Press conferences suck

My friend Mark Sutter, editor of the Triad Business Journal, speaks truth about “press conferences.” 

Without fail, these announcements are ill-timed, ill-planned, ill-conceived and don’t serve the intended purpose, which one would suppose is to spread the word as widely as possible via the media. Instead, they have become part-political opportunity, part-ego stroke for the company expanding. In short, a dog-and-pony show on the taxpayer’s dime. “Press” conference? Hardly. Trust me when I say that few in the press ever feel it is done for their benefit.

Specifically, Mark is talking about economic development announcements, but I will extend it to include 90% of all press conferences in his comment. (The other 10% are those in which the press doesn’t already know the announcement. Think: the police chief announcing an arrest in a triple ax murder, John Edwards talking about his trial or me winning the $640 million lottery.)

As Mark noted, the news is often old news by the time the press conference is held.  When the news is good, government officials are like gossips trying not to tell a secret. And they’re not very good at it. Meanwhile, reporters are pretty good at what they do.

In most cases, the news conference does two things. It strokes the company and the local elected officials. It allows television news to get video to go with their news reports. But reporters for TV and newspapers don’t need it. And the public officials don’t really want to answer questions anyway.

What would happen if no journalist attended the governor’s news conference tomorrow? Nothing. The N&R has already broken the news of the announcement and the local TV stations have reported it. Won’t happen, though. Reporters will be there to dutifully record what happens, even though their readers and viewers already know it.

The news media is not hostile to religion

According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 37% of the public thinks the “news media is hostile to religion and religious people.” Sixty-six percent thinks there is too much sensationalism in religion coverage. Only 27.2% of the public thinks that religion coverage is “accurate and fair.”

Full disclosure: In one of my earlier lives, I covered religion. While I wasn’t an expert by any means, I tried to study religions so that I could report more smartly.

Most newspapers are full of religious news and information. Church calendars appear every week. Many papers publish church activities and achievements. Feature stories run about the major Christian, Jewish and Islam holy days. You bet you will find an awful lot of Easter stories in the Saturday, Sunday and Monday papers. My guess is that newspapers also print more positive feature stories than hard news or investigative stories about religion…with the exception a few years ago with sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Letters to the editor regularly attempt to explain the Bible’s passages to the heathens among us.

It is arguable, but I wouldn’t be surprised that once you get past sports and government coverage, religion content ranks pretty high in the number of column inches it gets.

It is true that newspapers publish views that are antithetical to some religious beliefs. It is part of what news organizations must do in covering the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are hostile to religion.

I think Guy Lucas said it right on Facebook yesterday: At every major Christian holiday, my editing of editorial/commentary sections feels more like I’m editing a church bulletin. Someone remind me again why they think the press is anti-religious.

On the other hand, I’m guessing that 37% of the people think newspapers are hostile to any and everything so I suppose it’s par for the course.

Filling the investigative gap

Last week, I wrote about the high cost of journalism and acknowledged that I let the News & Record’s investigative effort slide so that we could have broader coverage of more traditional news.

Andria Krewson writes about non-traditional news organizations in N.C. filling the gap, in many cases ably, in others, well, less so.

Some sources are relatively new, part of a crop of independent, nonprofit news outlets sprouting in many states. Others are long established, serving policy-oriented parent organizations that have a clear political ideology, even if they are technically nonpartisan.

Whatever their pedigree, the nonprofits are sometimes hard to find for readers outside of political wonk circles. But as a group, they’re providing more information about politics and the money behind it, particularly for state elections and issues—an area where the number of newspaper reporters has sharply declined both in North Carolina and across the country.

Because it’s Andria, it’s filled with links and detail. Give it a read, bookmark the links and I guarantee you’ll be a smarter political citizen.


Enough with the April Fools’ Day stories

Why newspaper’s April Fools’ Day stories are always a bad idea.

1. They’re intended to deceive. Why would newspapers want to violate its core value of telling the truth? OK, newspapers routinely publish deceptive content — horoscopes and many letters to the editor, for instance — but they’re daily features and most readers know what they’re getting.

