Sunday sampler

A little different this week.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the shrinking front page. Fewer stories…fewer reasons to pick up the paper. Here is an update, starting at the top…or bottom, depending on your perspective:

* Four local stories on the front page: Durham

* Four stories on the front: Wilmington, but two are wire stories and the other two are on the same topic.

* Three local stories: Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Sanford

* Three stories: Raleigh and Fayetteville (one wire on each)

* Two local stories: Greensboro, Gaston, High Point, Asheville, Hickory, Monroe.

* One local story: Shelby

Perhaps coincidentally, I found only two that grabbed my attention this morning.

Charlotte — Remember the story about Subway rolls containing yoga mat material? I didn’t know it was a Charlotte activist — the Observer’s headline refers to her as the “food babe,” which is apparently what she calls herself — who said it.  The Observer investigates and finds some of her claims suspicious, unfounded or misleading. Fascinating piece.

Fayetteville– As the legislature argues in Raleigh over the budget, state agencies are winging it…or, in some cases, not. The Observer focuses on the effect on state schools and universities. Given my current situation, it’s personal. “Meanwhile, the university needs to hire adjunct faculty and others to provide enough class sections for students scheduled to graduate in the next two semesters, yet it doesn’t know if it can, Anderson said. A section typically has 30 to 35 students. If no decision is made soon, Anderson will have to proceed.

“‘You end up not offering those sections. That’s all you can do,” he said. “And then, students will then start requesting to try to get into sections that are closed, which gluts those sections. So it’s always a domino effect.’”


Why add stress to your audience?

What if you knew that one of the major story lines in your paper added to the daily stress of your readership? Would you react to that? Would you figure out how to help your readers process that storyline differently?

What if you knew that “news” in general, added to the stress of your viewership? Would it change your news judgment on what and how you broadcast?

The latest report, not on news per se, but on American stress: “Americans cited “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.”

Think about that for a moment: “The most frequent daily stressor on their lives.”

This is my hometown newspaper, but on any day, you can find newspaper front pages similar to this across the country.

No. 2 on the list was “Watching the news.”

What does this mean for news organizations? A great deal, but my guess is that few will give the survey a second thought. They have enough surveys and enough problems. After all, news consumption is up, even as people actually paying for newspapers has declined for years and the audience for broadcast news is sinking.

But it’s a huge opportunity for those that want to think seriously about their future. Yes, the news is stressful, but your reporting of it doesn’t always have to be. Go out and talk to people and listen to what they tell you. Here is a short version of what I’d say:

* Give less about political bickering. Fights between politicians create a great deal of smoke but little fire. This story about an ethics accusation that is quickly disproved is a good example. Most people don’t care about the kind of middle-school fighting that makes up today’s politics. I know it’s election time and these stories happen. But understand that people are angry at politicians and government. Figure out how your coverage acknowledges and adapts to that.

* Give me less about government operations that have little impact on people. Rather, present government stories from the vantage of how actions affect real people, rather than politicians.

* I know better than to suggest TV turn down political ad money. But you must realize that people hate attack ads. They even make me – a political junkie – change the channel. (This is my favorite: “People don’t like political ads.”) I don’t know how you alleviate that — would fact-checking them hurt your bottom line? — but I’d get your experts working on it.

* The axiom of “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” may work to increase viewership, but it is a dereliction of your community responsibility. This fear-mongering is wrong on every psychological level. And there is data for that and the unnecessary stress it puts in viewers’ minds. Most of us are not consumed by murder or break-ins or traffic fatalities. Few of your viewers know the victims. What is the public service value you’re offering?

* Give me more of two things: investigative reporting and stories of success.

Investigative reporting implies negative reporting about government. But focusing on issues that matter to your readers and viewers is the key, which leads back to asking them. For me, I’d say cut through the bullshit and tell me what’s what. If a politician speaks political double-speak — and watch “House of Cards” for what that is — don’t quote them or call them on it.

Stories of success – last year I called the good news stories — inform and reflect the community more than political stories or crime stories. They reduce stress in people’s lives, and they get talked about.

Plotting your future in this news world is tough. What we know is that ignoring customers, doing little different and playing it safe isn’t the correct path.

Paying for journalism: Community-based crowdfunding

Corey Hutchins at CJR does a good job rounding up the issues, pro and con, surrounding the News & Record’s agreement for arts coverage with ArtsGreensboro. I won’t repeat them.

But because we’re talking about experimenting with new business models for reporting information, let’s take it a step further: community-based crowdfunding of coverage topics.

