Sunday sampler

On a Thanksgiving Saturday, news editors across the land rejoiced at the death of Fidel Castro. No politics behind it, other than the politics of having something to anchor their front pages. That’s what many N.C. newspapers did, too.

I don’t care. What is more interesting to me is that of the good non-Castro stories on the front pages, the ones from the Citizen-Times and from the Charlotte Observer have been available on the web for one or two days already.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times’ story on the impact of a shifting N.C. Supreme Court is actually an AP story. (It was published online Thursday.) Once Morgan takes office in January, a Democratic lawmaker says, the court of four Democrats and three Republicans will provide a stronger safeguard against unconstitutional legislation, since the GOP will continue to have veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly even if Cooper unseats Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Morgan’s victory “was enormous. I don’t know how to say it emphatically enough,” said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake. “It’s going to mean a lot, not just to Democrats but to all of North Carolina.”

Charlotte: The Observer’s story on the environmental impact along the coast of a Trump presidency actually comes from McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. (It was published online on Friday.) With Trump’s triumph, many folks along North Carolina’s coast – from fishermen to farmers to hotel operators and restaurateurs who rely on tourism – are nervous. They’re worried about what’s coming from the president-elect, especially after he named a leading global-warming contrarian, Myron Ebell, to handle his transition on environmental matters.

Greensboro: A nice read from the News & Record about a young woman who nearly died in a house fire in 2008, fighting to regain her life.

Raleigh: A second nice read from the N&O, this one about a young man with cancer who gets a “Make A Wish” visit to watch his favorite team, UNC, play basketball in Hawaii.

Sunday sampler

Sadly, it’s all fires all the time. Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville front pages are dominated by stories about the wildfires raging in the mountains.

Wilmington: If all the fire coverage weren’t enough, swing down to the coast for flooding coverage because the Star-News has an excellent story on the continued aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. “We all need to know that events like Floyd and Matthew are not uncommon. We act like they’re uncommon, ‘They’re 500-year events.’ It’s not that uncommon,” said Burrell Montz, the chair of East Carolina University’s human geography department. That leaves governments and residents in the most-affected areas with a lingering question: What will you do before the next storm comes?

Greensboro: All you need is the first two paragraphs in the News & Record’s story. In Guilford County, 4,177 DWI cases linger in the courts. The county’s average case for driving while intoxicated is more than a year-and-a-half old, but some cases have taken more than three years to wind through the system. Here’s the kicker: That’s not even the highest in the region.


Time to take Trump literally

In a story about Donald Trump’s lies and purposeful misstatements, Atlantic writer Salena Zito wrote in September: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Bold is mine.)

It’s time his supporters take him literally.

Look at who he has chosen as his closest advisors:

Steve Bannon as White House senior counselor: Mr. Bannon is in some ways a perplexing figure: a far-right ideologue who made his millions investing in “Seinfeld”; a former Goldman Sachs banker who has reportedly called himself a “Leninist” with a goal “to destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” He has also called progressive women “a bunch of dykes” and, in a 2014 email to one of his editors, wrote of the Republican leadership, “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions for AG: For starters, forget about aggressive protection of civil rights, and of voting rights in particular. Mr. Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.” Under him, the department would most likely focus less on prosecutions of minority voter suppression and more on rooting out voter fraud, that hallowed conservative myth.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser: Americans of all political backgrounds should be alarmed that General Flynn will be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser. It’s likely, given his record, that he will encourage Mr. Trump’s worst impulses, fuel suspicions of Muslims and bring to the job conflicts of interest from his international consulting work.

Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA director: More disturbingly, he has claimed that the U.S. government’s surveillance powers have been critically weakened by reforms designed to prevent abuses. He has called for the creation of a large database combining phone records with “publicly available financial and lifestyle information.” Mr. Pompeo also has suggested that foreign terrorism suspects should be held for prolonged periods for interrogation by the military or CIA — a policy that would likely revive the Bush administration’s disastrous misuse of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Sunday sampler

I had planned to avoid politics this week because I’ve read enough to be sick of it. But newspapers — seemingly unaware that most people are sick of it, too — just can’t stop. There were a few stories that took a slightly different angle.

