Stan Swofford, RIP

UPDATED: Editor Cindy Loman has written a nice appreciation of Stan.

One of the best journalists I’ve ever had the honor of working with, Stan Swofford, died last night. Greensboro and North Carolina are poorer today.

I wrote about Stan when he retired from the News & Record, and when he won his fourth Landmark Award. I’m going to let others talk about Stan’s prowess as an investigative reporter and as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his post-newspaper career writing books.

I knew of Stan well before I came to the News & Record. I met him when I was a reporter for the Citizen-Times in Asheville and my roommate brought Stan and Brent Hackney, another reporter with the Greensboro Daily News to our apartment after the bars closed at 2 a.m.. I was asleep. They started to continue their drinking, woke me up and I went downstairs and told them to get the hell out so I could go back to sleep. I didn’t know who they were and didn’t care. Until the next day when my roommate told me that was Stan. He had just been named a finalist for the Pulitzer. Of course, I knew who he was.

Seven years later, I’m hired as on at the News & Record in the lowest editing rung there was. Great.

I was a new assistant city state editor working the morning shift for the afternoon paper, and I had been told to get someone to the United Way meeting the next morning. The United Way report-out on how its fund-raising was going was, to be generous, worth about three inches deep inside the paper. The only person I could find who was remotely available was Stan. Stan was always working on a long-term project, and for good reason, he was a freaking Pulitzer finalist! Along with Jim Schlosser and Jerry Bledsoe, he was the grand poobah of the newsroom. Meanwhile, I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor.

I went to his desk. “Stan, could you cover the United Way meeting tomorrow morning?” I asked.

He looked up at me, said he could, and asked me when and where.

The next day, he went to the meeting and filed his story. I saw it in our ancient computer system, but when I went to edit it, it had disappeared. I couldn’t find it anywhere. My deadline was 12:30. At 12:15, as Stan and some other other reporters were preparing to go to lunch, I walked over.

“Stan, I know you filed your story but the computer’s eaten it. I’m sorry but, umm, can you rewrite it and file it again?”

The other reporters started chuckling. Stan didn’t groan or make a face or say anything but “OK. When’s my deadline?”

Then he turned to the others and said, “Where are y’all going? I’ll meet you.”

He made the 12:30 deadline.

One of the reporters came to me afterward and said, “That’s the fastest Stan’s ever written a story.”

To me, that captures Stan as both a journalist and as a person.

Greensboro — hell, North Carolina — will miss you, Stan.

“Do you have the fire marshal’s report?”

My friend Pat Stith, who is the best investigative reporter I’ve known, writes a good blog. He tells stories about his life in and out of journalism. You should subscribe to it on your reader.

I had the privilege of working with Stith on a few stories, and it was a lesson in how to report a tough story. He’s smart and fearless. A fellow reporter at the N&O said this about him: “When he calls you and asks you for an interview, you’d better be scared because it means you’re guilty and he’s got you.”

But this isn’t about Stith.

Yesterday, he wrote about a conversation he had with Frank Daniels, who was the  publisher of the News & Observer.

My experience with Frank was different than Pat’s. One day years ago, there was a fire in the pressroom of the News & Observer. I was assigned to find out the cause from the fire marshal. Because the N&O wanted to be transparent about its own time in the news spotlight, I was told to check every day until we got it. The fire marshal, for whatever reason, wouldn’t ever respond to my calls so I took to calling Frank to ask if he’d received the investigative report.

The first time I called him, he answered his phone. (He was accessible. If he was in, he always answered his phone. The only time I ever remember getting his assistant was when he wasn’t there.) I identified myself and asked him if he had the report. He said no. I thanked him and hung up.

I called him the next day. “No.” Then the next day. “No.” On the fourth day, he chuckled and said, “No. Are you going to call me every day?” I told him that I would until I got the report. He laughed and said OK.

For at least a month, I did. It got to the point where he’d answer, I’d say, “Hi, Frank.” And he’d say, “Nope.”

I believed him, too. He was independent and irreverent and let the newsroom be the newsroom. But because I had learned at the N&O that “if your mama says she love you, check it out,” I went to the fire marshal’s office and it still hadn’t been filed. I eventually quit calling because I got involved in other stories, and I forgot about it. My editors did, too, because they never mentioned it.