Steve Buttry suggested it on Facebook last week when he read of the N&R’s arrangement. The idea is simple to articulate, and, certainly, not so simple to execute. But Tim Howard didn’t become the most popular man in America because his role was simple. Rather than contracting with a specific organization or business for coverage, the paper would ask the community what additional coverage it wants and solicit contributions to fund that coverage.

More coverage of UNC sports? Or, in Greensboro, more coverage of A&T sports? More coverage of nightlife? More coverage of the quality of schools. Investigative reporting of governmental practices. The possibilities are endless. When I was at the News & Record and we canceled our New York Times subscriptions, readers called me and offered to pay more so that we would publish Tom Friedman. That’s how devoted readers are to certain topics.

Aside from the financial reward, there are two primary benefits to this method:

First, it permits the community of readers to weigh in on what it wants. As I said earlier, I’m sure that the News & Record readers appreciate additional coverage of the arts, but I doubt it is in the top 5 or even 10 areas desired. My memory of our surveys indicated that education and local government coverage were highly rated. But I am also aware that surveys lie. So, ask readers straight up — in person, in print and online. My observation is that they will tell you straight up, if you just ask. And asking brings engagement and buy-in, both qualities news organizations want.

Second, it spreads the funding responsibility among the entire community of readers. Everyone has the opportunity to give money to supplement a topic of interest. This avoids the sense that one major organization or business is underwriting the coverage. For instance, neither the Sierra Club nor Duke Energy should be sponsoring environmental coverage. But if the entire community is contributing to coverage, there is no “funding overlord.” It seems fairer and less likely to draw accusations of favoritism or bias.

The other advantage in the funding model is that you have less worry about the major underwriter withdrawing. If, after a year, ArtsGreensboro decides the investment isn’t worth it, will the paper go back to its former arts coverage? Readers won’t like that. Under the community-based model, the funding is more diverse.

The obvious hurdle is how to make it work: Will you get enough money? Who will do the additional reporting? How will you avoid the complaints from those who want you to report on their pet areas and reflect their biases? How do you monitor who is donating? Should you monitor who is donating?

Smart people in newsrooms and in the community can answer these questions. (They aren’t really that difficult to answer. Executing them may be.)

Kickstarter has shown that people will invest in good ideas without expectation of a direct payback. “Backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not to profit financially.”  Other sites — the CJR article links to some — use non-traditional funding models. But neither I nor Steve are familiar with any newspapers that have attempted community-based crowdfunding.

An offshoot could be that as newspapers erect paywalls, they could crowdfund additional content behind that paywall to entice people to pay for the subscription. Or, if the interest is high enough, they could create a pay-only site on the topic and let contributors have access.

Experimentation by journalistic organizations is vital, and newspapers don’t experiment enough. For that, I applaud the News & Record. So, let’s push the experimentation even further.

What is there to lose in giving it a shot? Not much other than time, as far as I can see. So, in the spirit of innovative experimentation, will someone please try it?


The disappearing front page story


Not long ago, it was normal for North Carolina newspapers to publish five stories on their front pages. No longer. Two or three is closer to the norm, at least with the larger papers.

On Sunday — the biggest circulation and advertising day of the week — the two largest papers in the state, the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer, had three stories. The Winston-Salem Journal also had three. The News & Record in Greensboro, the Fayetteville Observer, the High Point Enterprise, the Gaston Gazette and the Asheville Citizen Times had two.


Of the state’s larger newspapers, the Star News in Wilmington had four stories on its front page, but two of the stories were related.

The Hickory Daily Record only has one story on the front, with a dizzying number of promos and ads.


When I was an editor, I preferred to have four stories on the Sunday front page, much to the occasional dismay of our design director. But I was a word guy and wanted to give readers as much choice as possible. If a story on schools didn’t interest them, perhaps a story on environment or crime or politics would. I also knew that the front page was the most read page in the paper, with declining readership for inside pages or other section fronts.

So what’s happening?

I don’t know, but here is what I think:

Front pages with large dramatic artwork draw the eye. If the primary story the art is illustrating is compelling, it makes the newspaper feel relevant and important. And people like to see strong photography; it catches the eye and evokes emotion, whether it is an embracing couple, an armful of puppies or a teenager pulling a handgun from his pants.

And maybe it will inspire a passerby to pull shell out a couple bucks — or eight quarters if he or she has them — to buy a paper at the box. Impulse buys are a good thing.

