Sunday sampler

Many newspapers feature stories about Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the state…in five days. As a reader, I’m unclear on the value of that. Website, sure, because you can update it constantly, but front page? Anyway there are other stories of interest.

Raleigh: The N&O examines one of the great political problems in North Carolina today: gerrymandering. The story shows clearly that political lines are drawn to disenfranchise voters. “Today, all of Wilmington and the rest of New Hanover County are in a single state Senate district, except for a heavily African-American area just south of downtown. Those homes were carved out and placed into a different district, which is mostly made up of suburbs, beach towns and rural farming communities in Bladen, Brunswick and Pender counties.”

Charlotte: I always enjoying scanning stories about peoples’ salaries because it helps me walk in their shoes. In the case of the Observer’s story on CEO salaries, it makes me shake my head. $42.3 million for the CEO of LendingTree? And that’s with a $17.3 million pay CUT from the year before. See the others on the list.

Winston-Salem: The Journal has a piece that demonstrates the lengths some politicians will go to pander to special interests. A couple ministers in Yadkin County asked the county commissioners to declare the county a sanctuary for the unborn, and despite the meaninglessness of the resolution, the commissioners passed it. Without discussion. “Abortion is legal in all 50 states, including North Carolina, and this unenforceable resolution does nothing to change that,” Birdsong (of the ACLU) said in a statement. “Women have a right to access the care they need without shame, obstacles and stigma no matter where they live. We encourage any Yadkin County residents who have concerns about the impact of this policy to contact our office.”

Kinston, Fayetteville and New Bern: The three Gatehouse papers continue to share content. This Sunday it is a story about Labor Day weekend being a deadly one for highway fatalities. I don’t see any N.C. data in it.

Fifteen years after EPIC 2014

In 2004, President Bush won a second term. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. “New” words included “social media,” “paywall” and “podcast.” YouTube was created in 2005; Twitter in 2006; the iPhone in 2007; and Instagram not until 2010.

Oh, and Epic 2014 was created in 2004. From Wikipedia: “The movie is presented from the viewpoint of a fictional “Museum of Media History” in the year 2014. It explores the effects that the convergence of popular news aggregators, such as Google News, with other Web 2.0 technologies like bloggingsocial networking and user participation may have on journalism and society at large in a hypothesized future.”

It changed the way I and many people in news thought about the future.

Take 8 minutes to watch it.

YouTube Preview Image

The film, created by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson while they were at the Poynter Institute, was presented to media executives at the journalism think-tank in Florida. The film doesn’t get the details right, but the overall vision of the future is pretty damn close. Dominant websites. Rising social media. Sleepy news responses. Web networks. Privacy issues.

After showing it, Sloan and Thompson always asked: “If this is what the year 2014 looks like, what are you going to do today to make sure your news organization doesn’t get sidelined? How do you make sure you can play in this environment?”

Back in 2004, we had begun introducing blogs, and we were getting used to real-time interaction with readers. We were trying to move readers to the center of our focus. We were seemingly constantly tinkering with the website. At some point in 2006 or 2007, I was noodling around the idea of creating a Guilford County centric version of Facebook. (I came to the conclusion that Facebook would be a Guilford County centric version of Facebook to many people.)

We didn’t do enough fast enough or innovative enough. We were the epitome of what everyone said about newspapers: too slow and too tied to the old ways of print.

Now, I rewatch EPIC 2014 every year to remember and recharge. It reminds me to look ahead at what might be, to think more broadly about possibilities. While I’m no longer trying to make bets on the future – which I did when I was editor at the paper – I’m still interested.

By the way, Sloan and Thompson updated it in 2005.


Trolls on Facebook

I often get asked why I don’t block more people on Facebook.

I don’t block many people. My days as a journalist taught me the value of a free exchange of ideas. The primary reason I block anyone is if they consistently mock me or other commenters without adding anything to the discussion. Other than establishing that I’m an asshole, that doesn’t add anything to the discussion. Everyone already knows I’m an asshole, duh.

I will occasionally chide commenters for getting too personally abusive in their comments, but I don’t do it very often. I don’t spend enough time there to police comments.

Naturally, this happens only on posts about politics.

But to the point, yes, there are commenters that question why I haven’t blocked a few of my Facebook friends. A case in point is in this thread:

His BS and cowardice are so predictable.

