Go all-in on digital and mobile

If newspapers don’t understand that they need to go all-in digital and mobile, then the most recent Pew survey on journalism and readership takes a Louisville Slugger to their heads.

Greensboro isn’t alone in the single digits of local news preference. Both Raleigh (6 percent) and Charlotte (8 percent) have larger markets and larger newsrooms. In fairness, I know that all three newsrooms are working toward digital first practices. The N&O and Observer, in particular, are aggressively pursuing a digital strategy with traffic measures, strong social media linking, filing stories online days before they are in print, etc.

The N.C. papers are low, too, in comparison with their national counterparts. There,13 percent of adults prefer to get their news in print. And of those 13 percent, 43 percent tend to get that news digitally, on the screen or on their phones. If this doesn’t say that papers need to up their game on those formats, then I don’t know how to read.

Looking at the chart on the importance of local news topics, it’s pretty clear why television news is the dominant leader in how people prefer to get their news. No. 1 topic is weather. No. 2 crime. No. 3 traffic and transportation. They are all staples of television newscasts. Newspaper coverage priorities — government, politics and schools are Nos. 5 and 6. Sports — which often gets an entire newspaper section — is No. 11.

Thirty percent of Greensboro folks say they often get local news from online sites and apps, and 26 percent from social media. While figures aren’t available for earlier years, this has to be growing. And this has to be where newspapers devote even more energy.

It’s not all bad news. Speaking of local news media in general, it appears as if Greensboro doesn’t consider local journalists “enemies of the people” or “fake news.”

Read the entire survey. It’s comprehensive; I’ve only looked at pieces so far.

A final telling note, from Ken Doctor’s story on the L.A. Times, quoting its billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong: “So my concern was editorial, the newsroom. That was my very, very, very first concern. I knew that that’s where I needed to go as my first and highest priority. My second priority now is the business model, but the business model, sadly — and I don’t mean this to sound in any way arrogant — has to be consistent with this next generation, not with the past generation.”

Oh, if there were only more billionaire owners that aren’t corporations.

Weather, weather and more weather

A lot is being made of the finding that weather news far outpaces news of other topics in importance in daily lives (ital added). It’s not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. A local television station manager once told me that his viewers cared about three things, in this order: “Weather, more weather and tomorrow’s forecast.”

Note the “daily lives” context: The day’s weather affects everyone in immediate ways that crime, local government or schools don’t.

My first job at the News & Record was as the city editor of the afternoon paper, which was in the process of being shutdown. My priority was to have at least one new story for the afternoon readers that wasn’t in the morning edition. If nothing was happening, my fallback was a weather story. You’d be surprised how many different ways there are to report “it’s sunny outside!”

I soon realized that daily newspapers couldn’t compete with local television on weather, and we stopped doing much with it unless the story was dramatic. I wonder if local television will soon go through a similar evolution because I have an app, Dark Sky, that gives me the weather in as much depth as I need.


Punched in the gut: My most memorable correction

I was a 23-year-old reporter on my first reporting job at the Enquirer-Journal in Monroe, N.C. Each day, the editor would sort the news releases and dole out those that related to each reporter’s coverage area. Because there were only four of us, our coverage area was expansive. We  reporters evaluated whether the release was worth a few paragraphs or a full story.

The Council on Aging fell into my arena, and it was holding some event involving the American Association of Retired Persons.** The event wasn’t worth much, but the Enquirer-Journal was a community paper, and we filled it with community news. Besides, I liked the executive director, and she had given me some good story tips so I  wrote a three-paragraph story on the event.

No good deed goes unpunished.

I gave it to the editor; this was precomputerization — we typed on paper and hand-delivered the finished stories. He sent it through and it was published three hours later (afternoon paper). I went off to cover my beat.

When I got back to the office, the receptionist gave me a stack of pink “while you were out” telephone messages and said, “you sure stepped into a hornet’s nest.” Given that the receptionist was also owner of the paper and the mother of the publisher, I was alarmed.

I shuffled through the notes until I found a name I knew: the executive director of the AARP. I called her and identified myself.

“Why did you do this?” she asked. “I’m so furious; you’ve embarrassed us!”

Writing her comment just now doesn’t do justice to the intensity of the voice I heard on the other end of the phone. A smarter reporter would have looked at the day’s story about the AARP and figured out what kind of hornet’s nest I had stepped into, but that wasn’t me.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Stupid asked.

“You said we were sponsoring an event with the American association of retarded persons!” she said.

Imagine Ali had just punched you in the stomach; that’s how I felt.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I know I called everyone back and apologized. We published a correction.

The editor said, “You know that feeling you had when she told you the mistake you made? Well, never forget that. You should feel like you’ve been punched in the gut every single time you make a mistake. That’s how important accuracy is.”

I still do.

** The 2018 AP Stylebook notation for AARP reads: “Use only the initials for the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.” For me, it came a few decades late.

