney will visit wasn’t part of an announcement from the campaign. It came from old-school reporting so good on the newspaper.

By the way, the information about Romney’s visit was posted on the paper’s website at 5:30 p.m. Monday. It apparently didn’t go up on any of the television websites until this morning. News Channel 14 still says there are no details on where the buses will visit, and I can’t find it at all on WFMY’s website. That should put to rest the fear in some newspaper newsrooms that TV competitors scour the paper’s website for new news “to steal.”

Greensboro and the national media

To me, it’s unseemly when journalists complain to the public about how they’re being mistreated. The public — many of whom have much tougher jobs — has little sympathy for reporters. And, of course, people have even less sympathy for reporters who think they should get more special treatment that members of the public.

Case in point from Politico at the John Edwards trial: If reporters were expecting Greensboro’s federal court to roll out the welcome mat and perhaps even offer a little Southern hospitality, they came away disappointed Monday. Save for some safety measures taken outside around the TV trucks and the entrance, there appeared to have been no arrangements at all made for the media covering the high-profile case.

They had no assurance they’d get a seat in the courtroom. They couldn’t trade places with someone in line. They couldn’t have people “hold” their place in line so they could go to the bathroom. And the jurors got better treatment than they did!

At the end of his story in the News & Record, Robert Lopez tells of two national reporters who had trouble with the rules in the Greensboro courtroom.

During the morning session (Judge Catherine) Eagles said a reporter had tried to come in wearing “a wire” (cameras and transmitting devices are prohibited). ABC’s Bob Woodruff  stood and said it was him but that he didn’t know it was there.

OK. At least, I hope the visiting journalists are enjoying Elm Streets bars and restaurants.

Whitney Houston on the front page

It was a little after 10 last night that we got home and I checked my phone. I had a New York Times email alert saying that Whitney Houston had died. I clicked on the TV, heard the talking heads talking about what a shock it was, that the details of her death weren’t known and that she was the voice of a generation.

Little there to learn; only songs to remember.

I figured I’d catch up in the morning. And because I was a newspaper editor for 27 years, I thought, “Is this a front page story?” Yes, I decided, given who she was and that it became public on the East Coast in the evening; it would still be news to many people in the morning when the paper hit the streets.

To my surprise — and honestly, delight — most of the North Carolina papers I looked at published Houston’s photo and a blurb on the front page, but sent readers inside for the story. Charlotte and Raleigh were the only two major papers with front-page stories.

Whitney, as good as she was, is no Michael Jackson in death.

Front-page news judgment seems to have a circulation size dividing line. On this story, larger papers on the East Coast, playing to a large, diverse audience, published her death on their front pages, generally in a big way. Smaller papers, being more local in their focus, force national stories to fight harder to make their way onto front page display. Papers the size of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, hovering around 90,000-100,000 circulation, seem to straddle that line.

I wouldn’t have been disappointed to see Whitney Houston’s news obit on the front page in my hometown paper. But I was delighted to read four local stories that told me things I didn’t know and that I wouldn’t see on television.


Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

Two days ago, I wrote about how “our newspaper” became “the newspaper.” I ended the post with a copout: “Newspapers — new organizations, actually – can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.”

Many commenters left suggestions. Here are some more:

* Figure out what jobs people need to have done. That came from the 2005 Newspaper Next project. Both Steve Buttry and Justin Ellis evaluated the success of that project this past fall. (Answer: Not all that successful.) OK, the problems still remain and answers are still out there. Revisit it. What does the community need? Too often news organizations are focused on what they want to give the community. That’s a notion rooted in the boomtimes when newspapers dominated their markets. Now circulation and revenue trends indicate that the community doesn’t need what papers are doing.

* Develop an engaging, constructive social media voice. Ideally, the top editor would be on Facebook and Twitter talking with people in the community — really talking, not just posting links to the paper’s website. She would seek out everyone who lives in the circulation area and invite them to join in. (A lot of people would be flattered when the editor invites them into her circle.) She would be active and attentive. Best of all, she would have a personality that suggests she wants to help, to listen, to improve things.

* Forbid all anonymous online comments. Most people want to live and visit in communities in which real names are used.

* Release obits and wedding announcements from paid advertising. They should be free. They do one of the things newspapers say they want to do — track the passages of the community. You want people to say, “Hey, I saw in the paper that Sheila is getting married.” I know how much money obits bring in. (Weddings don’t bring in that much because so few people are using papers to announce them.) The elimination of one page of newsprint each day would cover the lost revenue. And I would eliminate one of the pages devoted to national/world wire copy. (While I’m at it, pay the person who takes obits to ensure that he knows how to spell, how to follow style and where the local landmarks are. His primary goal should be to make sure every single obit is perfect.)