Posted by John Robinson on Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Don is not a bot; he exists. We’ve met. Others I haven’t met but I know they are people in my hometown.

Are they trolls? I think so. From Wikipedia, “a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive,[1]extraneous, or off-topic messages … with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion.”

I don’t block them, though, because they aren’t abusive to others. They simply attempt to sidetrack the conversation; or they make points that have little basis in fact. Meanwhile, in a separte thread, other commenters usually take their comments apart. And the reasonable conversation goes on in the main comment thread.

For me, they are also a guilty pleasure. They discussions with them are entertaining, in the way that a cat is entertained by toying with a caught mouse.

For the record, I have openly declared myself a troll.

Sunday sampler

Asheville: Many papers have front page stories about students going back to school. The Citizen-Times has one about athletes going back to school, and how some can get ripped off by people promising them a leg up to get a college scholarship. “There is a youth sports industrial complex that is designed around this idea that most parents are going to believe their child is good enough to earn an athletic scholarship, whether it’s true or not,” said Galen Clavio, an associate professor of sports media at Indiana University. “For a small number of young people it works out, but for a much larger number it does not. Unfortunately, it’s now just the cost of doing business.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal continues the trend of local newspapers taking data published by the Washington Post about opioid distribution and showing the local impact. And in the Piedmont-Triad’s case, the impact is big, especially in Surry County.  “That equates to 80.3 pills per person, the second most pills per person in the state, behind Columbus County with 111 but far surpassing the state average of 42.9. Forsyth County fell below the state average at 38.4.” My county, Guilford, was at 33.2, but the county to the north, Rockingham, was 69.3!

Raleigh: The N&O goes big with a story on the debut of the ACC Network. I’ve put it aside so I’ll be able to find the channel when it’s time to watch games. But I put it aside on Thursday, when my hometown paper, the News & Record ran the story in its sports section. I’m used to newspapers publishing their Sunday print stories earlier in the week; I support the philosophy. I have a lot of respect for the smart people at the N&O, but putting a story out early so that another newspaper can publish it in its print edition before you do mystifies me.


Top journalism maxims

“If your mama says she loves you, check it out.”

“Silence can be the best question of the interview.”

“Always listen to the nagging voice in back of your head.”

My Facebook friend Steve Gunn, former editor of the Virginian-Pilot, asked his friends for a list of the top journalism maxims that propel reporting and writing. Boy, did his friends ever respond. Right now, the post has nearly 100 responses, all classic. I liked it so much that I shared it on my Facebook page. And the comments started up there, too.

My contribution: “When someone starts a sentence with “To tell the truth,” he’s about to tell a lie. (Pat Stith told me that one.)

Some of my favorites:

“Readers won’t remember who got it first, but they will remember who got it wrong.”

“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

“Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you know.”

“Get off your ass and knock on doors.”

“Every time you assume something, you assume wrong.”

“If I’d had more time, it would have been shorter.”

“Get the name of the dog.” (Joe Killian elaborates.)

“Silence can be the best question of the interview.”

“Never trust an editor. Never trust an editor. Never trust an editor.”

“For copy editors: Always read the last three paragraphs. Nobody else has.”

“Get it first, but first get it right.”

“News is something somebody’s trying to keep out of the paper. Everything else is advertising.”

“If you don’t want it in the paper, don’t do it.”

“When in doubt leave it out.”


The traits of young (and old) journalists

This fall at Carolina, I’m teaching two courses, Feature Writing and Media Hub. (The Word doc syllabi are here. The course numbers are 356 and 625.)

Each class I ask students to fill out a form about themselves to help me find out what they’re interested in, what they expect out of the course, and how I can help them. I’ve learned that the better I know the writer, the more specialized my teaching is.

My feature writing course is traditionally filled with students who want to be writers — makes sense as the course is 100 percent about writing. This semester, though, I’m delighted to find that I have a good mix of students who aspire to be writers, broadcasters, photographers, lawyers, politicians and teachers. (Teachers have said for years that if you can write clearly, concisely and with style, you’ll be able to work anywhere.)

I also ask them to describe themselves in one word. Here’s what the feature writing students said: optimistic, determined, enthusiastic, empathetic, growing, anxious, thoughtful, adaptable, ambitious, friendly, outspoken, composed, curious and willful. Four students described themselves as passionate, and two said determined.

