Sunday sampler

Charlotte: Ever since I watched my parents’ health decline, I’ve thought that America treats its dying pets better than its dying people. So the Observer’s story about a man who killed his ill wife and now charged with murder fascinated me. They apparently loved each other. He has dementia; she had cancer. He has been charged with murder. And, as the Observer asks, was it murder or a mercy killing?

Raleigh: It is a shame that the people who want Mexicans to leave the country don’t show more mercy to those here working in the fields so that Americans have food to eat and cigarettes to smoke. The News & Observer takes a look at the children — children! — working the fields, often illegally. “But despite the adjustments, advocacy groups and farmworkers say few changes have trickled down and underage children are still working. Anti-child labor organizations say that working in agriculture poses health and safety risks for children, but many farmers grew up working on their parents’ farmers and argue that farming ingrains the value of hard work from an early age. “’Thousands of people grew up working on farms. My children did it,’” said Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau. “’Farm work is hard, it’s hot, it’s nasty and it’s outside. They (immigrant workers) come here knowing that it is work.’”

Asheville: Many Airbnb’s in Asheville are illegal? “Currently, Asheville law only permits residents to rent two rooms in their homes at a time. The property being rented must also be in a residential zoning district. Potential renters must also be present at the home during the rental and obtain a permit from the city. The city refers to these types of rentals as homestays.”

Greensboro: If you want to know how cold-hearted our elected officials can be when it comes to the state’s most vulnerable, read the News & Record’s story about the state budget wiping out some funding for Legal Aid. (Of course, no one seems to know how it was inserted into the budget because darkness nurtures evil.) “That means several hundred people per year who need legal assistance won’t be getting it,” said Southern Piedmont director Kenneth Schorr. “People who are in danger of losing their safety and security.”

Sunday sampler

Asheville: Do you know where in your city the most violent crime occurs? My guess is that you’re wrong. The Citizen-Times did its readers a favor by pointing in a few directions.  “But according to a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of police data by the Citizen-Times, crime isn’t a problem only downtown, with surrounding neighborhoods experiencing higher rates of the two most serious types of violent crime — rapes and homicides — than the city center.” The story itself is intensely local to Asheville — I used to live there — but it would be an interesting story for other publications to mimic.

Wilmington: GenX, a toxic chemical used in Teflon and made by DuPont, has been found in the Cape Fear River and the area’s water supply. The Star-News has been all over this story for a few weeks, explaining and exploring the ins and outs of the chemical, which cannot be filtered out of the water supply. The linked story isn’t the one on today’s front page because I couldn’t find that one — about high school athletes in summer training drinking the water. This link is to a Q&A about the chemical.

Raleigh: The idea that letting just about anyone carry a concealed gun is crazy to me, yet it makes great sense to the people the state’s voters send to Raleigh. “The state House passed a bill this month that pits gun owners against each other. It would nearly eliminate concealed handgun permits and the training that goes with them, and would set the minimum age at 18 to carry a concealed gun.” Let me point out it eliminates most of the training. The justification for it makes little sense to me, either.

Greensboro: Because I’m a Democrat in a blue city that was gerrymandered to dilute our voting power and Greensboro is now represented by two Republicans, including one who lives two counties away, this story on gerrymandering interested me. No surprise that its point is that people like me have little voice in Washington. “Yet the data suggest that even if Democrats had turned out in larger numbers, their chances of substantial legislative gains were limited by gerrymandering. ‘The outcome was already cooked in, if you will, because of the way the districts were drawn,’ said John McGlennon, a longtime professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in the 1980s.”

Charlotte: I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham several times and interviewing him at length once. I liked him. I can’t say the same for his son, Franklin. The Observer has an outstanding piece examining the role Ruth Graham played in her husband’s and son’s lives. “Instead of changing with age, Franklin, now 64, has dug in. He has said and done a lot that’s proven controversial, including questioning President Barack Obama’s Christianity and pulling his ministry’s money out of Wells Fargo when the bank ran commercials featuring a lesbian couple. ‘Like his mother, Franklin is unusually driven,’ Wacker said. ‘Driven by ideas and also by a sense that it’s his job to promulgate his views and save the culture.’”

Sunday sampler, Father’s Day edition

Unlike Mother’s Day, not that many newspapers have Father’s Day stories on their front pages. Suits me because there are several other interesting stories.

