How much is that autograph worth?

Don’t know; don’t care.

ESPN published this wonderful story last week about a 14-year-old boy who wrote to his favorite NBA players and coaches to ask for their autographs. It brought back memories of my own 10-year-old self, writing away to baseball players to ask for their autographs.

I was a big baseball fan growing up. There wasn’t a Major League team in Oklahoma where I was, but we had the Tulsa Oilers, which was a St. Louis Cardinals farm club in my formative years. I liked the Cards, but the Yankees were my team because their games were televised every Saturday. (CBS owned them at the time.) Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford; they were my heroes. (My first real baseball glove was a Jackie Robinson model; even as I didn’t know his history, he was a hero, too, because Robinson.)

I remember when my father suggested I write to them and ask for their autographs. I was excited by the thought that someone on television would read my letter, much less respond to it. And even then, I remember being skeptical about the whole thing. But hope springs eternal and I began writing to my favorite players; then branching out to players I liked OK, because why not? I don’t remember what I wrote; I was a dumb kid, and unlike the 14-year-old in the ESPN story, I don’t remember any adult helping me with the letter. (Collecting autographs has become a science now.)

But it got results. In addition to Musial (.331 career average and 7-time batting champion); and Spahn (383 wins); there’s Whitey Ford, (a 10-time all-star); and Rapid Robin Roberts (a 28-game winner).

The best, though, were the guys who wrote back something personal on a photo!!! I mean, I had to have Brooks Robinson (16 Gold Gloves) because he is a Robinson, and Sandy Koufax (youngest player elected to the Hall of Fame) because he’s Sandy friggin’ Koufax! They’re addressed to “Mike,” who is my older brother. When I was cleaning out my parents house and found all this stuff, somehow these collectibles never made it to New York City where he is.

I remember the excitement when one of my stamped, self-addressed envelopes appeared in the daily mail. When a larger envelope came from one of the teams, it was even more exciting because that meant that one of the photo cards was included. All that said, I don’t think I did anything with them. I don’t remember doing much more than opening the envelope, looking at the autograph, showing my best friend and sticking it in a desk drawer. Stupid as I was, I don’t even remember thinking it was cool that a Hall of Fame player took the time to write MY NAME. (For youngsters, it’s like LeBron James reading your tweet.)

For me, the thrill was in the chase. And now, the memories, not of the cards so much as of my dad and brother.

Buttered toast in hot chocolate

Your parents are always with you even when they’re gone. Yesterday it was this:

Growing up, my mother would make us hot chocolate — with hot milk, of course — as part of hardy breakfast (usually with a bowl of Sugar Smacks or Cocoa Puffs). She’d set it down next to our places along with two slices of toasted, buttered white bread that had been cut into three strips. We’d dunk the strips into the cocoa, and the butter would leave a buttery film on the surface of the cocoa. And the dunked toast came out hot, sweet and delicious.

I don’t know why I thought of it yesterday — maybe it was getting a hot chocolate mix in my Christmas stocking. Inspired, I asked Twitter whether this dunking phenomenon was universal or simply my Pennsylvania mother’s invention.  Twitter being Twitter, it did its crazy thing.

Followed by:

And that conversation went on for a while involving even Texas Pete and Brunswick stew. Don’t ask.

So I Googled hot chocolate and toast, and lo and behold, it was a thing once. even has a recipe, which is written in such a way that even a journalist would enjoy it.

  • toast your bread.
  • butter it.
  • prepare hot chocolate.
  • Dunk you toast in the hot chocolate.
  • eat and enjoy.

Back on Twitter, my friend Joe Killian got to the core of the matter.

I’m old enough to be a grandfather, but I’m not. to my shame, I didn’t pass this culinary tradition on to my children. But I love holding onto the memory of it, and more important, the memory of my sweet mother.


NC Local: The year of working together

My friend Eric Frederick, the voice behind the NC Local weekly newsletter, asked me and several other journalism people two questions, which are below. I’m flattered to have been asked and humbled to be with so many bright lights of the journalism. But read them all; there are many smart takes here.

What work in North Carolina journalism inspired or enlightened you this year?

Against a background of newspapers gasping for air, accountability journalism continues its brave fight to keep people informed about how the powerful work. (I specify newspapers because newspaper journalists have traditionally done the bulk of investigative reporting.) Despite regular layoffs, the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer have continued their commitment to in-depth investigation into the wrong-headed actions of the government and the state’s institutions. The Daily Tar Heel has been unyielding in questioning the university’s actions on everything from Silent Sam to how it’s handled the pandemic. The Asheville Citizen Times has pushed hard on issues of importance to Buncombe County, too.

But accountability journalism doesn’t stop with investigations. Papers across the state have kept their coverage focused on the pandemic and the racial issues raised by the death of George Floyd. I am thinking especially of newspapers in rural, more conservative, parts of the state. Hardly a Sunday passes that stories about the virus aren’t featured on the front pages of the state’s smaller papers. The same is often true of stories about efforts of Black citizens marching or meeting with town officials in their efforts to hammer away at institutional racism.