Things they don’t like: canned tuna, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, mayo and hot coffee. Multiple people said they don’t like math.

So, to sum up: They are passionate, determined, outspoken, curious and willful. The don’t like math or fruits or vegetables. Yep, they sounds like journalists.



Sunday sampler

Hickory: You can believe the president or you can believe your own lyin’ eyes. The Daily Record reports that at least some furniture companies are passing the tariff costs onto customers…and that business with China has all but dried up. “So if you were to ask me again if tariffs stay in place for another 12 months … I would say the damage is pretty significant,” Shuford said. “And if it stays in place for a couple of years, I would say we’ve lost access to our biggest growth opportunity and now we’re truly looking at a different type of company.”

Fayetteville: Repercussions from last year’s hurricane continue today. The Observer reports that Robeson County, smacked hard by Matthew and Florence, are closing five schools. Well, it’s the hurricanes displacing people, a terrible economy and the rise of charter schools.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Raleigh shared reporters to explain new hurricane planning on the state level. “The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reviewed official “after-action” reports from some of the hardest-hit areas of North Carolina and asked both state and local officials about changes they’ve made since Florence. In coastal and inland communities alike, leaders are rethinking their communications equipment and how they cope when cell towers and electricity go out. In many places, officials are rewriting plans for sheltering evacuees.”

Morganton: The News Herald reports that ICE arrested five men at a food processing plant, and, based on the headline, some residents were concerned about it. ICE says the five have criminal records. I can’t find the story on the paper’s website, though, so it’s unclear what the concern is. Here is the front page with the story.

Finally, a few days ago, R.L. Bynum pointed out that the Free Press in Kinston was publishing news releases on its front page. It did it again today, this one at the bottom of the page from the “Office of the District Attorney.”

























The Jacksonville Daily News — both of the papers are owned by Gatehouse — has the same “story.” See below. I don’t mind printing a version of a news release on a matter of public interest. I do mind publishing it on the front page, seemingly unedited, and at its apparent full length. And you might think that a guilty murder plea involving an infant might be a significant news development in a small town. But what do I know.

Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting

I’m delighted that the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting is going to move to Chapel Hill. The society “works to educate news organizations and journalists on how the inclusion of diverse voices can raise the caliber, impact and visibility of investigative journalism as a means of promoting transparency and good government.”

The profession is in dire need of diverse voices.

While I’m aware that diversity includes age and gender and ideas, I’m going to speak specifically about race here.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion in journalism are essential to a healthy democracy and a relevant industry. We’re proud to support an initiative of this caliber to help make newsrooms more reflective of the communities which they report on,” said Susan King, dean of the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. Full disclosure: I am an adjunct there and proud of it.

After years of saying that every reporter needed to find stories and sources outside of the white community, editors at my paper got frustrated. Consequently, more than 25 years ago, the News & Record created a reporting position that we called “minority affairs” and filled it with a smart, capable, tough-minded reporter, Robin Adams. The idea that stories involving minorities were as important as stories about health and politics and education. Robin did a crackerjack job, but one downside to the position is that some reporters began to funnel stories about minorities on their beats to her, rather than doing them themselves. That was the opposite of our intent — although it shouldn’t have surprised us.

We also set a goal of hiring a work force of journalists that reflected our circulation area, which was about two-thirds white and one-third minority, primarily African American. Our percentage of white-black journalists hovered in the mid-teens.

After years of saying that we strived to hire a diverse workforce, we hadn’t made much headway. Consequently, we instituted a policy in which at least one person of color would be interviewed for every job opening. We kept with that pretty well, but it didn’t result in moving our minority hires much.

After a while, I got frustrated with our lack of success. Consequently, I established a standard that we would hire at least one person of color in at least every three hires. (I came up with that because of the circulation area’s majority-minority percentage.)

I wrote about the effort and got immediate feedback from some in the community, saying that the paper was lowering its standards. This was an assumption based on racism, I believed then. And now. To hell with them, I thought.

That effort actually worked for a little while. It was tough, though. We had to broaden our pool of candidates. We had to find ways to attract candidates to the paper. In retrospect, we didn’t do enough. After a year or two of tracking the numbers of hires, the recession hit and we started holding jobs open, rather than filling them. I took my eye off the ball and began focusing on saving money.