2. They have unintended consequences. Readers don’t realize they’re being punk’d, and they respond to the story as if they’re real. As a result, they’re being made to look like fools, and that’s not a good idea. These days, a reader is a terrible thing to waste. Even some media organizations don’t get the joke. Check out the classic newspaper April Fools’ hoaxes at Poynter for examples of unfortunate consequences.

3. The most important reason, though, is that they are so rarely funny or clever. Of the eight stories on Poynter’s list, only two come from American newspapers. There’s a reason for that. There are few George Plimptons on newspaper staffs writing “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” which would be an exception to this post if it had been published in a newspaper. Journalists are cynical, dark and X-rated, three traits that don’t translate well to family newspapers. That funny stuff in the bar after work never seems to get past the editor.

Then newspapers get cold feet with what they’ve done and end their stories by telling their readers that what they’ve just read is an April Fools’ Day joke. If you’re going to sin, sin boldly. Maybe you’ll make a future Poynter’s list. Otherwise, order another round for the bar.

The high cost of good journalism

Good journalism costs money. Good investigative journalism often costs a lot of money. How much?

Today, Tyler Dukes, managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters Lab, tweeted: .@newsobserver editor John Drescher says it’s not unsual for the paper to spend $150,000-$200,000 on a single reporting project.

I love that John has put a price tag on it. The N&O does a number of ground-breaking investigative projects. The paper swept the investigative reporting category in the N.C. Press Association contest this year. Series on faulty water projects, the behavior of the Durham DA, and the UNC football scandal are powerful works of journalism. That kind of watchdog journalism demands accountability of public officials and public money. My sense is that when an N&O reporter knocks on a public official’s door, their heart jumps just a bit.

I wouldn’t second-guess that expenditure on those projects.

But it does cause me to reflect upon the trade off. $150,000 to $200,000 could pay for three or four decently paid reporters. If a paper does, say, three projects a year, we could be talking about the salaries of a dozen additional reporters. When newspapers, including the N&O, are faced with staff cuts year after year, at what point does the cost of day-to-day news coverage confict with the cost of in-depth investigative reporting?

Every editor and every publisher has to make that decision for themselves. (I write that as if it is just now happening. Actually, thoses decisions have been made ever since 2007 when papers started what seems to have become annual downsizing.) When I left the News & Record, our reporting staff was too lean. We couldn’t cover everything that we and our readers wanted us to cover. We missed stories because we just couldn’t get to them. There’s no question we sacrificed project journalism because of the manpower it would take. Our readers noticed.

I’m glad that John and the N&O has stuck a stake in the ground to do the sort of investigative journalism this state needs. I worry — and every citizen in this state should worry — when newspapers have to sacrifice their watchdog role because they don’t have enough reporters. I fear we’re close to that point.

I’ve emailed John a few questions about his estimate. I’ll include his comments when he responds.

Update: Tyler Dukes writes about the same topic at Reporters’ Lab, and he spoke with Drescher about his comment.In fact, John says the paper aims to do four to six projects a year. Depending upon the number the cost of the reports could exceed $1 million.

My response as quoted by Tyler: “If I had that choice when I was still the editor [of the News & Record], I would probably fall on the side of fewer projects and more feet on the ground for daily reporting,” Robinson said in a phone interview Thursday, although he added that such a philosophy is highly dependent on the type of newspaper you want to be.

Where’s the leadership?

I teach a little of Milton’s Areopagitca to my Elon class. (My class is thankful that it is only a little.) I include it because it provides the foundation for a discussion of freedom of speech and press. I like the idea that when truth and falsehood collide, truth wins.

That’s one reason this Q. & A. with Chris Robichaud of the Harvard Kennedy School caught my attention.

How can we live in an age so rich in information, with so many educated people across the world, and still seem to be susceptible to such embarrassing and deep ignorance? You would have hoped at this point that a civil society would agree on the basic facts and could get about disagreeing about the interesting things – what to do about them. That’s where disagreements are supposed to happen.

But no, we don’t even agree on the basic facts….

In this country, and this is just a confession, a lot of us were just stunned at the Birther debate. Not at first – you always expect some absurdity to arise when you have a presidential candidate whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who’s black. That’s going terrify a certain portion of the population.