Charlotte: The Observer examines the impact of the election on HB2, and, sadly, suggests that HB2 will be here to stay, despite it likely being the cause of Gov. Pat McCrory’s election loss. (Yes, I know he’s holding out for the recount.) With a Trump appointed Department of Justice, it is doubtful that it will be as aggressive fighting the law in court as the Obama administration. And the General Assembly, safely gerrymandered into Republican control, certainly won’t do anything, despite millions of revenue losses.

Fayetteville: What will a Gov. Roy Cooper administration look like? The Observer peers into its crystal ball and guesses. Most insightful are the comments of former Gov. Jim Martin, who served during a time when the opposing party controlled the General Assembly. “The governor has leverage through job appointments and other powers, Martin said. ‘You find out what’s needed in their district and what we need. And yes, sometimes you do some horse-trading. But that would be true even if it was your own party.’ Any new governor should avoid picking a fight with the lawmakers, Martin said, because the legislature has more power than the governor does.”

Greensboro: I’m not sure how to succinctly describe this compelling story in the News & Record about the jumpsuit project. An African American grad student/teacher at UNCG is arrested and imprisoned for something he didn’t do. A judge throws out the conviction a year or so later. The teacher returns to UNCG and wears an orange jumpsuit every day as performance art to illustration injustice. “My mom was worried about my safety,” Roland said. “These days in this world, you don’t have to wear an orange suit being an African American male to get attention in the wrong way.” All you need to say.

High Point: I always hesitate to include the Enterprise as its stories are hidden by its paywall. This piece about the housing blight in the city being partly the cause of the inefficient and politicized code enforcement program is pretty good, though.

Sunday sampler: all election, all the time

Finally, and the newspapers are giving it one good final push

Charlotte: The Observer says that N.C. has been elevated to a super battleground state, which it seems to be, given the number of visits the candidates and their surrogates have made here in the last three weeks. “Democrats see the election as a turning point, a rapidly urbanizing state where the influx of young people and outsiders is having a moderating effect on a traditionally conservative state. No Republican has won the White House without North Carolina since 1956….Republicans, whose presidential candidates used to carry North Carolina without much sweat, say the state is just now more competitive. Conservative John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation, warns about drawing too many conclusions from an election that has see-sawed.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times outlines the races for governor and Senate, and adds the interesting perspective of what impact the outcome of the races have nationally. “A McCrory victory would allow the move to the right to continue and would be seen as a vote of confidence in the direction already taken. It would also keep state government in Republican hands for another four years….Cooper might have limited ability to block significant Republican initiatives from the General Assembly if he’s elected, depending on whether Democrats pick up enough legislative seats to allow them to uphold a Cooper veto.”

Fayetteville: The Observer focused on the Senate contest between Sen. Richard Burr and Deborah Ross. The paper makes the mistake of suggesting in its headlines that Burr is ahead, which means that they misread the meaning of the latest poll. Regardless, the most telling part of it is that Burr declined to talk with the newspaper. Read into that what you will, given his staff’s earlier erasing the News & Observer from its mailing list.

Greensboro: The front page features a piece on the stands of each candidate, as if voters are still undecided. More interesting was an article on the political opinions of college students. “The college students interviewed for this article fell into at least one of a handful of baskets, none of them deplorable: They’re generally backing Hillary Clinton; many college students, including Republicans, really don’t like Donald Trump; and there are still a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters out there.”

Wilmington: The Star News had Donald Trump in town, and that’s what dominates its front. Apparently Trump didn’t leave the airport, giving his stump speech in a hangar.The only notable thing in the story was the predominance of Gov. McCrory, finally giving his full-throated endorsement of Trump and what he stands for.

Winston-Salem: The Journal features the last day of early voting on its front page. (Many newspapers wrote similar stories, but published them elsewhere in the paper.)

“No way to run a news organization that wants to grow”

The News & Record published a letter to the editor Sunday in which a reader attempted to school the paper on how to build its business. Well, not exactly: the writer was criticizing what he perceived as the paper’s liberal outlook on the world.

“Commercial media, especially newspapers and magazines, are losing subscribers and advertisers to the Internet. So what is the News & Record doing to survive? Not what a smart business would do.

