First Amendment Day: It’s a battle and a celebration

I am proud to stand with my journalism friends and colleagues who are “the enemy of  the people” because that’s where free-thinking, independent Americans stand.

I’ve said that before, and I say it now because it’s First Amendment Day. Each of the five rights enshrined in the First Amendment are vital to health and well-being of the nation; because I’m a former journalist, my favorite is the freedom of the press.

The University of North Carolina is celebrating the First Amendment today with a number of activities, including a panel discussion on “hate, harassment and the right to report” on UNC’s State of Things that includes my friend Allen Johnson. Despite that, I wasn’t planning to note the day here because I’ve done it before, and I didn’t think I had anything new to say about it. Then I read this piece this morning on the worldwide assault on journalists and journalism by the publisher of the New York Times.

“But the free press is foundational to a healthy democracy and arguably the most important tool we have as citizens. It empowers the public by providing the information we need to elect leaders and the continuing oversight to keep them honest. It bears witness to our moments of tragedy and triumph and provides the shared baseline of common facts and information that bind communities together. It gives voice to the disadvantaged and doggedly pursues the truth to expose wrongdoing and drive change.”

The piece by A.G. Sulzberger points the finger directly at President Trump as it should, and it gives stunning, appalling, examples of when the U.S. government stood idle as journalists working in the employ of American news organizations were endangered.

What’s equally shameful in my mind is how Republican politicians haven’t raised a word against his assault on the truth and his defilement of the concept of a free press. He mocks core American values and puts journalists in danger, and they are silent. Complicit.

I’m proud of my service as a journalist, and I’m proud to work for a school that celebrates the country’s founding, enduring values. I subscribe to four daily newspapers. I don’t need to, but I do it because I want to directly support the efforts of journalists.

“This is a perilous moment for journalism, for free expression and for an informed public. But the moments and places where it is most difficult and dangerous to be a journalist are the moments and places where journalism is needed most.”

 

Sunday sampler

Asheville: The Citizen-Times documents a large fish kill — trout no less — in the Nantahala River after Duke Power released warm water into the river, raising the water temperature. “At the river’s terminus at Lake Fontana, fishing guide Kyle Fronrath watched blue heron and osprey swoop down to feast on the unexpected windfall of dead and dying fish for the third day in a row. Unofficial stewards of the Nantahala such as Bourcq, Johnson and Fronrath watched with growing alarm as their thermometers logged up to 78-degree temperatures in the normally 45-degree river.”

Greensboro: The News & Record has an informative – and likely helpful – story about how different generations communicate. As a Boomer, I’ve seen it in the classroom with, first, Millennials, and now, Gen Z. “We’re hitting five generations in the workforce” said Lizzy Tahsuda, director of Campus Greensboro for Action Greensboro. “And that’s not happened before. So we’ve got to figure out ways to work together.”

Fayetteville: I always like dress code stories because so often they show bureaucrats working on the wrong things. In this case, the Observer highlights questions about Cumberland County’s dress codes at some schools. I hit the paywall, but apparently a former student has started a change.org petition, saying the dress code at a middle school is arbitrary and treats minorities unfairly.

Winston-Salem: Who wants to go to the emergency room and have to wait for hours on end to get treated?  “Patients in Forsyth County’s two emergency departments waited on average between nearly five hours to just more than six hours before being  admitted, according to federal medical data reviewed by ProPublica.” Yikes!

Lenoir: The News-Topic has a cute story on Ricky-Bobby, a chihuahua-hound mix, who was missing, then found three days later with its hind legs paralyzed. No fear, he now gets around with a specially built wheelchair. (Paywall protected.)

Shutting down comments on news stories

I believe that a version of the Pareto Principle — the 80-20 rule — applies to goodness in people. That is, 80 percent of the badness comes from 20 percent of the people. In other words, 80 percent of the people are decent and kind and hard-working; 20 percent, not so much.

I thought about that when I read that WRAL shut down comments on news stories on its website. Twenty percent of the people ruined it for everyone.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I was a supporter of opening comments on stories and blogs. I bought into the idea that readers often knew more than we did, and they could help us find stories and fine-tune stories. I learned this concept quickly in the 90s when, as editorial page editor, I routinely faced a blank page and thought, “So many people know more about this topic than I do. How do I get this right?”

