Adventures in news coverage, part 2: When a kiss is banned

Update: Check out the first comment.

About 10 years ago, we published a photo of two women kissing on the bottom half of the front page. The world didn’t explode, but some of our readers’ heads did.

It was a chaste kiss between two elderly women, but it seemed as if the depiction offended some of our more conservative readership. They called, they complained, they cancelled.

The publisher told me that he, too, was offended and, after we debated the photo’s news value and the role of a newspaper, he told me not to publish that sort of photo on the front page again. While I was editor, we didn’t.

I’m reminded of this because I came across this  blog post-appreciation by my friend Addison Ore about the late inestimable Pearl Berlin. Addison posted this photo by Lynn Hey of the News & Record of Berlin kissing her longtime partner, Lennie Gerber.

Photo by Lynn Hey

Addison wrote: “At one infamous rally on the steps of the Greensboro Government Plaza, Lennie ended her remarks by planting a sweet kiss on Pearl’s lips. It is one of my favorite photos of them – even though the News & Record deemed it “too much” to run in the print edition.”

Scandalous, right?

 

Adventures in news coverage, part 1: When we would and then wouldn’t publish civil union announcements

Time was, brides announced their nuptials in the daily newspaper. In retrospect, it seems so “Mad Men” era quaint. Yet another tradition gone the way of digital.

Anyway, in 2002, Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson, Publisher Van King and I were talking about our policy on publishing gay wedding and civil union announcements.

Correction: We didn’t have a policy — the assumption was that weddings were between a man and woman. I don’t know that anyone had tried to place a gay union in the newspaper. But the New York Times had decided to publish the civil union announcement of a gay couple. If the old Gray Lady was going to do it, we’d better know what we were going to do.

Of course, the law of the land was that marriage was between a man and a woman. And bear in mind that a good percentage of the newspaper’s readership was conservative; this is part of the Bible Belt, after all. We knew readers would complain. We didn’t mind readers complaining so much. But we wanted their complaints to be over something important. And we wanted to have thought through our position.

It wasn’t a long discussion. (One reason is that the ad director wasn’t involved and he should have been. Wedding announcements — the paper called them “Celebrations” — were paid advertisements. But Allen and I wanted to strike while we had the publisher’s attention.)

Both Allen and I wanted to publish them. Van was less sure, but I don’t know if he was truly uncertain or was playing devil’s advocate. In any case, we left the meeting with the tentative decision that if we received a request for an announcement for a civil union, we would publish it. Or, realistically, we would have another discussion about it, but the inclination was to publish.

We didn’t get a request for a civil union announcement.

A few years later, under a different publisher, Allen and I raised the question again. I don’t remember what provoked it. This time, the publisher, Robin Saul, said we would not publish them. Saul had asked his boss about the issue and was told that the newspaper would follow state law. As long as gay marriages and civil unions were not recognized by the state of North Carolina, the paper would not publish any “Celebrations” of civil unions.

For the rest of the time I was at the paper, I dreaded the possibility that a same-sex couple would try to buy an ad. I believed the paper’s position would embarrass us and put us on the wrong side of history.

It didn’t come to that. We didn’t get a publication request, and in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are legal.

And, the “Celebrations” page has gone the way of classified ads.

Sunday sampler

Mother’s Day and college graduations are plastered all over front pages today, as they should be. But you can find other good stories here:

Greensboro: One of the best writers I’ve ever worked with is Mike Kernels. He tells the compelling story of getting a letter out of the blue from his birth mother. And as he asks, “What should I do now?”

Raleigh: The N&O profiles Ashley Christensen, the best chef in America, in a Q&A. And it’s not a Q&A about food in so much as it’s a story about her and her motivations. I like her and plan to make one or two of her restaurants a destination meal.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has a dramatic story about a 7-month-old who had tumbled 30-feet down into a ravine, allegedly because her mother threw her there. Unfortunately I can’t link to the actual story because of the paywall, but here is an earlier piece about it from USA Today.

Winston-Salem: A state cookie? Now we have to have a state cookie? Well, it’s the Moravian Cookie so, hell, yes.

“The pen is sometimes our only flashlight”

“A word after a word after a word is power.” That’s from “Spelling,” a poem by Margaret Atwood. It’s one of my favorite writing quotes.

Today, I have new one:

“I write because there’s so much good in this world that goes unnoticed, and sometimes we all need a reminder. But I also write because there’s darkness in the world that lurks in the shadows, unnoticed, and the pen is sometimes our only flashlight.”

That’s by Mary Glen Hatcher, who graduates from UNC-Chapel Hill Sunday. Mary Glen was a student in my feature writing course, and I ask students to write “why I write.” I think that if they want to become writers — many of them do — they need to begin wrestling with that topic. Their responses are pretty damned good. Here are some excerpts.

