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.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The News & Record didn’t waste much time localizing the House vote to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” Its story focuses on the mother of a child with Down Syndrome and other health issues, and what impact the House bill might have on their health care coverage. (Answer: Not good.) It’s accompanied by a striking photo of the mother speaking with Rep. Ted Budd, who proudly announced on Facebook Thursday that he voted for the House bill. (He didn’t explain his reasoning for the vote except to say he was keeping his promise.)

Raleigh: I love the idea of conservation groups trying to save land for farming. The N&O writes that the cost of land in the Triangle is out of sight, and that farmland is lost to development. “The goal is not only to preserve working farms, but also to feed the growing demand for local food. Less than 0.1 percent of food spending in the region is direct farm-to-consumer, meaning there is much more potential, said Edgar Miller, government relations director for the Conservation Trust.” I am particularly interested because one of my classes this spring did a package of stories on the dwindling number of farmers.

Sunday sampler

I can’t figure out why so many newspapers put President Trump’s speech on their front pages, given that he said nothing new or newsworthy. But maybe that’s just me. I also can’t understand why my home newspaper would put this story on the front page purporting to be what “locals” think of Trump — only Trump supporters with no refutation of their claims — but maybe that’s just me, too.

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of Montreat College’s policy to require its faculty and staff to sign a covenant attesting to their opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. A small, private institution, the school can do what it likes. And live with the consequences. Still, for all of the conservatives who criticize universities that discourage conservative speakers, you’d think that conservative institutions would promote diversity of thought.

Fayetteville: The Observer continues its coverage of the impact Hurricane Matthew had on Eastern North Carolina. “Downtown Fair Bluff is, for lack of a better word, sort of creepy the first time you stroll down Main Street at midday. Ellis Meares & Son True Value Hardware has sacks of bird feed and paint supplies in the window. The senior center has pictures of smiling clients on the front window, but none inside. A broom leans against the wall at J.B. Evans Municipal Center, as if its owner propped it there, expecting to return momentarily.”

That’s a great lede, but here’s the point: “According to government estimates, 85 percent of the community was underwater for as much as a week. When the Lumber finally slipped back into its banks a week later, it had taken the heart of Fair Bluff with it.”

Raleigh: Anyone who has been near a hog farm knows the noxious smell. Imagine having to live with it. The N&O has reported for years on the stench of the farms and the stench of the cozy relationship the farm owners have with legislators. With more legislation passed during this session providing further protection of the farms from lawsuits, the N&O updates us on the suit already filed. Good stuff.

 

Sunday sampler, science march edition

OK, I’m not featuring any of the march for science stories, although several N.C. papers wrote about them on their front pages. They pretty much say the same things.

Greensboro: I enjoy stories that keep track of people who are accused of white collar, money-related crimes. The News & Record did it well with the basketball coach who was sent to prison for fraud last year. And now they’re doing it with the former CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, the top economic development agency who has been charged with two counts of embezzlement. He’s turned up in Wilmington under an assumed name trying to make it as a concert promoter. Not successfully, either.

Raleigh: It’s been seven months since Hurricane Matthew, and many places downeast are still not right. The N&O is on it, although the headline could be a stretch. “Some entire NC towns may become vacant memorials to Matthew.” Still, it’s a good story about a big problem: the destruction of business in small towns that are already suffering in this economy. “Bringing hurricane-damaged businesses back to life, and encouraging new ones to come into a flood-ravaged community, will require innovative economic development programs, advocates say, because existing programs have not worked for this disaster.”

Charlotte: The Observer has a fun — to me — story about a dive bar finding itself an island of the old being surrounded by new five-story apartments under construction. The Observer compares it to the movie “Up.” I prefer to comparing it to Donald Trump’s effort to displace a woman from her longtime home in Atlantic City. (That’s probably not fair, but it’s me.) “The Thirsty Beaver has always been a bit quirky – the red-eyed beaver painted on the side of the bright orange building should be a tip-off – but now it has become a symbol of neighborhood quirkiness that’s staying put in the face of new development. That wave of new development is transforming Central Avenue, Plaza Midwood and the surrounding neighborhoods, bringing 820 new apartments to a quarter-mile stretch of road in front of the Thirsty Beaver and hundreds more to other sites nearby.”