At the paper, we wanted to create a public square where ideas could be exchanged and debated. A welcoming, safe, civil space. Yes, I bought into that idealistic dream. Naive, now, but then, it was exciting.

In the beginning, reporters would occasionally complain to me about holier-than-thou commenters who didn’t understand journalism. Commenters often made suggestions that were well-meaning, but unrealistic or uninformed or sarcastic. I’d respond to the reporters that they should look past their egos and try to understand the commenter’s point. And we often heard positive things from readers.

Soon, trolls found us. Then we shut down comments on stories about crime and about race. We were getting less and less helpful information.

Toward the end of my time at the paper, I’d occasionally tell reporters not to read the comments on their stories. My sense was that the 20 percent had driven the 80 percent away.

From WRAL’s announcement: “Comment threads have become overwhelmed by trolls and anonymous contributors who too often hijack comment threads with offensive and inappropriate submissions, in clear violation of commenting guidelines. The effort to police comments takes our staff away from the core mission of reporting on local news.”

And the truth is, comments on stories aren’t needed any longer. There are also plenty of avenues to debate issues and talk with journalists that weren’t available 15 years ago. Social media abounds with debates, some civil, some not. Want to reach out to a specific journalist? It’s not difficult to talk with them on Twitter or Facebook, and easy to email them.

Now, I’ve done a total 180. I tell students not to read online comments on their work. The detriments — depression, insults, sexism, racism — far outweigh any benefits. The 20 percent have ruined it for the 80 percent.

Then, just as I posted this, I saw this tweet. (I’ve deleted the Twitter name because the person’s account is private.) So, there’s still work to do.

30 years later, I’m still learning from Pat Stith

I had the privilege of working on some stories with Pat Stith while we were both at the News & Observer. Imagine him as Michael Jordan and me as the ball boy and you’ve got the picture. He was a masterful reporter and I was a kid. The stories about the newspaper stories we worked on are a-whole-nother blog post. But it’s safe to say that I learned a great deal about reporting and fact-checking and patience from him.

Stith

Now, three-plus decades later, I’m still learning. This time about blogging.

I’ve had a blog since 2004, and I’ve had this one since 2012. I started out writing about journalism, but as I’ve gotten further away from trying to peer into the foggy future of journalism, I let the blog drift away. I was dutiful about keeping track of good stories published in Sunday newspapers — the Sunday sampler — but other than that, meh.

Then, upon reading a post on Stith’s blog in January, I realized that I wanted to do what he does. He writes interesting anecdotes about his life in newspapers, his life growing up, his life with politicians and bureaucrats. His life. I started thinking that I should write some of this stuff down.

In February, I started writing three posts a week, Usually Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Sometimes I missed a post, other times I wrote a fourth. But three was my intent. Most are about newspapering, some are about teaching. Not many are about growing up, although those may come.

It’s made the blog fun again. Thanks, Pat.

 

Sunday sampler

First, the usual Sampler fare, and then a note about an odd editor’s note in Fayetteville.

Several updates a year after Hurricane Florence wrecked parts of the N.C. coast. The Star-News in Wilmington has a good one on lessons learned, beginning with the absence of a government building that can withstand Category 5 winds. The Carteret County News-Times updates us on the recovery on the coast farther north. (People are finally getting back  into their homes.) And the Fayetteville Observer updates readers on its area after Florence.

High Point: The Guilford County commissioners are talking about banning smoking in county parks, a far cry from 20 years ago when that would have never made it into writing. I doubt it goes anywhere, but who knows?

Charlotte: The Observer has a strong N&O story about the shenanigans of the GOP in the state House in overriding the governor’s veto. The most interesting thing, to me, is that it shows how Guilford’s legislator, Jon Hardister, has developed. Eight or nine years ago, he campaigned as a bipartisan, reasonable Republican. As majority whip, he’s become a brazen partisan.

Now, the odd editor’s note:

Fayetteville: The Observer has an interesting editor’s note on its front page that I’d like to know more about. The paper says it published an editorial cartoon Saturday that was in poor taste. Then the editor throws under the bus some “group” that may-or-may-not be related to the paper?