Hard issues to tackle when half of the country throws around “fake news” whenever they encounter stories they don’t like. Takes tough journalists to pursue truth and demand accountability. All of these efforts inspire the hell out of me.

What gives you hope for 2021?

Hope is hard to find, isn’t it? For me, it’s in the innovative spirit that is see, which admittedly is small and late in coming, but there are flickers that give me hope. The recent purchase of the Charlotte Agenda indicates that there is a market for a different kind of news coverage. Triad City Beat has done the same in a different way in the Triad (and been an important investigative voice). The News Reporter in Whiteville has been at the forefront of trying to make the shift from print to digital. I hope there are other efforts, particularly in communities outside the metros. It doesn’t escape me that, until the Agenda sale, those three mentioned were not owned by large corporations. But it does give hope that small initiatives with a mission focus can help their readers and communities.

Sunday sampler

In North Carolina, GOP members of Congress take their cues from the president on most things. That means that they aren’t talking about the pandemic that is killing 3,000 Americans every day. They’ll talk about the great job they’re doing, or how the presidential election was fraudulent, or how they’ll vote against more relief aid or any number of other despicable things they believe. But COVID? No. No reason to point out their failure.

But newspapers know what their communities care about, and all across North Carolina, the pandemic is featured on the local paper’s front page. On Friday, 46 more people in McDowell County tested positive; 114 in Burke County. In Jacksonville, three stories about it cover the Daily News front page. The Hickory Daily Record answers when readers can get the vaccine. In Henderson County, teachers are concerned about their health. In Asheville, the hospital has banned most visitors. The N&O lets us know that the state is a sea of red on a COVID risk map.

No, it isn’t a hoax or fake news. No, it isn’t totally under control or going to be fine. No, it hasn’t miraculously gone away. Wear your damn mask.

Meanwhile, in other front page stories:

Asheville: The Citizen-Times reports that 11 police officers were investigated for misconduct between 2017 and 2018, and another four this year. The story is behind the paywall, but it looks like the paper is performing a good public service keeping law enforcement accountable.

Greensboro: I remain fascinated by the $4,15 billion gift by MacKenzie Scott to organizations doing good. (And if I were a billionaire not named MacKenzie Scott, I’d be ashamed of myself.) Anyway, the News & Record looks at the impact the $10 million donation makes to the United Way of Greater Greensboro, and how the United Way here changed its mission, which resulted unknowingly in getting the donation.

Raleigh: Giving profitable businesses incentives — our tax money — to locate in your state is really a BS practice. But everyone does it so no one can not do it. The least we taxpayers can expect is how that money is accounted for. Apparently, North Carolina doesn’t think we deserve that information. Thank you, N&O for calling Gov. Cooper out. “For more than two years, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has refused to release a single page of records related to the state’s attempts to land a new Apple campus in Research Triangle Park — a potential deal worth millions of dollars in incentives for one of the world’s wealthiest companies.”

Sunday sampler

No sponsored story on the front page this week! Instead, read the story in the Hickory Daily Record about the Hiddenite flood. It’s a sad, dramatic, compelling tale.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times features a story published by the USA Today network about how the Civil War and the Confederacy is portrayed in textbooks. (The link is to the story in the Montgomery Advertiser because it’s hard to find on the C-T site.) “For much of the 20th century, southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.” It’s a good story. And one that my student Anna Pogarcic wrote about from a different angle: What is being taught in a classroom today.

Fayetteville: The Lumbee Indians are the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, and it still isn’t fully recognized by the federal government. Both President Trump and President-elect Biden support that recognition so it might finally get it, and the access to federal funds that come with it. The Observer explains.

Hickory: Five people died last month when a flood swept through the Hiddenite Family Campground. The Daily Record tells the heart-wrenching story. “The water, now 20 feet deep and hundreds of yards across, seemed to come from two directions, creating a tide Flowers could not fight. ‘You couldn’t swim in it, it would suck you under,’ Flowers said. ‘It was almost like a riptide.'”

Raleigh: I went to watch the Christmas flotilla in Morehead City last night. I was joined by hundreds of people on the waterfront, most of them unmasked. Social distancing was difficult, if not impossible. So, I was interested in the N&O’s piece about skepticism of COVID in rural areas. “’There’s a little bit of, ‘You’re not going to make me wear a mask’ kind of mentality, I think,’ Bob Davis, one of the restaurant owners, said. Even after living in the area for decades he still had a difficult time articulating why so many in rural areas refused to do something simple in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. ‘Maybe it’s a sense of independence.'”

Sunday sampler, sponsored by Jack Daniels*

This is a single issue Sampler. This is the front page of the Asheville Citizen-Times, a paper of which I’m an alum.

Take a closer look at that “Cyber Monday” story.

I’ve never seen a story sponsored by a business on the front page of a metro paper. Have I been asleep? (Don’t answer that!)

I know that newspapers are desperate for money. When I was an editor, I objected when the ad department wanted to sell ads stripped across the bottom of the front page. I lost and the world didn’t end. But “sponsoring a story” on the front page? That’s a bridge pretty damned far.

Sponsored content used to be what we called advertising.

*That’s a joke.