 

Sunday sampler, House of Representatives edition

On Easter Sunday, the papers feature stories on suffering and redemption. You can find those. Here are two on N.C. members of Congress and they are revealing in their own special way.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times features a story on Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and target of President Trump’s wrath on repealing Obamacare. The story is fascinating to me for two reasons: Its initial quotes from elected Sheriffs who seem to have no idea what’s going on but they trust Meadows, and its quotes from people who say that Meadows listens to his constituents, but no evidence that anything he’s heard has caused him to change his mind. And little addressing the disconnect between Meadows and Trump, and how that affect constituents opinions.

Raleigh: The N&O has an article about Rep. Virginia Foxx and her efforts to dismantle the Department of Education. It’s not exactly clear why she hates the department; it seems as if she doesn’t like Washington telling school systems what to do. But the vision for what to replace it? Nope. But maybe that’s the problem with the story rather than Foxx.  “The closer you are to what’s happening, the more likely there is to be self-correction,” she said. “I want to devolve as much as possible to the localities and to the states.” There’s the rub, of course. In N.C. we have a legislature that loves to meddle in local affairs in the worst way.

Sunday sampler, politics edition

Asheville: As the Washington Post explains, Rep. Mark Meadows has a safe seat and no amount of threats from President Trump will hurt him. So, it’s timely that the Citizen-Times profiles the powerful head of the Freedom Caucus, which last week put the kibosh on the repeal of Obamacare. (Not because they were searching for ways to cover more Americans, but that’s another matter.) It’s a good piece about a bomb-thrower with power.

The Citizen-Times also tells the story of yet another DACA recipient who is working a fine job in the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office and, presumably, paying taxes. And awaits a decision from President Trump on the status of the DACA program. It’s doubtful that she’s one of the “bad hombres” he talks about.

Charlotte: President Trump promised to stop American factories from moving out of the country and to bring manufacturing jobs back. The Observer went to Maiden, where a textile mill was closed last spring and moved to Honduras, and spoke with residents about the prospect of bringing textile jobs back. “’The jobs were leaving back before (former President Barack) Obama. This has been going on for a long time. You can’t really blame it on one administration. It’d be fantastic if (Trump) could get jobs back here, but I’ll have to see it to believe it,’ says Weiss, who works at a Laundromat in town.”

Greensboro: The News & Record has a sordid story about how two district attorneys figured out how to game the system to employ their wives. Each hired his wife to work in his office, but when told that was a no-no, the wives switched DAs. And got pretty good jobs without much actual work, it appears.

Raleigh and Winston-Salem:  The N&O revisits the HB2 “repeal” as does the Journal. Neither advances the ball, but in case you missed the replacement bill last week, these will suffice to bring you up to speed.

Winston-Salem: The Journal also looks at the impact of Trump’s proposed budget on Legal Aid of North Carolina. It would lose about half of its funding. “The recommended funding cuts could leave poor people in North Carolina and around the country without the means to get legal assistance for domestic-violence restraining orders or to keep from losing homes to foreclosure.”

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: I admit that it was a hope of mine that once Donald Trump lost the presidential race last year, I wouldn’t have to see this guy’s tweets pop-up in my feed. (Don’t follow him, but he gets retweeted by those I do follow.) Bill Mitchell is a Trump loyalist, even wearing an engraved ring with Trump’s name on it. His tweeter feed is like talk radio of which he’s a host: arrogant and self-righteous and, well, Trumpian. The Observer’s Jim Morrill profiles him.

Greensboro: As of two weeks ago, 458 people in Guilford County have DWI cases more than two years old. And now defense attorneys are purposely continuing them. “Defense attorneys say they are waiting to see if the court upholds the ruling for Christopher Glenn Turner, whose 2012 charge of driving while impaired in Caldwell County was dismissed after two years because he had neither been served a warrant nor indicted.”