Greensboro: The News & Record identifies the most influential 20 people in Greensboro. As are all lists like this, it’s subjective, which the paper acknowledges. But it states its criteria, and it makes sense. It’s a solid list with some regulars — people who would have been on such a list 25 years ago — and some surprises. I like stories like this. The names don’t have be the same you or I would select, but they do tell readers about the city in a way most daily news stories don’t.

Charlotte: Driving drunk and causing a wreck that kills a woman is terrible. Having three drunken driving charges and two convictions before that and still keeping your driving license? The Observer examines how that happened. You probably won’t like the explanations.

Raleigh: The state legislature has let it be known for three or four years that it doesn’t care for protesters in the capital building. After namecalling — “Moron Monday” — and mass arrests, now come the bans. “Asked why the bans are needed, (General Assembly Police Chief Martin) Brock said, ‘If someone has been arrested two or three times, would it be reasonable to expect that they would be arrested again? That would be my observation.’ Unconstitutional? Seems like it.

Lenoir: The News-Topic has a neat story about a man researching his family history and who decided to check out a family rumor. He ended up believing that his grandfather killed a man and got away with it. Sadly for me, there’s a paywall so I couldn’t read the entire story.

 

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer wrote a five-part series on prison corruption last week that was outstanding in its reporting and documentation of drugs, sex, violence and crime within the state’s prisons. Now government officials are responding with words of action. This is journalism that makes a difference.

High Point: One of the recommendations in Charlotte’s story for fixing the problems within the state’s prisons is addressing lax hiring of guards. The Enterprise writes about the process of hiring and training police officers. Given the difficulty of the job and the microscope officers are under, hiring the people with the right disposition and giving them the right skills is vital. I don’t know if the story is any good because I can’t find it on the web, and even if I could, I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs because it’s a pay site.

Raleigh: The legislature’s attack on UNC-Chapel Hill continues. The N&O highlights the efforts the law school is making to fight a proposed 30 percent cut to state appropriation. “There’s been little explanation about the reason for the proposed cut in a year when the state’s coffers are healthy and spending increases are planned in other areas. But some think Republican lawmakers’ threatened cut is aimed squarely at Gene Nichol, former dean and well-known liberal who has been critical of GOP leaders in commentaries for The News & Observer’s editorial pages.” Not surprisingly, the bill’s sponsors didn’t respond to interview requests.

Greensboro: The News & Record profiles one of Donald Trump’s “bad hombres,” who has sought sanctuary in an Episcopal church. “Married to an American citizen, (Tobar Ortega) has lived in the Triad since 1993 and had worked at the same High Point textile company since 2009. Two of her four children were born here, making them American citizens as well. Two other adult children are here legally. Having fled Guatemala under the fear of violence, Tobar Ortega has been in the United States for more than 20 years. A judge turned down her request for asylum in 1989, as did an appeals court. But for the better part of that time, the government, knowing she was here, has done nothing.”

Yes, I mean “bad hombre” sarcastically.

How newspapers in N.C. played the Comey story

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The biggest news story of Thursday was James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Out of curiosity, I checked the Newseum to see which newspapers in N.C. published the story on their front pages. Of 19 newspapers listed, eight did. Adding the Winston-Salem Journal, which isn’t on the site, makes nine.

The story has a presence on the front pages of all of the state’s large newspapers — Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston, Fayetteville, Asheville and Wilmington. It’s also on the front pages of the Elizabeth City and Henderson County papers. Makes sense: it’s history.

What kinds of stories are on the 11 other newspaper front pages? City council budgets, United Way contributions, murders, graduations, American Revolution re-enactments and the state House’s passage of a gun bill. Very few are “big news,” except possibly in those communities.

The argument in favor of that philosophy is that citizens can get the Comey story everywhere, but they won’t be able to read about the local high school graduation or the town budget anywhere else. I buy that, too.

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Sunday sampler, budget edition

Asheville: The Citizen-Times attempts to school state legislators who believe that trickle-down economics is voodoo economics, as President George H.W. Bush famously said. But that’s well-known by anyone who follows politics. (Well, well-known by those who aren’t conservative legislators.) More interesting to me is the accompanying story that puts the lie to the idea that the state legislature has restored funding to the public schools. “State figures show that after the effects of inflation are taken into account, North Carolina’s per-pupil spending on schools fell by 9.2 percent from 2007-08 to 2015-16.” And teachers and students feel it the most.