That hiring standard fell by the wayside. I consider it one of my bigger mistakes.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m glad that the society is coming to UNC. News organizations need its help, expertise and inspiration. And I congratulate Susan King for leading the way to make it happen.

“Hate is the thing with tentacles”

Sooner or later, every journalist gets mocked, ridiculed and threatened. People like to shoot the messenger. It didn’t start with Trump, although I suspect that it’s burned hotter since began blaming the media for stories that make him look like the lying grifter he is.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, is gay, and he wrote Sunday about the hate mail he gets routinely.

“My inbox is proof of that; the evidence stretches back decades. And I’m talking in this case not about irate and sometimes foul-mouthed readers who dislike my opinions. All columnists encounter that, and given the privilege of our megaphones, we should. I’m talking about readers who detest the very fact of me, who I am, independent of any person or issue I lift up or tear down.

“They’re strangers. They’ve never met me, never taken the measure of my generosity, kindness, loyalty or lack thereof. For them I exist in a category, as a type. That type is all they see, and that type is contemptible.”

Leonard Pitts, an African-American columnist with the Miami Herald, routinely writes about the bigoted email he receives. This is a column from last week, spurred on by a note from “Ed.”

“Not to pick on Ed. He’s just the guy who happened to drop one last straw onto the camel’s back. But there were many straws already there, each placed by an indignant someone, righteous in their ignorance, demanding to know when we can finally, finally, finally stop talking about race — as if we do so because of some strange tic in the African-American psyche that makes us see inequality and oppression where there is really starlight and rainbow unicorns.”

Then yesterday, Whitney Cummings talked about dealing with creeps who wanted to extort money to not release a photo of her breast.

Because I’m a white, heterosexual, liberal American male, I was exempt from the noxious idiocy that gay people and minorities and women have to deal with. The only thing they had on me is my liberalism. Big deal.

I have been called a pussy and a chicken, an idiot and an asshole, a racist and a communist. (And that’s putting aside what my coworkers called me.) I have been asked how I’m able to sleep at night and how I can look at myself in the mirror. People have told me that they are praying for me. I can’t the number of times I’ve been told to “wake up!”

After an editorial about bow hunting, one guy sent me a razor-sharp steel arrowhead and wondered how I thought it would feel to be shot in the head with it. (I still don’t know, thank God.) Another guy said he was going to come to my office and beat my ass. (He didn’t show.)

After a gun control editorial, a guy emailed me a photo of my house and said he appreciated knowing that I didn’t have a gun in the house. (He’d be surprised.)

All of this was well before the age of violent social media. And I got off easy. None of it was directed at me because of my race or my gender or my sexual orientation. I didn’t have to deal with people criticizing my right to exist as so many African Americans and Latinos and women and LBGTQ people must.

It’s a mystery to me what drives these people and their bigotry and ignorance and hate. I couldn’t say it better than Bruni: “…hate has no particular profession, no education level, no ZIP code. Its sprawl is as demoralizing as its staying power. Emily Dickinson wrote, gorgeously, that h’ope is the thing with feathers.’ Well, hate is the thing with tentacles. It holds people tight and refuses to let go.”


Sunday sampler

Carteret County: More flooding at the coast. Great. The News-Times says it all in its first paragraph: “Analysis of nearly 120 years of tropical storm and hurricane landing data and associated rainfall in coastal North Carolina shows climate change is creating a feedback loop that suggests increased flooding and flood damage is likely along the coast in the future.” But it’s based on science and history which the climate change doubters don’t believe in.

Raleigh: Lynn Bonner’s story about the state wanting some of its incentive money back go me at the lead, too: “The state has handed out about $1 billion in tax breaks to companies and individuals that invested in solar farms.” A billion dollars? I appreciate  the environment and incentives and jobs and potential tax revenue, but a billion dollars? “A September public notice from the tax department said some people who invested in credits through partnerships don’t qualify for tax breaks.” Oops.

Greensboro: The News & Record has a good package of stories on being a cop these days. It spends some time criticizing the news media: “In this day and time, I think the police officers — no matter what the circumstances are of the shooting — they are tried and convicted in the media,” Gunn said. “It’s whatever sells the story. That hurts our retention and it hurts our program.” I would suggest that law enforcement doesn’t do a particularly good job talking with the news media, but whatever.