“Instead of trying to build the base of subscribers, the paper seems determined to irritate and criticize them with feature stories and editorials that are totally biased and unbalanced.”

I’ve read dozens of letters similar to this during my time in the editor’s office. I wish I had responded to each one because they are based on a false assumption about newspapers. And any time spent explaining journalism’s role in democracy is time well spent. Here is the letter I would have written back. (Journalists, feel free to steal it without attribution, if you like.)

Dear sir,

Thank you for writing. We always like to hear from our readers. We especially like to hear from readers who think we get it wrong because it gives us a chance to improve.

It’s true that the newspaper business model is in disruption. I’ll even go further: it’s gotten half-assed crazy.

The news department prints the news as it sees fit, hewing the best that it can to the idea that it selects news that will help people live a productive, interesting and fruitful lives. The news department sees its customers as the community as a whole. At its core we believe that the purpose of journalism is, as defined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” More on that in a bit.

The advertising department sells placement in the newspaper to businesses, promising to deliver their message to tens of thousands of newspaper customers in the area. Its primary customer is the advertiser. Advertisers have no say in the news that surrounds their ads, which occasionally upsets some of them, but not that often. They simply want our customers to frequent their businesses. We do, too, because it means their advertising in our paper works.

Our circulation department sells subscriptions based on the premise that the newspaper delivers value for a reasonably cheap price: You  get news from the neighborhood and the world, information about shopping, and sports and puzzles and comics, all delivered to your home every day. Its primary customer is the person who buys the paper. And, oh my goodness, yes, it has to help readers upset about the paper’s content.

Our editorial department offers reasoned opinion on its page or pages every day. It attempts to offer a mix of opinion and analysis up and down the spectrum from conservative to liberal. It publishes nearly every letter it receives regardless of whether it agrees or whether the letter is critical, just as it published yours. The editorial pages often publish opinions from local and national writers it doesn’t agree with, as it should. It’s a place which embraces John Milton’s and John Stuart Mill’s idea of being a “marketplace of ideas.”

So, each department’s customers are different, and each department’s measures of customer satisfaction are different. Crazy business model, huh? However, it has worked for hundreds of years. It’s just not working that well anymore.

Back to the purpose of journalism and the idea of publishing information citizens need to be free and self-governing. That occasionally means that some people will not like to read that, say, their favorite candidate is being criticized by his opponent on the front page. Some might disagree with the opinions espoused on the editorial pages. But it’s what independent newspapers do. We follow the news where it leads us, and, like you, the editorial board voices its opinion. Unlike television news, we offer readers like you the opportunity to publish their opinions on the editorial page right next to our editorials.

You mention that you believe our readership is conservative; best we can tell our readership is balanced, although it frequently acts like a seesaw, moving back and forth. Regardless, we take pride in our independence and resist pandering to one particular political viewpoint. For instance, while we tend to be progressive, we have endorsed many conservative politicians. When we write about local people and issues, we try to be thorough, accurate and fair. When we fail, it’s not purposeful. I hope that when you see specific instances when we’re unfair or biased on our news pages, you let me know.

A final note just between us: We aren’t really trying to “grow” the business. That bird has flown, thanks to the internet and our industry’s short-sighted strategies. We, along with most other newspapers, are just hanging on as we try to figure out a workable business model. Yet we still value your business, and I hope you value the commitment we have.

Thank you again for taking the time to write. We will continue to publish a variety of news and opinion, and I hope you’ll continue to read us even as we raise your blood pressure on occasion.

Best wishes,

The editor

Sunday sampler


High Point: I can’t recommend this paper because the story is behind a paywall, but I’m struck that it appears to take a haunted house story seriously. But there are several good stories from today’s front pages.

Greensboro: Nancy McLaughlin of the News & Record tells the compelling story of a man with cancer who undertook a risky — phenomenal, really — surgery for survival. I and many in Greensboro happen to know the man — Bob Cone — but this is the first I knew of his operation. A compelling read.

Raleigh: A key question in the gubernatorial race involves education. Have the state’s schools improved under his watch? How about teacher pay? The N&O and the Charlotte Observer take a shot at answering those questions and more. As you might expect, it’s complicated.