 

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“My confidence plummeted in middle school, and it stayed on the ground through high school. I knew it was gone. I could almost see it down by my shoes in class, mocking me for never raising my hand.

“I wrote because it was something I could feel proud of, even if it never made it out of my Google Drive drafts. I didn’t know I was smart. But when words flowed from my fingertips, I felt unstoppable again.”

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“I still get excited when my stuff gets published and printed. And that’s almost weekly. I know the rush of “Look, my name’s in the paper!” is even better.

“Somewhere in this state, I have a feeling that a few of my stories are hanging on walls or sitting in binders. Probably some of the high school sports ones I wrote two summers ago, when I was still finding my voice as a writer and tried to make everything epic. I bet a few moms and dads are still fans, though.”

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“To be provocative by telling the truth—even though others may cry out “fake news!” To practice my inalienable right to speak my mind.”

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“I write because I think words strung together on a paper have more power than just about anything.”

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“I want to be a voice for the voiceless. This has two different meanings. One, it’s giving people a platform to tell their story, whether they’re an athlete or not. Two, it’s telling the story of a person that’s typically in the spotlight for a different reason or hangs in the background. It’s showing who the person is behind the athlete, or well the real person within.”

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You can read all of Karen Stahl‘s here.

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Last semester’s are pretty damn good, too.

UNC’s Media Hub: Producing remarkable journalism, part II

Sometimes, when I’m deep into a project, examining every part, making sure it’s in its right shape and place, I forget what the finished product is. I can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

That’s how it was this semester with Media Hub, a course I teach at UNC-Chapel Hill. In the class, students focusing on print, broadcast, photography, design or PR are divided into teams and work together to produce stories. The course has three main goals: to create remarkable journalism; to teach students with differing skills and priorities to work together as a team; and to create as much as possible a real newsroom environment. The PR students pitch stories to professional news outlets.

It didn’t dawn on me this semester how successful the class was in getting its work published on mainstream news sites and broadcast on the air. Thirty-six news outlets picked up their work, including the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, the News & Record, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Wilmington Star-News, WRAL, ABC11, WFMY, CBS 17, Education NC and the Progressive Pulse.

See all of their stories here. Some examples from newspapers:

Alex Zietlow‘s story across the top of the N&O.

Mary Glen Hatcher’s wilderness story in the News & Record.

Jacquie Melinek‘s piece on Tammy Tilghman.

 

These are all seniors, and graduate this weekend. Most of them have jobs — most in journalism — and they will be representing the school from Florida to New Jersey to California. I put these students in the same category as the good, young professional reporters I worked with: smart, talented, passionate and hungry. They’re going to do good things in the world; journalism is safe.

And one of my favorite photos of a student — Sophie Whisnant — holding a copy of one of her stories in her home newspaper, the Wilmington StarNews. They may be the digital generation, but they love seeing their work in print.

P.S. The “part II” of the headline refers to this post I wrote about last semester’s class.

Sunday sampler

Winston-Salem: Apparently the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission advertised that golfer Steve Stricker would host its charity golf tournament, and Stricker didn’t know anything about it. Rescue Mission folks told the Journal that they’re investigating. “Slawter said he and head pro Sean Branagan became suspicious Wednesday night when Stricker hadn’t shown up for a scheduled short-game clinic. ‘We started getting some weird texts that he was running late or whatever, and then at about 9 p.m., we kind of figured it out that he didn’t know anything about it,’ Slawter said.”

Asheville: Companies can’t find enough blue-collar workers. And if you have some skills, show up and aren’t abusing substances, you’ll get paid well. (Along with journalism, I could teach a side of plumbing; I worked for a plumber one summer!) “You’ve got to be willing to expand your horizons in who you’re willing to hire,” said Max Rose, owner of Four Seasons Plumbing in Asheville. “To hire somebody in this area who’s experienced, has a clean background, has their life together and can pass a drug test, that’s a miracle.”

Greensboro: This is personal to me. The News & Record features a story about how Native American history is taught or not taught. It was reported and written by one of the students in my Media Hub class, Sophie Whisnant. (Thanks, Cindy Loman, for localizing it and publishing it.) “Locklear said her peers’ comments were the fault of an American public school system that doesn’t teach the roles of American Indians in an accurate way. Educators see long-term problems with glossing over Native American history starting in elementary school.”

Don’t be stupid, part III

One of my PR students graduating in a few weeks sent me this note. “I would love if you could tell students to PLEASE make the Twitters/Instagrams private while applying to jobs. I’ve seen smart J school students get rejected based on their social media content that they probably don’t view as a big deal.”

Like what? I asked.