* Hire someone to answer the phone. In my old job, I heard from readers and advertisers who couldn’t get a real person to answer the phone and who reached deadends in phone trees. Imagine the dividends in having someone answer the phone who cared about getting you help. I know the cost of a phone operator, too. I promise media companies can afford it.

* Unleash editorial pages to kick ass and take names. The institutional newspaper editorial voice is often like reading a textbook. I want people to talk about the editorial in the morning paper. Let them hate it — that’s ok. The readers you care about will respect you for saying it.

* Tell the truth in political reporting. This seems obvious but it is increasingly hard to do.  Government reporters know who the crackpots are and what the crackpot ideas are. But they err on the side of “objectivity” and don’t describe them as crackpot. Or unlikely. Or contradictory to something said by the same person in the past. Readers deserve the truth about Ron Paul’s past comments, Rick Perry’s term as Texas governor, and Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. At this point it seems as if reporters are only covering talking points and gotcha moments. That tends to make everyone but political partisans sick of it.

* Create content the community needs and that people care about. It is community news that many of us know as “chicken-dinner news.” It is strong watchdog reporting that takes on issues of wasted tax money, fraud in government or an injustice involving the little guy. If your own staff doesn’t read the paper every day — and I assure you that many of them don’t — you need to get a clue that your content isn’t relevant enough.

These are just a beginning. I know you can come up with many more, and I encourage you to do so either in the comments and/or at your own workplace.

These won’t bring back the times when “everyone” subscribed to the paper. But they will restore some people’s trust in the paper. Will it translate into dollars and cents? I don’t know. But journalists should embrace the idea of trust between them and readers. That’s the only thing we have going for us.

(P.S. I know some of my former staff are saying, “Where the hell has this guy been.” I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.)

So many obituaries

In these days right after Christmas, the obituary page is the saddest page of the paper. I think of the families who are mourning a death on Christmas.

The News & Record published 52 obituaries today, taking up nearly four pages in the paper. (The usual is less that two pages.) I don’t know the record number, but I bet 52 competes. Many of the people listed died on Christmas. The paper published 43 obits yesterday and 20 on Dec. 26.

That trend isn’t unusual.

The Charlotte Observer published 98 obits today, 82 yesterday and 32 on Dec. 26.

The News & Observer published 70 obits today, 82 yesterday and 38 on Dec. 26.

The Winston-Salem Journal published 29 obits today, 37 yesterday and 17 on Dec. 26.

There are too many variables for me to attach too much significance to the numbers. The emotional toll on the scores of families simply overwhelmed me when I read the morning paper.




Making the transition from editor to reader

For the past two weeks, I had no idea what was going to be in the Sunday paper. That’s a first in 25 years. Even when I took vacations, I pretty much knew what we planned to publish.

It’s been a wonderful surprise.

I have read the paper as an interested citizen. The paper was filled with information, enterprise and delightful surprises. Enterprise stories that explored the back story of the news of the week. Profiles that tell me about an unsung hero in my city. It’s not just the News & Record. Charlotte, Fayettevile, Burlington and other papers across the state have the same kind of enterprising, interesting content for their communities.

Newspapers approach Sunday differently from other days of the week. Sunday is the highlight of the week. It’s the biggest readership day and nearly half of a daily paper’s advertising revenue comes on Sunday. The newsroom knows that is displays its best work on Sunday. Weekdays are handled much differently, and I’ll write about that later.

I know that many people find they can do without the paper. I know that many never go to a paper’s website. But, based on Pew survey results from September, they can’t do without the journalism, thank God. If only they knew it.

Most Americans (69%) say that if their local newspaper no longer existed, it would not have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community.

Yet the data show that newspapers play a much bigger role in people’s lives than many may realize. Newspapers (both the print and online versions, though primarily print) rank first or tie for first as the source people rely on most for 11 of the 16 different kinds of local information asked about—more topics than any other media source.1 But most of these topics—many of which relate to civic affairs such as government—taxes, etc., are ones followed by fewer Americans on a regular basis.

And I haven’t even mentioned all the sale coupons!

Where newspaper stories come from

Journalist Robert Bell is one of the wittiest people I know. From his Facebook page:

“Looking out my window at a man who has put four milk crates on the ground. Resting gingerly atop the crates is a ladder. He is on the top step of the ladder with a string of Christmas lights around his neck, nails in his mouth and a hammer between his legs. This is why God created the briefs section in your local newspaper.”