Then one day, Frank called me and said, “I’ve got it.”

I don’t remember what it said or if I ever wrote about it, though, knowing the N&O, I’m sure I did.

Sunday sampler

Front pages are filled with stories about Barry, about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and about Vivian Howard’s new PBS program. But two of them have these:

Raleigh: Many national Republicans — and all 13 GOP women in the House — supported Joan Perry in the 3rd District GOP primary last week. Dr. Greg Murphy defeated her easily. What does that symbolize? I know, and some Republicans seem to know.  Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina:: “The Republican Party is a conservative party. The Republican Party needs to remain a conservative party, but look more like America. And if we do not, we won’t have the capacity to govern, and if we don’t have the capacity to govern, then we’re just about ideas without any practical way to implement them.”

The N&O also does some fact-checking of claims made about immigration, including the various bogus ones politicians make.

Charlotte: The Observer does a deep dive into the immigration court, a place where immigrants go to plead their cases for asylum in the U.S. The usual result: “Federal immigration judges in Charlotte denied asylum in 88% of cases from 2013 through 2018, according to data from Syracuse University’s nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse Immigration Project. That ranks Charlotte 12th of the 54 cities with federal courts.” It’s a strong story and a sad one.

 

Where’s the damn nut graph?

I had just finished editing a student’s story on Monday when I came across this tweet.

The last comment I made on the story was, “This ending is kinda lame. Try something different.” Then I suggested a possibility. (I’ve found students like it when editors/teachers suggest possibilities because it means they don’t actually have to come up with it on their own, particularly when the editor just CALLED IT LAME!

So, naturally, I followed the thread. And the responses are classic. And by classic I mean they are hilarious and exactly right. My guess is that every editor has said them to a reporter at one time or another. I know I have.

A sampling:

And the one that I’ve said one form of or another:

Usually, it’s “where’s the nut graph?” or “let’s punch up the nut graph” or “you haven’t supported the nut graph.”

You’re as young as you feel

“For decades and decades and decades I have bemoaned people who say they feel old, but I now realize it is perfectly possible for anyone to feel old. All they need to do is become a teacher.”

— Matt Haig, in “How to Stop Time”

This seems as if it should be true, but my experience is that it isn’t. If you engage with students and let them to show you things — technology, music, TV, movies. For all those things that have passed you by, they leap at the chance to teach you. And they don’t make you feel like an idiot in the process.

Later in the book, Haig wrote: “I can’t right now think of a better purpose in life than to be a teacher. To teach feels like you are a guardian of time itself, protecting the future happiness of the world via the minds that are yet to shape it.”

I guess. I started teaching late in life, after my 37-year career in journalism was over. So, it may make sense that my favorite quote about feeling old is this Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

That is what I hope that I’m doing.

 

Sunday sampler

Asheville: The first time Joe Killian wrote about gangs in Greensboro, I was surprised by how many there were. I’m still surprised, and I suspect readers of the Citizen-Times are, too. 65 different gangs and 1,100 gang members in the Asheville area, police say. (I can’t find the story on the website. Here is a link to the paper’s front page.)

Winston-Salem: Related, a random gunshot from a moving vehicle killed a 5-year-old boy. Police told the Journal that they didn’t know if it was gang-related, but it sounds gang-related.

Do you have to wear a bra to work?

“For some people, bras are the supportive garments they were originally designed to be in America as the alternative to corsets. But nowadays, there are more people who prefer or need the comfort of going braless who may be wondering if they can do so in the workplace without facing disciplinary action.

“Do you have to wear a bra to work?”

Thank you, Huffington Post, for asking that question. Because I have a story.

The paper was in between executive editors, and I was in charge of our newsroom. A  human resources representative told me that she had had complaints about a woman in the newsroom.

“Complaints about what?” I asked.

“That she isn’t wearing appropriate undergarments,” she said.

I stared at her. She stared back. I knew exactly what she was talking about. The employee in question occasionally didn’t seem to be wearing a bra. Yes, I’d noticed. And no, it hadn’t bothered me.

“OK,” I said.

“You need to tell her to dress appropriately for the office,” she told me.

I stared at her again.