“The group responsible for pulling some of the content for our opinion and editorial page should have flagged this particular cartoon and brought it to our attention. Questions should have been raised about it before it made it to print.” The editor promises to follow up.

I always took the position that the editor was responsible for everything in the paper, except, when I was editor, the editorial pages. We had a separate editorial page editor, to keep news and opinion responsibilities independent of each other. So, in Fayetteville, is the editor throwing the paper’s editorial staff under the bus? Or possibly, because Fayetteville is owned by Gatehouse Media, are the Observer’s opinion sections created off-site by a Gatehouse staff? And it’s their fault?

I’m trying to imagine Fayetteville readers will make of this. Perhaps someone on the staff can help me?

UPDATE: A possible explanation from this story in Eugene (Wash.) Weekly in January. Tip of the hat to Andria Krewson.

In September 2018, EW reported about speculation that the “Our View” editorials the Guard was running — seemingly without an editorial staff — were being outsourced to Portland-based company Opinion in a Pinch, a service that, according to its website, can “help you produce the right editorial, column, white paper or press release to achieve your goals” if you tell them the “topic, your opinion and how many words.”

 

Lessons from the academy

Two scenes from the classroom:

1.

Yesterday was my birthday and a student who had been in an earlier class with me gave me a brownie and led the class in singing Happy Birthday. It was nice. I was touched. Afterward, I heard about this comment about me out of my earshot:

Him: “Do you know him well? I can’t decide if he’s great or if he’s an asshole.”

Me:—————->

###########

2.

On Monday, a professor at the school received an email from a California media company asking about a program I was involved with. The professor passed it to the dean, who passed it to the associate dean, who passed it to me. I read it and was unclear on what the media company representative wanted.

I pulled out my phone to call the rep, but then I had another thought. It was a learning opportunity; I could teach some students about the timeless military concept that “shit flows downhill.” 

I called over two of the three PR students in my class over and told them to get with the third PR student and to contact the rep to find out precisely how we could help her.

As it turned out, the two PR students truly understood the shit-flow-downhill concept. They got the third PR student to do it.

The morning eight years ago when I quit my job

Eight years ago, this week, I walked into my publisher’s office for our regular Monday meeting, prepared to give my notice as editor of the News & Record.

It was a long walk down the stairs from the newsroom on the second floor.

The N&R had been my home since 1985, and I had been the editor there since 1999, nearly 13 years. I had worked in various editing roles for two editors, Ben Bowers and Pat Yack, and four different publishers. It had been an exciting, fulfilling and tough run, and at 58, I wasn’t ready to retire. We did some incredibly good work every single year. But I also had to lay off good journalists four times, I had to stand in front of them three times out of the last four years and tell them they weren’t getting raises, and I had to manage a smaller and smaller budget.

I was spending too much time making do with less. (Yes, the slogan to “do more with less” is bullshit.)

That summer, when I was told that the paper wasn’t giving raises once more, and I confronted a budget that was simply inadequate to properly cover the community with energy and force, I knew I was done.

I had always said to myself and my wife, Susan, that I wouldn’t quit until our daughters were out of college and employed. My younger daughter had graduated that May and started work in New York. My older daughter was working in Dallas. Both were doing well in the beginning of their professional lives.

Susan had been with me in my highs and lows, and she had seen what the last few years of the newspaper implosion had done to me. One day toward the end of summer, I asked Susan if I could quit. Without hesitation, she said yes.

When I sat down across the desk from the publisher, I wasn’t nervous, which surprised me because I get nervous when I anticipate confrontation. (Yes, I spent much of my life as a journalist working outside of my comfort zone.) We went through our normal discussion, which consisted primarily of things he wanted me to do or things he wanted to know about. When he was finished, I said:

“I have one more thing. I’m here to quit and give my notice.”

I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know he was surprised. He recovered quickly, saying, “That’s the last time I let you take a long weekend.” Which was pretty funny. And literally true.

We talked about it for 15 or 20 minutes. I explained why. He made an effort to talk me out of it, but it wasn’t passionate or pressured. I wasn’t his ideal editor, and both of us knew it. There were serious journalism topics and principles on which we didn’t see eye-to-eye. I’m sure he came close to firing me a few times. He had inherited me, and he deserved a chance to bring in his own editor.

