Ann Romney in town: Is it news?

If the wife of a presidential candidate comes to town for a private fund-raiser, gives a three-and-a-half-minute public speech to the party faithful and says nothing of substance, is it news?

I suppose so, given who Ann Romney is married to. But I hope it isn’t big news in the morning paper. There is a line between telling people that someone in the news was in town and being manipulated for a political purpose. And I’ve already written about that this week.

Travis Fain has more.

Friday update: How the News & Record played the story. Looks right, to me.



An abundance of opportunity in journalism

It’s been six months since I left the News & Record, and I have finally figured out the answer to that question. Now, people seem surprised when I answer “no” with absolutely no hesitation.

It took awhile for me to get there, to realize that there was little that I missed about being editor of the third largest newspaper in North Carolina. Of course, I do miss my friends there. As every journalist know, a newsroom is a special place filled with energy, excitement, creativity and humor. Oh, and I do miss the bi-weekly paycheck.

Obviously, I don’t miss all the things that ran me out of the business — the pain caused by the financial problems, the obsession with profit, the second guessing, the lack of vision from the industry, the sense of helplessness and inevitability in the decline.

Years ago, I asked the same question of a former editor who was teaching at the University of Georgia. He said he only missed being “in the know.” He missed being included in the embargoed and off-the-record conversations with movers and shakers. I actually tried to avoid those sessions whenever I could. They were useful for reporters. My attendance was only useful for the movers and shakers. So, there was no reason for me to be there.

Don’t get me wrong: the 13 years I was editor were a true gas. The good times far, far outnumbered the bad times. But it was time for me to go and let someone else take a run at it. As I thought about leaving, I worried that I would not have enough to do, that I’d become aimless, that I would miss it terribly. After all, it’s been in my blood for 37 years.

I did miss it for a little while. I quickly discovered that the things I loved — being a part of a creative process, hanging with interesting people, trying new things, making a difference in the world — are all easily replaceable. Some are in journalism — this blog, for instance, and teaching — and the others are just about joining a part of the world that my focus on my career didn’t permit me. (I never said “I want to spend more time with my family,” but that’s been a benefit, too.)

I have regrets, primarily about things I didn’t do. I have written about them here. But miss it? No. I left the newspaper; I didn’t leave journalism.

And there is an abundance of opportunity in journalism.

Welcoming Ink Bytes

I’m glad to see that Jeff Gauger, the new editor of the News & Record, has started a blog. I hope that he will use it to tackle some of the tough issues facing the News & Record and journalism, rather than taking the route many editors do, which is using a blog primarily to promote the paper.

I welcome him to the community’s blogosphere, and I encourage him not to get discouraged by the animosity for the News & Record that is often expressed there. Or by the commenters. In many ways, it is an insular community. The real world is much more understanding, accepting and engaged.

I don’t know Jeff, but my experience with newspaper editors is that they are smart, savvy and thick-skinned. I’m confident he will be a strong voice here. Welcome, Jeff.

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.


We or them?

A couple days after I left the News & Record, I asked this question on Facebook: At what point, when talking about the newspaper, do I switch pronouns from “we” to “they”?

The answers came quickly and in abundance. They were all over the place, ranging from now to never. Some classics:

Dan Conover: From my experience, when the paper does something you like, it’s “we.” When the paper does something you don’t like, it’s “they.” When it’s something that makes you want to to grab a flame thrower and go torch the place, it’s “the media.”

Mike Orren: After the last piece of copy you touched runs.

Robyn Tomlin: Being a journalist is like being an alcoholic. You can be “in recovery,” but you live with the disease for the rest of you life, even if you never take another drink (or write another story). You will always be part of the collective — whether you like it or not.

And Teresa Prout, who is currently interim editor, left my favorite: It should always be “we,” John. You’re grandfathered in.

I think it will be “we” as long as I can’t pass an open rack of newspapers at the Harris Teeter without making sure it is filled. As long as I feel a pang of regret when I pass a house at 11 a.m. and see the paper still in the driveway. As long as I defend the paper when an ignoramus takes a cheap shot at it having a liberal bias. As long as I see a blog post that is so insightful that I want to call the writer and congratulate him or her.

It will be “we” so long as I read a story that I wish never ends, see a photo that takes my breath away or get dazzled by a design that makes me proud to be a subscriber. Given who is there now, I think it will be “we” for a long time.

The true meaning of Santa

Do you know that Santa is not real?

Of course, you do. No, not the spirit, but the actual person. Everyone over the age of about 8 knows.

But a pox upon your house if your newspaper or TV station suggests it, even inadvertently. And it seems to make its way into the paper, at least, somewhere every year.

Last year, the News & Record published stories from readers about their favorite memories of Christmas. Several of them alluded to finding out that Santa didn’t exist or that parents actually brought the gifts. We printed them but not without serious discussion. Tell readers at Christmas time that Santa may not be real? Are you nuts?

I received letters from people who didn’t believe in that sort of truth telling, that some beliefs shouldn’t be shattered by the grinch at the newspaper. I agreed with them. Some myths are sacred, particularly the ones that everyone knows is a myth that gives children joy. Why, papers print horoscopes every day and you know they’re bunk, right?

I did appreciate the readers who said they had to hide the newspaper less their 7-year-old read that story and discovered Santa’s true existence. I always said, “Yourchild reads the paper? Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

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!