Charlotte: A prison sergeant was killed by an inmate at Bertie Correctional last month, and her mother points out the need for more guards. “State figures show that roughly one of every five correctional officer positions at the eastern North Carolina prison was vacant last month. Statewide, about 16 percent of officer positions are vacant, an Observer story showed…. To attract more officers to the profession, state leaders need to increase pay, she said. Officers at maximum security prisons earn an average of about $35,000 annually.”

Greensboro: And while we’re at it, the News & Record details salaries for police officers, which, frankly, also seem low for those on the thin blue line. “The current starting salary for police officers in Greensboro is $35,556 a year— less than in High Point ($36,585), Durham ($37,029), Raleigh ($38,834) and Charlotte ($42,640).” (For context, Sen. Phil Berger employs four staff members who each make more than $100,000. That’s me being snarky, not the News & Record.)

Greensboro: For Memorial Day, the N&R also has a fine, non-budget story about a lawyer who saved the flag from his Swift Boat in Vietnam. “At first, I kept it as a memento,” said Barron, who was just in his mid-20s when he patrolled the waters around Vietnam in the 50-foot heavily armed craft tasked with shutting off supplies and other traffic from enemy forces. I realized after a while that it’s a lot more.” Yes, it was.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh and Charlotte: The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer joined, as they do, for investigative stories. Today’s looks at inequities in school education. And as with so many things, it seems to correlate with poverty. “Thousands of low-income children who get “superior” marks on end-of-grade tests aren’t getting an equal shot at advanced classes designed to challenge gifted students. As they start fourth grade, bright children from low-income families are much more likely to be excluded from the more rigorous classes than their peers from families with higher incomes, the analysis shows.” It also includes a handy district-by-district search tool.

Asheville: In case you think being transgendered is a choice, read the Citizen-Times’ story on Emma, who was born a boy and is now 6.  “One day Emma came to her parents with a question: ‘Why do people call me ‘he’ when I’m a ‘she’?’  Amy recalled. ‘That’s about the time we started realizing that she has always known her soul was female,’ the mother said.” This is an outstanding story of a family’s struggle with a child born different and with societal’s norms.

Winston-Salem: It takes a while for the Journal to get to what I consider interesting in this story about executive compensation: that 13 executives with Triad ties make a base pay of more than $1 million. Nineteen got at least $1 million in incentive pay. (In the comments section, a reader asks, “Missing from the list: Winston-Salem Journal. What’s the salary of its new publisher, Alton Brown?” It hasn’t been answered yet.)

Where’s the local investigative reporting?

Updates below

You can’t be a journalist and not admire the investigative reporting of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Actually, you can’t be a citizen who believes in good government and not appreciate their work, though I know some partisans disagree. The Times, at least, has seen its subscriptions soar, too.

So, why haven’t local newspapers followed suit with more tough-minded investigative reporting in their communities? In North Carolina, if they are, I haven’t seen it. Every Sunday for five years, I’ve looked at the front pages of North Carolina newspapers.

Outside of the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, there are few signs of investigative work. (From today’s N&O, for instance.) That’s a shame because a skeptical person — me — knows that shenanigans are going on in the state capital. The N&O and Observer do what they can, but they can’t do it all. The state’s larger newspapers –Greensboro, Fayetteville, Winston, Asheville, Wilmington — should be all over what’s happening in Raleigh and their communities. Instead, other media are filling the gap.

I understand that investigative reporting takes time and that newspaper staffs are stretched thin. But if you’re not raising hell, why are you in the business?

Four or five years ago, I said that were I able to do it over again, I would focus on investigative reporting and “good news” stories. (My friend at WFMY Bailey Pennington describes one type of “good news” stories here.) How? By eliminating other topics you write about. Newspapers spend too much time on crime, on government meetings that produce little significant news, on “stuff” that gets a reporter a byline but little readership. You’re not going to be “the paper of record” any longer. It’s clear by your subscription numbers that people don’t value that.

Smaller papers aren’t exempt. You make a difference in your community by telling people what they don’t know about issues they care about. Small town governments have corruption, graft and influence peddling, too.

You may think you have to fill the paper? Do you? Is it helpful to publish information that most people don’t care about? Does “filling the paper” serve many of the principles of journalism? If you feel you must, be creative. Get your readers to help. Use organizations and clubs to help. Curate stories from other publications.