Fayetteville: If you’re interested in an analysis of N.C. voting patterns, the Observer’s story might help you. It takes a while to get started, though. Most interesting yet  least surprising conclusion: “One point Wrenn and Pearce do agree on is that race has played the biggest role in shaping North Carolina’s political landscape. ‘Race is the most important thing in North Carolina politics. Always has been, probably always will be,’ Pearce said.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times examines poverty in its area. In a capsule, nearly 17% of the city population lived in poverty in 2015, 32% more than a year earlier. Beyond that, the anecdotes are tough. “In a city where a developer has plans for studio apartments renting for more than $800 a month across the street from a homeless shelter, Asheville’s poor are increasingly being hidden in plain sight.”

“There’s nothing in this newspaper”

In the news:

Wells Fargo’s new CEO apologized Tuesday to the institution’s employees for the banking scandal. What contributed to the cause of the scandal? Employees “racing to meet aggressive sales goals.”

Also Tuesday, a federal judge approved VW’s $14.7 billion settlement for its emissions cheating scandal. It’s unclear if VW’s action were motivated by anything more than greed, but there is a culture that expects uncommon results regardless of the means to get them.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is talking layoffs. So is Gannett. So is the Tampa Bay Times. There are others; Google “newspaper layoffs.” I wouldn’t mention it except that I know that the announcements are usually accompanied by executives talking about doing more with less, and championing local content, and being second to none when it comes to serving customers.

Next shoe dropping: Story quotas. fewer reporters being asked to write more stories, and fewer editors editing them. And, by the way, let’s add digital and social media duties. The only thing that’s not changed and has never changed is the amount of time available.

Hold up! That’s not true in a lot of newsrooms because the copy editing and design functions among several papers in the same ownership group have been consolidated, meaning that deadlines may come earlier in the night.

So, often, less time.

Journalists, racing to meet aggressive goals.

They won’t commit crimes to meet the goals, but they’ll be tempted to cut corners to make story quotas. They’ll be forced to choose stories that are easy to get and require less reporting. Investigative, enterprise reporting that makes a difference in civic life will be done by fewer reporters and papers. More mistakes will creep in because editing is too often too quick.

The paper will be filled because quotas will be made and goals met.

Meanwhile, readers will continue to say, “there’s nothing in here.”

Investigative reporting benefits society

I haven’t read James T. Hamilton’s book, “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism,” but I sure plan to. I’m inspired by this Q&A with Hamilton by Laurie Beth Harris at the American Press Institute. One of his three case studies is the work of the News & Observer.

Some highlights:

  • “I find that for each dollar invested in an investigative story, there can be over $100 in benefits to society.”
  • His lessons for journalists are: Pursue government records, and team up and partner, and provide transparency of your work.
  • “When The News & Observer did an investigative series on the probation system that decreased murders in North Carolina, if the paper had been able to capture just 10 percent of the net benefits to society from that series, they could have hired more than 90 new reporters. Going to individual donors or foundations to support the public goods provided by accountability reporting could generate more investigative work.”
  • “When you tell important stories that are unique, you develop a brand for quality and a reputation for offering what cannot be easily found elsewhere.”



Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of Rae Carruth’s son, Chancellor Lee Adams, who has cerebral palsy and brain damage as a result of his mother’s murder when he was still in her womb. Carruth, a player for the Charlotte Panthers, was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill her. He is scheduled to be released from prison in two years. It’s a moving story of pain, heartbreak and forgiveness…and absolutely nothing from Carruth. Read it.

Greensboro: Gov. Pat McCrory is proud of his so-called Carolina Comeback. The News & Record takes a look at whether he should be. It’s a mixed bag.

Raleigh: Seventeen dams failed – burst is the word the N&O uses today – in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. It’s one reason that so many roads were washed out. The N&O examines the condition and maintenance of the 3,200-plus dams around the state. There is no big reveal or terrible malfeasance uncovered, but the story is interesting nonetheless. Like our bridges, some dams are in trouble.

Raleigh: The N&O also has a fascinating piece about how well-off North Carolinians are and aren’t. You’re reading this because you have internet access; 20 percent of the state’s residents don’t. Meanwhile, our air quality is better than it was, and violent crime is down. But drug abuse is up. A quick and easy read in which you can learn about your state.