That time he held a knife to my head

I went to my doctor for an annual physical.  I was fine. Yeah, blood pressure was too high, thanks to the deadly combination of heredity, job stress and white coat disease. I was still the editor of the newspaper at the time; I could have been hyped up by any number of things.

I asked him to look at a dark, raised spot on my temple. Like a mole, but a mole that hadn’t been there a month ago.

“Hmmm,” he said, and he scratched it with his fingernail as if it were a piece of dirt. It wasn’t. It started bleeding. “I think I’ll take a piece of that for testing. Or, how about I cut it all out and I send it for testing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

He said it could be basal cell carcinoma, precancerous keratosis or nothing. “Probably nothing,” he said, “but who knows?”

Yeah, great. Take it all.

He had me lie down on my side, and he placed a white paper cover over my head. The “probably nothing” was on the same latitude as my eye and about an inch away. A hole was cut in the paper where he’d have access to it. He numbed me and started cutting. I didn’t feel anything but some tugging on the skin. I was fine.

Then he started talking:

“Let me tell you what I really don’t like about the paper,” he said,

“Doc, let’s not,” I said, “while you have that scalpel an eighth of an inch from my brain.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “One slip and I’ll be on the front page won’t I?”

“We both will,” I said. “And neither of us will like it.”

He was quiet, the removal was uneventful, and the lesion was nothing.

As it turns out, he didn’t like the way we covered kids’ soccer, of all things.

Sunday sampler

Last week, I featured five N.C. Gatehouse papers and made note of how similar their front pages were. This week, they seemed to share share the AP story on Trump and Iran, but not much else. Good. Local journalism should be local.

Asheville: It never occurred to me that rehabbing injured wildlife — deer, owls, rabbits — was a bad idea. But apparently it can be. “It’s up to the agency to conserve and sustain North Carolina’s fish and wildlife resources, and its official policy is that rehabbing nonendangered wildlife isn’t only unnecessary — it can actually be selfish. ‘Wildlife rehabilitation serves mostly to meet the needs of our human society, not the needs of wildlife populations.'”

Fayettevile: I have been hoping a local paper would follow up on the Washington Post’s publication of opioid sales. Thank you, Observer/Gatehouse. “The shipments to Moore, Robeson and Lee counties all averaged out to about 55 pills per person each year. Cumberland and Harnett were around 34 pills per person. Hoke County was just 21 pills per person each year.” Breath-taking numbers. Everyone should read the Post’s series.

Greensboro: Changing the ABC system has never made a lot of sense to me, and it still doesn’t, despite what appears to be a bipartisan effort to privatize sales. I can’t tell that the system is broke. And I’ve been in privately run liquor stores out of state, and I am much more comfortable in N.C.’s ABC stores. So I agree with Mayor Nancy Vaughan, quoted in the News & Record: “When you look at our ABC stores they are situated evenly throughout the community. They are in clean shopping centers, they are well-lit, and they are professionally run.”

Hendersonville: I must be in a drinking mood this morning, but I was interested in the little bit I could read of this look at the wine country in Henderson County. Tl;dr version: It’s booming. (I can’t find the stories online; the link is to the front page, courtesy of the Newseum.)

My most visible mistake

Brian Dunphy of Greensboro Community TV interviewed me a couple of weeks ago for a documentary on the News & Record. He asked me to tell him some good stories about the paper. Sadly, my mind only seems to hold onto the screw ups. (I’ve already written about my most memorable mistake.) This is the story of my biggest, most visible mistake.

Election night, 2000.

Once I was editor, I was essentially irrelevant on Election night. The plan had been made, I had approved it, all-star journalists were executing it. I could do nothing but gum up a well-oiled machine. I knew it. When I was metro editor, one of my jobs was to keep the managing editor occupied. So, I accepted my role as the person who ordered pizza.

And managed deadlines.

You remember Nov. 7, 2000. Bush vs. Gore. Hanging chads. What the hell, Florida?Court challenges. The whole bit.

Election night in the News & Record was cruising along. We got all the other races and stories out of the way. Most of the front page, of course, was devoted to the presidential race. It was a nail biter. Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon were close. But it was Florida — damn you, Florida man! — that dragged things out. The night wore into morning as we waited for the election to be called.

Several editors were gathered around our city desk where we had small televisions tuned to the major networks. Mark Sutter, our metro editor, sat at a computer and he and our national editor — Good lord, I can’t remember who it was — were worrying over the wires. TV showed that Gore was leading in the popular vote, which, by now, everyone knows doesn’t matter.