“You want me to tell her that she needs to wear a bra to work?” I said. “Doesn’t that suggest that I’ve noticed she isn’t wearing a bra, which suggests I’ve looked at her in a way that might be construed as sexual harassment? Are you crazy?”

OK, I didn’t say that, but I wish I had. Instead, I said, “Isn’t that the kind of conversation you’re supposed to have?”

“You need to handle this in your own department,” she responded, and left.

I gave it five seconds of thought. I told a female editor to talk to her. I don’t know what she said, but the employee started wearing appropriate undergarments.

Yes, I noticed. I figured I had permission from human resources.

Heels in Huqoq, Israel

I spent much of June at a dry, dusty archaeological excavation site in Israel as part of a journalism class at UNC-Chapel Hill. We were documenting the excavation of a fifth century synagogue that continues to make waves in Judaic history.

The students learned about religious history, journalism, about telling stories and about themselves. And most of them learned to spell archaeology. (I learned about all those things, too, except for the spelling of archaeology, which I knew.)

The longer stories on the dig itself, and on Jodi Magness, the director of the dig, are especially worth a look.

All of their work is posted here, and we hope some news outlets will pick up the pieces.

 

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: I kind of thought Asian massage parlors were a thing of the past. Hahaha. Jokes on me. The N&O tells me about one where you could get an hour-long massage for $70 and a happy ending for another $40. Past tense. The Durham police shut it down after a year-long investigation. A terrible tale of human trafficking in our midst.

Greensboro: You’re in the house, and someone is trying to break in. You call 911 and the police aren’t dispatched for five minutes because they’re busy on another call? The News & Record explains how that could happen, and it’s still an inadequate response, if you ask me. “At the same time that Andrews was trying to break into Taylor’s house, a tractor-trailer had wrecked on Interstate 40 and was straddling both sides of the freeway. Neal said officers needed to shut down the highway.”

Meanwhile, also in the News & Record, is a sad story about a 3-year-old with such a food allergy that she’s basically allergic to food. “Her short list of acceptable food items, oddly enough, includes eggs. They are cooked in pure, extra virgin olive oil. She can also eat broccoli and a particular kind of salt. Other than a specialized formula she has been drinking since she was 2 months old, those four items are the only foods her body will tolerate. ‘We’ve tried between 30 and 40 foods right now,’ Podracky said.”

 

You won’t know until you ask

Some of reporting is observing. Some is listening. Some is research. But  most of reporting is asking questions. Reporters must be able to ask anyone anything relevant to the story they’re chasing. They can be nervous. They can lead up to the question carefully. They can apologize for asking. But they must ask.

It’s a lesson that many student journalists take a while to learn.

Me, a few years ago

To their credit as human beings, students are polite and don’t want to cross any social boundaries. But that doesn’t always work in journalism. Timidity — I say this as a timid person in my core — is not a key quality characteristic for a reporter. I had to overcome it.

I had a student who wrote about a woman who battled bulimia but the writer didn’t want to list her weight out of fear it might be triggering.

I have had students who, when writing a profile of women, didn’t want to ask her age because, well, it’s impolite.

I had a student who was curious about a gap in a resume of one of his subjects, but was hesitant to ask about it. “What if it is something embarrassing?” he asked me.

Yes, what if it is? Perhaps it’s relevant to your story and worth telling your readers about.

The lessons are simple: Don’t be afraid to ask anything, and don’t think you know what the response might be.

I learned a version of this lesson years ago while reading a New Yorker piece on the Miami Herald cop reporter Edna Buchanan. She tells writer Calvin Trillin what happens if she gets hung up on.

“She waits sixty seconds and then phones back. ‘This is Edna Buchanan at the Miami Herald,’ she says, using her full name and identification for civilians. ‘I think we were cut off.’ In sixty seconds, she figures, whoever answered the phone might reconsider. Someone else in the room might say, ‘You should have talked to that reporter.’ Someone else in the room might decide to spare the upset party the pain of answering the phone the next time it rings, and might be a person who is more willing to talk.”

And she tells that story that sometimes the person on the other end wants to talk and explain things.

Here is the thing: You don’t have to use the information. Maybe your profile subject won’t tell you her age or her weight. OK, fine. But maybe they will. You won’t know til you ask.