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: It’s hard enough to get federal assistance for housing. Couple that with landlords’ refusing to take anyone with housing vouchers and you’ve got a problem that today’s Observer details. “The practice that housing activists call “source of income discrimination” undercuts the government’s goal of helping families escape poverty and move to the neighborhoods with good schools, jobs and transportation, they said.”

Raleigh: It’s difficult to say which government agency is the incompetent one in this story about double-digit raises given to N.C. Department of Transportation employees, but at least one of them is. For context, the News & Observer reports: “Legislative leaders didn’t give anyone much time to scrutinize the state budget before passing it. The Republicans ruled the House and Senate with supermajorities last year, and instead of each chamber producing its own version of a budget, the leaders rolled out a single budget bill in the form of a conference report that did not allow for amendments.”

Greensboro: The News & Record published the first of a six-part series coordinated by Carolina Public Press about how sexual assault victims are treated. It’s a tough, important, read. The Independent Tribune in Cabarrus County published the third day.

Awards: “Pretty damn nice”

When I worked for a newspaper, the annual meeting of the N.C. Press Association was one of my favorite days of the year because that meant we could announce the journalism prizes we won.

And I can congratulate my friends at the News & RecordThe Charlotte Observer, the News & Observer & Durham Herald, and all the others who took home winning certificates.

Despite what so many media watchers think, I know few journalists who do what they do to win prizes. You don’t work erratic schedules; get paid much less than your friends in other industries; live in fear of layoffs; miss meals with your partner and kids; and listen to idiots call you “fake news” so that you can win a prize. (Most of them don’t come with money.)

You do it to serve your community and to serve the tenets of democracy. And yes, community recognition and respect trump awards every day. Some of the paper’s link to their winning entries — yay, News & Record! — and you should read some of them. (In my time, I certainly wanted to win them, but the paper never won as many as the N&R won this year.) Impressive work across the board.

While you’re at it, subscribe to a paper.

Early on in my career, an editor said to me, “We don’t do this to win prizes, but being recognized by our peers for outstanding work is pretty damn nice.”

The first lesson an editor taught me

Update below

My students are all stressed about finding jobs right now. This is how I got my start in journalism.

After I graduated from college, I taught 7th & 9th grades — English and journalism — at what was then Knox Junior High in Salisbury, N.C. I wasn’t very good at it, but it wasn’t my planned career; I was going to work for a two years and then go to law school. Because I went to a sterling little school that no one had heard of, I figured I needed some “real life” experience to burnish my resume for Harvard Law.

It gave me enough “real life,” all right. After a year, I quit and moved to the beach with a couple of college friends, both of whom were going to med school in the fall. When they moved out, I ran home to Raleigh, and my father helped me get a job working construction at Nello-Teer. We were building a mental health facility, and it was fun,  although I didn’t get paid much. We worked outside doing labor, tying rod, laying concrete, drilling studs.

Then, one day in February, the temperature didn’t rise about 17 degrees. There was no inside to seek shelter in. That night, after I bitched about the cold, my mother sat me down.

“What would be your dream job,” she asked.

“Writing for the New York Times book review,” I said without a trace of confidence. I was an English major though, so maybe I was qualified.

“So what do you think you need to do to get there?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Get a job working for a newspaper, I guess.”

“OK, start applying,” she said, and that was that.

I applied to at least 25 papers. This was before the Internet and email. Editors actually accepted blind applications and occasionally responded. In May, I got an interview with the Monroe Enquirer-Journal. I liked the editor — he was funny — and he seemed to like me. I might have gotten the job, but then I handed my writing sample to him.

The editor glanced at it and then looked at me. “You don’t type?”

When I said not that well, he put the hand-written story into a file with my application and said, “Go home and practice your typing.”

I was humiliated, and I went home and practiced my typing. It was the first lesson an editor taught me.

In June, the editor called me and asked, “How is your typing?” I said something to the effect that I was better than Rose Mary Woods. Thank god, he laughed.

“Well, the boy we hired, we just fired,” he said. “Come back and let’s see what you can do.”

I got the job. It paid $125 a week, about what I earned as a common laborer and less than I got teaching. But I wasn’t harassed by hormone-driven 13-year-olds and the office was warm.

And it was so much fun — a different adventure every day! — it took me 36 years to get out.

Update: Some great comments about other experiences with typing were made on my Facebook post.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Two men – one a former symphony musician – are killed, four people are arrested, and many questions remain unanswered. This is a story in the News & Record about how good people, sick people and talented people live lives that many of us don’t understand.

Greensboro: The News & Record also showcases a story about an 89-year-old High Point doctor who has seen a lot — too many bad things. “Over 46 years, Tillman delivered 3,000 babies in High Point during segregation and found out that even being a doctor was no protection against racism in the South.” A story: “Once when visiting Philadelphia, the avid golfer took the opportunity to see pro Ben Hogan play a round at a nearby country club. While he was there, a white caddie began having seizures. Tillman ran to his side, told him he was a doctor and tried to help. To his surprise, the man recoiled and yelled, ‘I don’t care what you are! I don’t want any n*** to lay a hand on me!””