But no one was calling the election. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, I called the press room at least twice to tell them we needed more time. (Unlike today, the News & Record was printed on the presses located about 20 yards from the newsroom. Deadlines on Election Day were malleable.)

We had a story basically ready. We just needed a couple of graphs at the top and a good, strong photo of the winner. The page was laid out. We just needed a decision.

Finally, we heard that Gore had conceded. Around 2 a.m. one of our wire services — I believe it was the now-defunct Knight-Ridder — called it for Bush. The networks started calling it for Bush. We didn’t have Florida’s final Electoral College votes, but I figured that Gore’s concession and the others were enough.

Now, normally, we call the election when AP calls the election. That’s the rule. But AP wasn’t calling the election. And the pressroom needed the front page.

I didn’t want to have a story that said, “Presidential election deadlocked” at 2 a.m. because I feared that the morning shows would have the results, and our paper would be irrelevant as soon as it hit the driveway.

So, I told Mark Sutter to write a lead that said Bush won. He did.

“George W. Bush was elected the 43rd president of the United States, defeating Al Gore and ending an agonizingly close election Tuesday, according to TV network projections.”

The headline on the front page said “Bush prevails.”

I didn’t say “Run that baby” but I should have. Job well-done, I thought.

I went to bed at 4 a.m. My wife woke me at 7 and said, “You better watch this” and she turned on the TV.


Florida was too close to call and Gore had unconceded.

Our headline and story were wrong, at that time. We weren’t alone, but that didn’t make me feel any better.

I showered and went to the office, debating whether to go to the publisher first and take my beating or to wait until he summoned. I figured it was 50-50 that I’d get fired.

The ending is anticlimatic. I told him what happened and he was understanding. (He used to be an editor.)

And eventually — in December — the headline became accurate.



I went viral last week

Well, 2,403  “likes” is viral for me.**

I got a handful of negative responses, including one who said “Fuck you” and another who called me “soft.” Soft? I didn’t try to engage because I’ve learned that’s a rabbit hole with no end. (Well, I did engage with the one who said, “Fuck you.” I retweeted it with the comment, “He seems nice.”)

A tweet of mine went viral once before, in 2017, also involving President Trump. Ten times as many “likes” as last week’s.

I was surprised by the interest in both. Each seemed pretty obvious to me. I’ve tweeted smarter and cleverer things that I thought would go somewhere but were DOA. As for these, I’m pleased that both involved decency….or the lack of decency in our political system.

I tweet a lot about politics because I’m represented by a slew of Republicans who have defended President Trump’s racism, philandering, bigotry and terribly harmful political positions. I know they don’t read tweets, but I don’t write for them. I simply want people who follow me to know about the hypocrisy of my elected officials.

One of my tweets was “featured” on CNN after President Trump referred to flamingo dancers when he meant flamenco dancers.

That tweet  — ON CNN! — got all of seven likes. Go figure.




Sunday sampler, Gatehouse edition


Want to see what will happen if Gatehouse and Gannett merge? These are Sunday’s front pages of some Gatehouse papers in North Carolina. Do you see a pattern?




















































































































(Front pages courtesy of the Newseum.)

The story on the moon landing anniversary and contaminated ocean water are fine stories. I did a quick spot check of Gatehouse front pages around the country and a few published the moon landing story, but many didn’t publish either story.

I’m not averse to newspapers using the same stories. The Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer have done it for several years to the benefit of their readers. But if the two chains merge, the mega-chain will operate one of six newspapers in the country. Sharing content on such a massive scale would, presumably, cut down on the truly local content that makes a newspaper part of the community.

UPDATE: Andria Krewson sends along this comparison of two Gannett papers.




Stan Swofford, RIP

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

UPDATED, AGAIN: The family obituary.

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.


There was a time when editors responded to job applicants

I often talk with students about their anticipated careers. They’re anxious about getting the “right” job. They’re eager to get started, and they don’t want to choose the wrong thing.

My advice is always the same: There is no “wrong thing.” You learn and move forward. And you have a long, long career ahead of you. You’ll quickly learn where you belong and how to get there.

And I’m reminded of this post three years ago in which I post some of the rejection letters — yes, in those days, job applicants were responded to — I got over the course of a job search. Most were terse but kind. Also, one misspelled my name.

I don’t remember being particularly discouraged. I just kept at it, working as a reporter and applying for jobs at bigger papers.

Eventually, I turned out OK. Here are two of the nicest rejections. Go here for the rest.













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.”