Raleigh: Put aside your anticipation of the UNC-Kentucky game for a minute to read Andrew Carter’s piece in the N&O about Jason Ray, who was UNC’s mascot, Ramses, when he was killed 10 years ago. His donated organs saved the lives of four people, and this is their story, too. I’m not crying, you’re crying. “After he received Jason’s heart, Ronald Griffin visited the Rays’ home in Concord, with his wife, Stephanie. Griffin, a retired postal worker, wanted to see where Jason lived. When Griffin arrived he asked Charlotte and Emmitt if he could see Jason’s room. ‘He’d come up here and spend quite a bit of time,’ Emmitt said. ‘Like he was communing with Jason.’”

Sunday sampler

Maybe it’s the threat of snow. Maybe it was losing an hour of sleep. Whatever, it’s a good day for journalism from the front pages of N.C. newspapers.

Fayetteville: The Observer has two good ones. First, it continues keeping a watchful eye over the victims of Hurricane Matthew. It’s been five months. “Many others, including state and local governments, are still rebuilding. FEMA extended its deadline for people to seek assistance several times. It ended registration on Jan. 23 with 14,794 people from Cumberland County registered for assistance. Statewide, 774 families are being housed in hotels because they can’t return to the damaged homes or apartments.”

Its second story is yet another about an immigrant facing deportation for reasons that are unclear. I write “yet another” because since President Trump’s immigration order there have been numerous stories about people who are not “bad hombres” caught in the net. “She came to the United States legally, as a teenager, leaving the violence of her native Guatemala. She got a work permit and has been employed for years. She is married, raised four children in Harnett County and is expecting a fifth in May. She has no criminal record.In less than a week, at age 33, Cardona-Perez could be deported back to a land that, in her words, she hardly remembers.”

Greensboro: The News & Record, which some readers have accused of being in the bag for the $78 million performing arts center, tells a damning inside story about delays and justifications by the center’s planners. And as is usually the case, there is more smoke than light in the explanations.

Raleigh: I told a friend on Friday that I wasn’t going to read the N&O’s story on Woody Durham’s declining health. I knew that reading about the longtime Tar Heel announcer’s silenced voice would make me sad. But he told me how good it is so I read it and don’t regret it. “In the 13 months since his diagnosis, changes arrived large and small. Woody didn’t want to play golf anymore. He didn’t want to slow his friends down. He reduced his driving, only short trips around town, and then decided in February to surrender his license, which made Jean proud. For a while she noticed something different almost every day. Every morning she asked herself: How is Woody today? Is he different than the day before? It’s the first story in a series.

Asheville: Being an artist anywhere means you’re going to have a hard time making ends meet. Asheville is known as an art-welcoming city. Is that culture endangering artists? It’s a great question for a newspaper to ask. “Amorastreya spent eight years in Austin, Texas, and 10 years in San Francisco. And sadly, she said, ‘I watched the same pattern happen: The artisans who create the culture of a place make it desirable. Wealthy people move in … and, too often, rents rise and the artists get pushed out, leaving yet another yuppy town — Anywhere, America — full of the same old corporate chains.'”

Wilmington: Some people like the idea of building a wall 2,000 miles away. Others wish those billions could be spent on infrastructure closer to home, like repairing and replacing the 2,000 endangered dams across the state. “A high-hazard potential dam is defined by North Carolina as one that, in the event of a breach, would cause the probable loss of at least one life, lead to at least $200,000 of economic damage, and re-route more than 250 vehicles daily. Should an intermediate-hazard dam fail, models indicate it would cause between $30,000 and $200,000 of damage and result in the interruption of service for between 25 and 250 vehicles per day.”

Forest City: I had wondered what the Daily Courier would do with the outrageous story of the Word of Faith Fellowship treatment of its parishioners. It has a story on the front page today, but I can’t find it online, which probably doesn’t matter as the paper has a paywall. The story is about the departure of the assistant DA’s who are accused of helping the church.