Winston-Salem: So the legislature is back in the business of telling local governments what it can and can’t do with statues and monuments, regardless of how offensive they are. This story has been around a few days, and normally I wouldn’t include it. But the issue is important to me because it shows how uncaring and out of touch some legislators are. “This is purely stupid,” said State Rep. Evelyn Terry, D-Forsyth.

Lost in the city

When I was 6, I got lost for several hours.

We were in Ocean City, N.J., where my grandmother, known to the grandkids as Grandmother B, had a house a couple blocks off the beach. One day, I decided to walk home from the beach for lunch. By myself. Because I was 6. But I turned a block before our street.

I passed where the house was supposed to be and I kept on walking. I don’t know why I kept going forward. I was 6.

I was sandy, barefoot and wore only a swimming suit. I walked block to block for at least three miles (when I was an adult, I clocked what I believed was my route). Eventually, I started crying. A woman coming out of a Jersey bodega stopped me and asked what was wrong. “I’m lost,” I said.

She took me inside and called the police. The problem was that I didn’t know where I lived or the name of my grandmother. I kept telling them her name was “Grandmother B.” I was 6.

As it turned out, of course, my parents had called the police first, and the police took me home. The whole drive home I was thinking I was going to be in such big trouble. I wasn’t, but before the day was over, you know that I had memorized my grandmother’s full name and the address of the house. I still know them.

Years later, my mother told me that no one noticed I was even gone for an hour or so. You have to understand, this was our extended family and there were likely half a dozen aunts and uncles on the beach and probably 15 or 20 of us cousins. What kind of idiot would just wander off.

I was 6. And I was ready for lunch.

I still have intense anxiety whenever I travel somewhere new. I don’t want to get lost. Even now, I still feel like I’m 6. And I pack a lunch.

Earning a grade

Last week ago, Payton Walker, a senior broadcast star at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism, interviewed me about grade inflation. Her interview was for Carolina Week, a student-produced news program about UNC.

More specifically, her topic was about the tension faculty members might feel between trying to control grade inflation AND wanting to get a positive course evaluation from students. I suggested that I wasn’t the one who could give her the best answers, given that I am an adjunct. But she had been having difficulty getting full-time faculty members to speak on camera. Apparently, faculty without tenure are nervous about it, and faculty with tenure aren’t worried about course evaluations. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (She ended up finding some others.)

I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys grading. To grade effectively, you must give the student ample feedback on their writing. It’s time-consuming and subjective, to a certain extent. For me, when a student writes poorly, I think that I’ve failed them.

I want to be liked by students. I want to be considered a good teacher. But I teach at one of the best journalism schools in the country, and I want to uphold its tradition of excellence.

In my first semester, Professor Chris Roush taught me that students aren’t given grades, they earn them. And I knew from years of management in a newsroom that if you set high standards, people will try to meet them.

Students will benefit more in the long term if they have to work to get a good grade. They appreciate the teachers who are tough but fair, and who put in the time giving constructive feedback. I know this because I’ve heard them talk about teachers and courses that are easy. I don’t want them to talk about me that way.

Here is the Carolina Week broadcast. The discussion about grade inflation starts at the 11:44 mark.

Stories we missed

Several years ago, I had this cockamamie idea to publish a weekly listicle of stories displayed on the covers of the weekly tabloids under the headline, “Stories we missed!”

I had this stroke of brilliance as I waited in the grocery store check-out line. It seemed a way to bring some fun to our pages. I knew I’d never do it. The mass newspaper audience isn’t a great fan of snark  And to be honest, I was afraid that some of our readers would think we believed these stories were important.

But to get a taste of what it might look like, here is a sampling of stories we missed as of this morning. These are the top stories on the magazines’ webpages.

National Enquirer: Gweneth posts birthday message for ex Chris Martin

OK Magazine: Loni comes to blows with co-hosts over Jordyn & Tristan — ‘Ya’ll got me hot’

Star: Rhonj star Danielle Staub dumps fiancee after 6 weeks of dating

Life & Style: Colton Underwood announces ‘I’m f-ing done after explosive ‘Bachelor’ episode: see the recap!

Weekly World News : Saturn is a giant UFO! Astronomer’s stunned! (Editor’s note: The Weekly World News brand statement is “The world’s only reliable news.”)

!!!! You have to dig down a few stories in the Enquirer to get to ‘Luke Perry’s darkest life secrets exposed’

The one other problem with my idea: I didn’t know what Rhonj stood for or who Loni is until I looked them up.

Significant note: My thinking is redeemed! Jezebel does it now. ‘Is Meghan Markle a class traitor’