Meanwhile, how do you start finding your own stories? Look at travel records and expense accounts. Examine who gets the building contracts and who is getting the pay raises and big salaries. Subscribe to newsletters like CJR and Local Matters and steal ideas. Steal, steal, steal. Talk to public officials. They tend to know where the bodies are buried. Be curious. Figure out what matters to your community and to your readers. If your mama says she loves you, check it out.

Newspapers were once vital institutions in their communities. Many still are. But time is running out. You can regain a measure of standing by investigating for the reader.

Updates

From Joe Neff, a reporter at the N&O: “A key point I make around the newsroom: Investigative reporting doesn’t mean months of work. It’s a mindset about obtaining original source materials. Documents. Requesting emails and memos, building sources (seeing eye dogs) who can point you to what records to request, and using said records to fashion more requests. Beat reporting with a records mentality. The public records law is one of our best tools and many reporters never use it

From Shannan Bowen Stevens of McClatchy, a link from Poynter about how thinking in print is holding newsrooms back. She also sent an insightful response from the VP News at McClatchy that lists some key questions every newsroom should ask every day.

From Steve Harrison, a FB friend: “I do daily news roundups, usually just five stories. And I try (very hard) to grab articles from dailies across the state, instead of just relying on the N&O. But I see the very same articles (not just AP stuff) at papers across the state. Not just national/international stories, but state (NC) and even regional issues. And “hometown color” pieces, but from towns in other states. It’s like a content mishmash collage put together by a middle-school kid rushing to finish an art project that’s due.”

UNC students, it’s Swaggy J to you

With update below:

History students at UNC-Chapel Hill may be different from students in the School of Media and Journalism.

That’s the first conclusion I draw from this column in the New York Times by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Worthen takes issue with the decorum – or lack thereof – in which students address and communicate with teaching faculty.

“Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.”

I don’t know about the time frame here. When I was in college I submitted sloppy work, called some professors by their first names, and drank beer with others. Of course, this was back in the go-go 70’s so….

“Why are so many teachers bent out of shape because a student fails to call them ‘Professor’ or neglects to proofread an email? Are academics really that insecure? Is this just another case of scapegoating millennials for changes in the broader culture?

“Don’t dismiss these calls for old-fashioned courtesy as a case of fragile ivory tower egos or misplaced nostalgia. There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.”

It’s a good column. I have always liked Worthen’s writing and appreciated her thoughtfulness. Read it all, then come back.

I’m sure everything Worthen writes is true, but I haven’t experienced it. Maybe I’m lucky. Or maybe it’s because I’m closer in age to students’ parents and grandparents, and they know better.

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To my face, I’ve been called professor, prof, Dr. Robinson, Mr. Robinson, John, JR and, finally, Swaggy J. Who knows what behind my back. (More on Swaggy J in a bit.) While most students call me Mr. Robinson, I don’t interpret any of the names as disrespectful. I don’t interpret them as inappropriately intimate, either. Instead, I believe the students do it because they trust me and consider me a friend — a friend who evaluates their work, who will tell them the brutal truth about it and who occasionally irritates them, but a friend nonetheless.

In fact, I think the names are highly respectful of me and my position as a teacher.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the journalism school that I don’t receive many emails written with slang or texting language or poorly constructed messages. Yes, I’ve gotten emails with misspelled words and with poor grammar, but they’re usually from students who need help with spelling and grammar on their class assignments, too. Help, by the way, that I try to give them.

Have I had to ask students not to text during class? Yes. Do I ask them not to wander around the web during class? Yes. Do they refrain after I ask? Yes.

I’ve found that if you give students respect, they give it back.

I engage with students on social media. I learned as a newspaper editor that smart journalists go to where people gather. Students gather there. I was active on Twitter and Facebook long before I became a college teacher. I still am. I have two social media rules:

  1. Follow students only after they follow me.
  2. Don’t be stupid.

I also don’t see a lack of etiquette. Occasionally students will ask me what the proper, professional style is when applying for a job or internship, but I rarely see them blundering into the unknown, acting as if a prospective employer or professor is their high school bro. Someone before me has either taught them how or taught them to ask if they don’t know.

From the article:

The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning. The central endeavor of higher education is not the pursuit of money or fame but knowledge. “There needs to be some understanding that degrees mean something,” Professor Jackson-Brown said. “Otherwise, why are we encouraging them to get an education?”