I gave a month’s notice. He asked me to wait until the start of the year. He wanted to get the replacement process started so that the editor’s position wouldn’t be vacant for long. We settled on 10 weeks. Both of us agreed to keep it secret for the time being. He didn’t want to be bugged by people inquiring about the job; I didn’t want to be an automatic lame duck.

As we talked about what my future plans were, he reminded me that the company no longer had a retirement plan. (When the paper was put up for sale, employees were basically given their accrued retirement benefits.) I said that I had no plans to retire. I was quitting. I didn’t know what I was going to do — this was before I had the opportunity to teach at Elon University — but I knew I wasn’t finished working.

I left his office, went back to mine, shut the door and called Susan. Then went back to work.

Sunday sampler

Lots of Dorian aftermath stories on the front pages today.

Charlotte: The Observer keeps a watch on the special election in the 9th Congressional District, particularly now that President Trump has weighed in. And, as the Observer reports, he is getting voters to the polls…to vote Democratic. “Even if I like a Republican personally, I don’t know if I trust their ability to act independently. I see another vote for a delusional president.”

Raleigh: The N&O tells me something I didn’t know, which is what I prize about newspapers — that “American Indian women are more than three times as vulnerable to violent crimes and twice as likely to be raped as women of other races. In North Carolina, roughly 90 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women — dating back to 1994 — remain unsolved.”

Gatehouse newspapers — Kinston, Hendersonville, Fayetteville, Wilmington — all publish the first of a three-part series on climate change. I can’t tell that it’s local to any of the papers, but it’s still a decent story. “NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory recently issued a 20-page synopsis of current research results about global warming and hurricanes. In summary, it says sea level rise, “which very likely has a substantial human contribution,” will cause higher coastal inundation levels for tropical cyclones. That means bigger waves and higher storm surge that reaches farther inland.”

Penny Muse Abernathy wins a well-deserved honor

I’m pleased to see that my friend Penny Muse Abernathy has been named the winner of the 2019 Christopher J. Welles Memorial Prize by the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business at the Columbia Journalism School.

(I couldn’t in good conscience fit Penny’s title into that sentence. She is the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina. Please let it be noted that academic titles are more wordy and pretentious than government titles. And I say that, knowing full well that my official title is Stembler Professional in Residence.)

The prize was awarded for her ground-breaking work in News Deserts. It’s well-deserved. Her research is being quoted everywhere. It also should frighten citizens who care about good government everywhere.

Raju Narisetti, director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship, said: “Her singular body of research on the state of local news as well as her studies on potential business models that could sustain future local news endeavors has driven real-world change and conversations among foundations, national news outlets, policy makers and the tech industry in America.”

I’m proud that I have been able to call her a friend for a long while and now can call her a colleague at UNC. I had the privilege in teaching one of her signature courses while she was working on the research. That course, “Leadership in a Time of Change,” was different for me and stretched my abilities. I’m grateful she asked me to teach it, and I’m grateful for the guidance she gave me.

Full disclosure: In exchange for talking with one of her other classes about journalism, she let me use her two Carolina basketball season tickets for a game. I told her I’d step in anytime.

“Fake news my ass. I like a free press”

I was walking on the beach yesterday with my wife, Susan, and we passed a man and woman, probably both about my age. She was on the phone. When we passed, we said hello and kept on moving.

He shouted, “I like your shirt! Free press”

I looked down. I had forgotten which one it was. Oh, yes. A T-shirt I had gotten from the UNC School of Media and Journalism. On the back it quoted Samuel Adams.

“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants … as a FREE PRESS.” — Samuel Adams, 1768

I turned to him, smiled, said thank you and kept moving. Then he said, “Fake news my ass. I like a free press.”

At that, I walked back to him. His wife, still on the phone, looked alarmed. I stuck my hand out to him to shake and said, “damn right.”

And we started off again.

It still stuns me that the president of the United States calls the news media “the enemy of the people.” It still bothers me that few Republican members of Congress have the courage or patriotism to contradict him.

Every September, UNC celebrates First Amendment Day, as a part of Banned Books Week. This year it is Sept. 24. I got the Samuel Adams shirt in 2017.

I wear it with pride.