Andy Bechtel in the comments correctly points out that pages are smaller, making it more difficult to give five stories decent display on the front. (Andy’s blog.)

To me, it also says a few other things:

Fewer stories. Duh. For instance, my hometown newspaper had four locally produced news stories in Sunday’s paper — two on the front page and two in the local section. Perhaps it’s the result of fewer reporters. Perhaps it’s intentional. Regardless, it gives readers — or at least me — less to read and engage with. (I don’t know about the other papers around the state. Perhaps they backloaded the rest of their local stories.)

Ads and promos have claimed a greater front page presence. Some are done well, inviting readers to other sections of the paper. Others are so packed, the page comes across like a child’s messy room.

A front page with fewer stories demands that those stories by damn good. When there are only two stories, it’s tough to coast. Just as the dominant artwork on the page must be compelling, the accompanying story has to back it up. If it’s not, the reader moves on…but to what? There are only one or two other choices. And do you really want a wire story that was on the Saturday 6 o’clock news on the page, or seen on the web or Twitter or Facebook or an email alert?

What’s my point? Only one that every journalist and every reader share: make the front page the most interesting, exciting and relevant as possible. If you limit the choices on the page, then make the ones out there exceptional, particularly on the biggest circulation day of the week. By all means, play a big story big. And if you have one every Sunday, good. But if you don’t — and many don’t — give us more choice.

(Front page images courtesy of the Newseum.)

Sunday sampler

Asheville — The Citizen Times continues its series on homelessness. Right now, the home page has the paper’s story from last Sunday. Here is a copy of today’s front page. Too bad, too, because based on the story that starts on the front, this looks like another good one. I admit to being a sucker for stories about children in danger.

Charlotte — Having just returned from a trip up I-95 and spending about $20 on tolls, I hate tolls. Yet, I also wondered why we don’t have a toll gate at the Virginia state line and the South Carolina state line. So I read with interest the Observer’s story about the problems lurking with the I-77 toll road. And that’s why I’d put one each at the state lines to charge people going through the state.

Fayetteville — Teenagers and guns. The Observer continues its year-long series on crime. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been 34 homicides in Fayetteville. Seventeen of the people charged in those killings were young – between 14 and 26. Of those 17, all but one is black….Generally, Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons said, they are young black men who were raised by a single parent and dropped out of high school. They grew up watching violence on television and don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions until it is too late.

Greensboro — Who knew that churches encourage you to be online tweeting and Facebooking during the church service?

Raleigh — The N&O profiles the FBI agent who worked N.C. corruption cases; he’s been busy. It’s a fascinating piece about a man who seeks the truth, but it’s also a reminder of all the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in N.C. Imagine the ones  NOT caught.

Wilmington — My favorite story of the week, shining a light in dark corners. The Star News reports on a businessman who sets up a non-profit to create charter schools, gets millions from the state and then contracts out many of the school services to the private companies he owns. Oh, and executives at the private companies say they don’t have to provide any information about the services they provide.

The News & Record’s arrangement with ArtsGreensboro: Is it pay for play?

There are several troubling aspects of the News & Record’s agreement to allow ArtsGreensboro to underwrite some of the newspaper’s coverage of the arts.

1. At its core, the city’s umbrella arts organization is paying for news coverage. Most reputable news organizations avoid this conflict of interest. One of the principles of journalism, as articulated in “The Elements of Journalism,” is this: “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.” The idea is that journalists can cover news and events “without fear or favor,” to steal a journalistic credo.

In this a newspaper’s credibility is at stake. From “The Elements of Journalism:” “While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform–not their devotion to a certain group or outcome.”

Editor-publisher Jeff Gauger explains in his column that the paper’s independence is sacrosanct. I’ll take him at his word. (I appreciate his transparency in announcing the agreement and making note of it with each publication. That’s a significant sign.) But no one should be surprised if readers question when performances are praised, and feature stories overwhelmingly positive. After all, everyone knows who is paying. And while the arts organization says it is comfortable with negative reviews, that’s easy to say now. Wait until the day the review is published.

2. Who is keeping an eye on the operation of the arts organization? Again, from “The Elements of Journalism:” “It must serve as an independent monitor of power.” There is a lot of money involved in the arts in Greensboro. I suspect the newspaper will have its fulltime staff maintain its hard news coverage, but there should be suspicion when a news organization is getting money directly from an agency it writes about. Will the coverage be as intense and skeptical. Knowing the news staff at the paper, I’ve no doubt it will tough-minded, but there will always be that question lingering.