Maybe it’s that I don’t have a doctorate or a title higher than adjunct lecturer. I’m not officially a doctor or a professor; it’s not accurate or ethical for me to use those titles. But I do have an esteem for learning. One of my messages on the final day of classes is to be a lifelong learner, to never stop reading or paying attention. And my final pledge to students is a commitment to be there for them whenever they need help or guidance or a shoulder.

Like all teachers, I care deeply about my students. My philosophy is that I’m not successful until they are, both in my class and beyond. It’s a lifelong challenge for me, but what else do I have to do?

Oh, and Swaggy J? One day I wore a pink sweater to class and a student, Aaron Dodson, who is now at the Undefeated, called me Swaggy J, after Swaggy P.  I don’t know why. I believe he called me that with affectionate respect. Two years later and a few students still call me that.

I wear it with pride.

Update: From Denny McAuliffe, a Washington Post copy editor and my colleague in the School of Media and Journalism: “One of my most entertaining challenges every semester is to insist on Day One that students call me by my first name, as an intro to newsroom etiquette. I tell them that if the great Ben Bradlee allowed us mere mortals to call him Ben, they can certainly call me Denny. I also tell them that if they ever get to the Washington Post newsroom and call the executive editor Mr. Baron instead of Marty, he’ll ask, What are they teaching you at that UNC j-school?”

Mark Binker, RIP

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It was an honor to be asked to speak at Mark Binker’s memorial service Friday. I struggled to find the right words. You can watch the entire service here. (Stay for Mason Binker’s comments about his father.) Here’s what I said, minus the comments about Mason, which were extemporaneous. You may also contribute to help Mark’s family.

I was Mark’s boss at the News & Record for 12 years.  So, all of you politicians who encountered Mark’s annoying questions, his refusal to go away, and his lack of respect for your evasions? I feel you. And that’s also one reason I loved Mark Binker.

We hired Mark for our bureau in High Point and he impressed us there so we brought him into the Greensboro newsroom, and then sent him to Raleigh.

When he left us to go WRAL in 2012, that really impressed me. Scruffy newspaper reporter tries out TV. Pretty gutsy career move.

By the way, pretty gutsy move by WRAL, too, Laura.

Mark was also my friend.

You know, the truth is, that in the editor-reporter relationship, the editors begin as the alpha-dogs, guiding the reporter along. The best reporters soon turn that around, and they become the leaders, telling the editor what’s what. That was Mark.

I’ve read many of the Facebook posts and blog entries about Binker. I’m pretty sure he’s up there chuckling over the praise he’s gotten from many of us. He always seemed to view journalism and politics with a good-natured side eye. But those blog posts and Facebook posts didn’t quite get to the reasons I loved Mark.

I loved Mark because he could be direct, sometimes painfully so. It wasn’t rudeness so much as it was journalistic impertinence. The best reporters have it.

I loved him because he could be funny, often snarky, but never mean-spirited.

He worked long, long hours, and if anyone from the Labor Department is here, we paid him time and a half for every one of those hours.

If he didn’t understand something or if you had information he wanted, he could nag you worse than a three-year-old wanting ice cream.

He suffered fools, not gladly, but he’d do it if it got him the story.

He was hugely intolerant — of frauds and fakers and BS.

Add up those characteristics and you have a journalist. He was a journalist with his whole being. He was a fact-finder and a truthteller.. He did it with courage and street smarts, with humor and integrity.

In these days when people demonize journalists, I have to say that Mark had that other characteristic that the best journalists have: he cared for you.

On June 6, 2007,  I laid off nearly three dozen good journalists in my newsroom. It took all afternoon and it crushed my soul and the soul of my newsroom. At about 6, I faced the staff to answer their questions. They were angry and sad and lost. So was I.

When it was over, people milled around in the newsroom, slicing and dicing what happened. Some went home and others went to work because that’s what we do. I was hollow inside. I went to my office, on the verge of tears.

After a few moments, Binker came in, leaned back against a bookcase across the way, and said, “So, that was fun, wasn’t it?”

He said it straight but he had that look — you all know it — and I burst out laughing. I know it sounds callous now, but it wasn’t then. It was exactly what I needed.

Then he said, “How are YOU doing, Boss?”

It was an incredibly kind gesture. I bet everyone in this room has a similar story.

Mason and Max, when you’re old enough, watch “The Paper” and “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” to see what your dad was like professionally.

Your father, he was the best of us.