But after a while, I mean…I think that the number of people who became convinced that he wasn’t a US citizen grew after he was elected President. You start to wonder, “What the hell?” I know that’s just one example, and that may be unfair because it seems so fringe (and yet the numbers suggest it’s not as fringe as we would like). But all the same, it just causes you to scratch your head and go, “What’s going on?

He goes on to talk about the ignorance of the presidential debates where no one is interested in getting to the truth. He suggests that neither the politicians nor the media are doing much to improve the discussion, and I think he’s right. I’d like to say there is an opportunity for the mainstream media here, but I’m not confident they want to grab it.

The question is how much people really want to get to the truth, particularly if it means separating them from their emotion-fueled opinions. If tat is there, the media will follow. But the media certainly will not lead.

Doonesbury reminds me that I was wrong

I learned three rules about the comics page and readers when I was an editor:

Rule 1: Don’t mess with the comics for any reason, even if the cartoonist dies.

Rule 2: People want their comics to be funny to them. If the comic strip isn’t funny, or worse, seems inappropriate to them, then it should be pulled.

Rule 3: When faced with Rule 1 and Rule 2, you’re screwed.

Now comes the latest Doonesbury kerfuffle, this time over this week’s worth of comic strips about abortion, Texas and Virginia. Jim Romenesko explains each day’s strip.

Among North Carolina’s larger papers, the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer are running the strip; the News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal are not.

This is another topic I have flipped on since I left the business. As an editor, I would have substituted the strip, saying something to the effect that I don’t mind publishing something that will make people mad, but I’d just as soon it be a news story rather than a comic strip. I don’t need to spend even a minute fielding phone calls from outraged people who say they have to shield their 8-year-olds from the comics page.

Now, as a reader, I feel cheated. Doonesbury is an institution and by this time, you know what you’re going to get. Doonesbury is The Daily Show on the comics page. When people would complain that they didn’t like a particular strip, I would say, “That’s OK. We don’t expect people to like every comic we print. That’s why we publish two dozen of them with different styles and tones. You can pick and choose.”

I wish I had listened to myself and let readers pick and choose. I’d pick Doonesbury.

Here’s Garry Trudeau on why he did the sequence.

Congratulations to the N.C. Press Association contest winners

A lot of people like to criticize the quality of journalism in this state. I should know; I heard a lot of it in my years in the newspaper business. Some of it was justified, most of it wasn’t.

If you want to sample North Carolina journalism at its finest, there is a wonderful index at This is a list of the winners of the annual journalism contest sponsored by the N.C. Press Association. The awards were presented in Chapel Hill last night.

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, most journalists don’t write stories or shoot photos to win awards. They know that their duty is to get the best report for their readers. By far, they spend most of their time working on journalism that won’t win anything, except perhaps the approval of their readers. In fact, if you look at the front pages of the newspapers that won the prestigious General Excellence award, you will note that most pages feature stories about events happening in their communities.

That is what it’s all about.

I congratulate all of the winners

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.


Sunday sampler

When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know. (I fully expect to see tomorrow’s front pages dominated by an event we all know about — the Super Bowl. Is it worth it? But I digress.) Today:

From the N&O: More work for less pay? An legislative effort that will save jobs? Who knows, but Sen. Kay Hagan has introduced a bill “to expand the kind of technology workers who currently are not automatically entitled to overtime.” High-tech workers across North Carolina could see smaller paychecks under an industry-led campaign to revise labor laws to limit overtime benefits.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: In 20 years, there will be more Latinos in Forsyth County than African Americans. That’s hardly news. But the story countered my stereotype of Mexicans sneaking over the U.S. border. One big reason for the influx — according to the Journal — are calamities in other parts of the world. Just as the Great Famine pushed a large wave of Irish immigrants to the U.S., natural and man-made disasters in Latin America have been one of the drivers of Hispanic migration.

From the Fayetteville Observer: Some veterans returning home come back with emotional problems. Again, no big surprise. But in Fayetteville and elsewhere, it remains a big deal. During a speech Thursday to members of the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters who returned to Fort Bragg after concluding the mission in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick cited concerns. He said that six Fort Bragg soldiers had committed suicide in the past six weeks, and that there were at least 25 cases of spousal abuse at the installation in the past 30 days.