3. Will there be other underwriting arrangements?  According to the Triad Business Journal, ArtsGreensboro is paying $15,000 for 70 stories. That’s much cheaper than advertising in the newspaper. There certainly are groups that want more coverage and have the money to buy it. Environmentalists, religious groups, politicians, baseball lovers…the list is long. If the money is good enough, can it be stopped?

4. From the other side, can the newspaper use the ArtsGreensboro money to pay for a review of a show of a non-ArtsGreensboro member?

Ultimately, the question is whether readers are being served. In “The Elements of Journalism,” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel write that journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens: “This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization’s credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers.”

I’m sure that arts organizations and patrons want more coverage. I don’t doubt that the readers of the newspaper want 70 more stories about the arts. (Readers of newspapers tend to want more of everything, from business to comics.) I doubt, though, that arts coverage is in the top five in the “give-us-more” category.

I am one of those “holier-than-thou” journalists Jeff refers to. (I don’t think my nose is in the air, though.) I’m troubled by the arrangement because it seems to put the paper’s independence and credibility at risk. It raises the question of whether the arts organization — and now any organization — can pay for play. And that’s certainly a business model; it’s just a different business model with different values.

I have a great deal of respect for the journalists at the News & Record. They have weathered tough times. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they will view events with the same analytical eye that they always have. And that editors will be as skeptical in editing tomorrow as they were yesterday. But ultimately, we’ll just wait and see. I hope my discomfort at the arrangement is misplaced.

I am heartened by Jeff’s last comment that it’s a new era and the paper is being creative. I applaud that and hope it spreads.

Sunday sampler

Asheville – I’m a sucker for stories about mistreatment of children. And by sucker I mean that I hate having to read about it.

“Shane Hopkins’ children have never slept on the streets. They’ve never spent a night under a bridge, never slept in his car. They show up to school looking like most every other child in Buncombe County. But they carry an invisible weight: They didn’t have a bed to sleep in or room to call their own for half of the just-finished school year. Skylar, 12, has learned to do her hair and brush her teeth in school bathrooms. “There are no mirrors in (school) in the bathroom, so sometimes I have to walk all the way to the gym,” she said with a shrug. “‘Whatever, it’s annoying.’”

She’s 12. The Citizen publishes a powerful piece about homeless families who may or may not be considered homeless by the various governmental agencies that are charged with helping.

Charlotte — Take curiosity, add initiative and good timing, and you’ve got a multi-million dollar business. The Observer writes about the founder and owner of MadVapes, one of the largest creators of e-cigarettes. A fun, personable story.

Gaston — The Gazette writes about the state budget proposal to cut funding for driver’s education in schools. I learned to drive in a school driver’s ed program and am surprised the state wants to drop a program that seems to have worked just fine. The cynic in me believes that it is simply an effort by the state to act like it is reducing costs, but the effect is that it will be picked up by the local system.

Greensboro — For many 2009 college graduates – getting out of school in the midst of the great recession — job prospects still haven’t improved. In the first of a three-part series, the News & Record sets the scene of the terrible job market. (Yes, I have daughter who graduated in 2009. I am thankful she has a good job in her area of interest.)

News: Appealing to a political audience

What if you ran a business and you discovered that a sizable group of people didn’t have confidence in your product? Hold that thought.

What if you ran a business and you discovered that a sizable group of people didn’t trust your product?

You’d try to change their perception, right? You are trustworthy. You have a great product that deserves their confidence! You’d try marketing to them. You’d try to improve what you produce? You’d survey them and engage with them?

But nothing works.

Gallup: Americans’ faith in each of three major news media platforms — television news, newspapers, and news on the Internet — is at or tied with record lows in Gallup’s long-standing confidence in institutions trend.

More GallupNow, 44% say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in the mass media, identical to 2011 but up from 40% in 2012, the lowest reading since Gallup regularly began tracking the question in 1997.

So, now what do you do?

If you run a newspaper, perhaps you should consider this: Slightly less than one-fifth of self-identified conservatives (15%) say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, tied with the 10-year low…. Liberals are far more likely than conservatives — or than the adult population in general — to be confident in newspapers (34%). Nearly a quarter of moderates (24%), meanwhile, have confidence in newspapers.

At what point does part of the intended audience become outside the main? When does trying to satisfy them hit the point of diminishing returns? When should you shift your paradigm and appeal to the group that has respect for you…where there may be opportunity for growth?