Photos “of a more sexual nature, even in a joking context.” Or retweets that, while possibly funny at the time, could be taken out of context and misinterpreted.

She has reviewed applications for positions in government; she knows what she’s talking about.

I told her that I won’t tell them to make their social media accounts private.

Instead, I’ll tell them “ Don’t be stupid.” That’s what I told my newspaper staff 15 years ago when we started blogging. I said it again when we started tweeting. It essentially means to think about the post, think about the reaction it could cause, and make sure that’s the reaction you want. Don’t be timid, but know what you’re doing.Sarcasm is tough to pull off. Attacks bring clapbacks.

Be smart. It was simple and it worked.

Life comes at you fast. By the time you’re a junior in college, you should be thinking about your life after college. You plan to be a professional in your field, and that’s the public persona you need to adopt. Start a professional Twitter account. Sign up for LinkedIn. Take care with your postings on Instagram.

And then post smart stuff. Link out. Write about what interests you. Follow people who are interesting and in your chosen field. Engage with them.

I’m active on social media. I asked her if I’d get hired by an elected official. She said yes, but not by a Republican. True.

 

I wasn’t always an editor

“But I hate editors!” I said to my girlfriend. “Why would I want to be one?”

This was in 1984, and I just been interviewed for a reporting job at the News & Record. I had always been a reporter; I loved being a reporter. Digging up stories, telling people the news, holding public officials accountable.

My girlfriend and I were living in Virginia Beach, and she was returning to her hometown of Greensboro to work in the family business. I was going to; by this time, she had become my fiancee. Interviewing at the News & Record made sense as newspaper journalism was what I knew.

After a day of interviews for a reporting job, my friend Cole Campbell, who was the assistant managing editor, told me that the sentiment was to offer me an assistant city editor’s job.

“He’s not a reporter,” then-associate managing editor Van King said to other editors there. “He’s an editor.”

It’s true that I didn’t like editors, having fought with them often enough at my previous paper, the News & Observer. It’s also true that I said this to my fiancee who was, herself, an editor.

She said, “Stop being an idiot. You’ll be a good editor.”

They called the next day and offered me the choice of jobs: covering public education as a reporter, or becoming the assistant city editor on the afternoon edition, meaning I’d work Tuesday through Saturday.

The editing job paid $100 more a week than the reporting job. For perspective, that was about 25 percent more than the reporting job.

I took it.

Sunday sampler

Winston-Salem: The Journal takes one concern off my mind. It seems as if my measles shot is OK. Finally, it’s good to be old! “Anyone born between 1958 and 1989 may be at slight risk of contracting the disease if exposed to an active case, said Dr. Christopher Ohl, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.”

Lenoir: The News-Topic features a story about some idiot trying to scam the Caldwell County Sheriff. There’s a paywall, but the story is basically that someone tried to get the county accounting department to reroute the sheriff’s check to a different account. The Sheriff’s Department says the scam was one that targets thousands of people every day.

Raleigh: Two years ago, the Raleigh police chief what would happen if a cop’s body cam was off during a police shooting. “We have an auditing process in place to make sure the devices are working properly and that the officers are following policy,” she said, according to The News & Observer’s coverage of the 2017 meeting. “If there are policies and rules in place, they must be followed,” she said. Guess what has happened? Yep.

Hickory: The Daily Record’s front page is dominated by an editorial cartoon and a question: Handshake or hug? I admit, I’m never sure, especially at this time of the year when my courses are ending and students approach. “It is OK to say, ‘This is not what I want, please don’t touch me,’” Kiser added. She said it can be scary for people to say, “no,” but practice makes perfect.

Wilmington: And a personal thanks to the Star-News for publishing a story, video and photo by one of my students in Media Hub.

Staring down an advertiser

About 20 years ago, we published a story about the county animal shelter, and the people who ran the shelter weren’t happy with it. They requested a meeting with the publisher, Van King, and Van called me down to join him.

I was a new editor, the newspaper was thick with ads, and business was healthy.

The shelter leader came with her husband, who was a respected auto dealer in town. She made her case and wanted a different story published to correct the perceptions we had left in readers’ minds. We told them that they had told us nothing that convinced us that there was anything inaccurate or unfair about our story.

The car dealer had heard enough.

He looked at Van and said, “You know I do a lot of advertising in your paper.”

And before he could say anything else, Van responded, “Yes, and it sells a lot of cars for you, doesn’t it?”

The dealer paused, then said, “Yes. Yes it does.”

Van went on to tell him that we would write about the shelter accurately and fairly. But, Van said, his money bought space for their car ads, but that it didn’t buy news coverage.

That ended the conversation, and I realized two things: the dealer was forthright, and I had a good publisher in my corner.