It might well be now.

This will grate on traditional journalists and our love for objectivity. Yet, most people don’t think we are objective and no amount of insisting that we are makes any difference. We can shift, as I have, to emphasize fairness, rather than objectivity, but I don’t know that it makes any difference. So why not be transparent in our biases? Drop the false equivalence. Turn away from Jay Rosen’s “view from nowhere.” Make news judgments differently, knowing that you’re appealing directly to a specific group. Stop worrying about balance on the editorial and OpEd pages. (If nothing else, it means you can drop this guy and this guy.)

It would be a gutsy move, and I doubt many news organizations will consider it. Newspapers are averse to fundamental change, and even though TV news has a lower confidence rating than newspapers, they still rake in the cash. Yes, I know that these data don’t say that conservatives don’t buy or read newspapers. And there are certainly other demographic factors involved in who buys and reads newspapers. (Or watches TV news.)

But given the audience trend lines, it’s worth talking about.

Greensboro: most liberal city in N.C.

When I was editor of the News & Record, I would routinely get complaints that the paper’s editorial stands were out of step with the community, that we were too liberal.

It is a matter of debate, course, as all political stands tend to be. No question, though, that the paper’s editorial board was progressive. Because the way Congressional districts are gerrymandered, it’s tough to say which party is dominant in Greensboro. But the city voted for Obama twice. Still, many people outside the city limits in Guilford County are conservative.

Today is one of those rare times in which I wish I were editor again so I could go all Daniel Patrick Moynihan on them. A research company has ranked the most liberal and most conservative cities in each state. In N.C., the most liberal is Greensboro.

I can’t attest to the methodology. Greensboro is home to five institutions of higher educations, which we all know are hotbeds of liberalism. Some examples:

+ We love our trees, and we demand that the city pick up our leaves raked into the street. We also protest when Duke Energy trims the trees near the power lines, and we still demand power when ice storms hit.

Our ministers get arrested protesting in the Moral Monday rallies. But it’s peaceful.

+ We have a first-class, statewide soccer facility.

+We support the International Civil Rights Museum downtown even though it is poorly managed and can’t support itself.

+ We like a lively, vibrant downtown with bars, restaurants and clubs just so long as it isn’t too noisy.

+ Our City Council does not like the Citizens United ruling — what self-respecting liberal does? — and has called for a constitutional amendment stipulating that corporations are NOT people.

+ We give tax money to companies that don’t do what they promised.

Even some of the Republicans on the City Council think the Republicans in the state legislature are bullies.

But I do find the results hard to believe: It’s not Chapel Hill or Carrboro or Asheville?

I was a dupe

“Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes.”

I wish I had read this article in the Atlantic 15 years ago because I was a dupe. It basically says that people lie on surveys attempting to discover what sorts of news people want. They say they want international news, but they actually read entertainment news. The problems in Iraq and Syria dominate the top of newscasts and metro newspapers. But ask people what they think should happen there, and you get a blank look.

We measured the audience, but we didn’t listen to them.

At my newspaper, we inherently knew people didn’t read every word of stories from the Middle East, for instance, but we struggled with the “interest vs. importance” issue. We struggled with the “give them what they need vs. give them what they want.” I had a publisher who liked to say that “we give them want they want so that we can give them what they need.”

But the “what they want” was buried inside, while the “what they need” was on the front page.

Later, as we realized that our wire stories out of Iraq and Washington could not compete with the immediacy of television and the Internet, we adjusted. Surveys told us that readers were interested in local news — news about schools and local government. We responded with a local focus, and local stories dominated the front page.

We wrote about the inner workings of government — meetings and budgets and politicking. Stories were long on information and longer on length. We often followed the “turn of the screw” — journalistic jargon that means a little something happened but not much.

We were following our noblest journalistic instincts. As Kovach and Rosenthiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism,”  the purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

But what if this isn’t the information that citizens actually want to read?

My rule should have been: If the news story isn’t reported and written in a way that is automatically compelling, that doesn’t grab readers by the throat, then it’s not going on the front page. It’s a simplistic, subjective approach, but it would have been more effective.

I’ve said before that, were I running a newsroom now, for the daily newspaper now, I would focus on investigative stories and good news stories. It would feed the journalist’s desire for public service and the stories would have a good chance of being compelling. Now I would add a strong editorial and commentary voice.

I am not making the case that this would “save” newspapers. Nothing will save newspapers. But it would make newspapers more interesting.