‘My pen untangles the web of thoughts in my head in a way I couldn’t articulate otherwise.’

Every semester, on the last day of class, I have my students respond to the statement “Why I write.” Sooner or later, every writer needs to grapple with that internally. I just push them along. I only give them 15 minutes so this is more of a beginning, rather than an in-depth intellectual exercise. But it’s a start. Here are some excerpts:


Every life is a story, filled with thousands of smaller stories, and the more of these stories we hear or read, the more connected we become to one another. In a world that grows more divisive with each passing year, telling the right stories might be the only way to preserve our common humanity.


Game of Thrones had it right, stories are what make us human; our stories are what connects us to each other in a disconnected world; they are what make us worth knowing. That’s why I write.

I think there’s a connection here: my fascination with strangers and my anxious insecurities. I like to tell the stories of other people because I am afraid to tell my own.


I was painfully shy, and talking to people so I could write felt like I was carrying a shield into the conversation. I think what I love about writing is that as much as it helps me communicate my own thoughts, it also helps people communicate with each other.


Our job as journalists isn’t to give a voice to the voiceless—it’s to amplify voices that have been silenced, even if those voices shake. I write because I am no better, no worthier, no more deserving than those I write about. I just care enough to take the time, listen to them, and write it all down.


When I write — no matter what I’m writing — I feel the most normal and the most human. Writing is just easier than real life. It always has been.


My pen untangles the web of thoughts in my head in a way I couldn’t articulate otherwise.


it’s an essential way of bringing people together, of connecting them to one another, of helping them emphasize with a stranger. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when someone tells you how much it means to have their story told — it makes it all worth it.

Sunday sampler

You might think that with headlines on the front pages of papers across the state, the COVID-19 deniers would get a clue. But maybe they’re so busy worrying about their freedom from mask-wearing and social distancing that they don’t have time to read. Or watch TV news. I write that because many of today’s papers feature stories about the 5,000-plus number of coronavirus-related deaths in North Carolina. (“That’s five times the number of combined fatalities from every hurricane in the state’s history,” as the N&O writes.)

Raleigh: The News & Observer tells the story of some of the virus victims and those left behind. “For the surviving families, the virus took on a deadly scope long before its death toll reached this new crest. Jennifer Cramer’s 64-year-old father, Eli Klausner, died in April at Duke Raleigh Hospital, just two weeks after he contracted COVID-19. ‘It shouldn’t take losing someone for this to be important to people,” she said, “and for people to understand how serious it is.’”

Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Kinston and Burlington papers all carry the N&O’s story.

Then, of course, pandemic panic buying is back, the Fayetteville Observer reports. “The National Grocers Association, the trade association representing the independent supermarket industry, said in an email Tuesday that some retailers are seeing some panic buying by consumers. This is leading grocers to reinstate purchase limits as they did in the spring, designed to ensure as many people can obtain the products as need them. ‘The supply chain is well equipped and products are available, but hoarding by consumers can confound even the best-laid plans.'”

Thank goodness, there are other stories:

Raleigh: The N&O explained how the differences in population centers impacted the vote in NC. “During those 10 years, the state saw big population changes as urban and suburban areas exploded with new residents, and much of rural North Carolina saw residents leaving. As a result, a rural voter tended to have a bigger voice in the decisions on state and federal legislative seats than an urban or suburban voter. Those rural voters broke heavily for Trump, a Republican who barnstormed smaller towns across North Carolina with rallies drawing thousands in the final days of the election. Those voters also elected Republicans to Congress and state legislative seats, helping the GOP keep its hold on the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation.”

Greensboro: It only takes one person to change the world. The News & Record highlights one, the owner of a heating and air conditioning business, who realized his white privilege and decided to do something about it. “If a wall was going to keep Cooper from starting his own business, Farlow wanted to break it down. “I said, ‘Man, I don’t know that I’d hire you, but I’ll sell you part of the business.'”


Sunday sampler, Biden edition

It’s easy to see how jointly owned newspapers use their common design desks when the 2020 presidential election is finally called. (All front pages courtesy of the Newseum.

But first, Biden’s home paper.


Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Gatehouse papers Fayetteville, Jacksonville, New Bern, Kinston, Burlington, Hendersonville and probably others share the same primary design and headline treatment.

Raleigh and Charlotte went simple with “Biden.”

Greensboro and Winston-Salem went with “Biden Prevails.”

Asheville went lowkey, almost as if it were any other day.

And High Point was also less dramatic.

And others.

And in Hickory, it hardly registers.




Sunday sampler

Normally on Sunday, I look past the editorial judgments that I think are mistakes because, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not today. There are simply too many.

Burlington: “Police pepper spray mostly Black voting rights marchers in Graham, including children” is the dominant headline at the Times-News online. As it should be. But the front page of the print edition? No mention of the march. Ironically, the front page is filled with a story saying that police are more likely to stop and search Black drivers. A fine story, but also one in which a version was published on the Times-News website 10 days ago. 10. Days. Ago. (I can’t find the actual story that is on the front page today on the website.) This is what happens when you don’t deviate from the plan to deal with a breaking national news story in your own county.

Mooresville & Statesville: The front pages of both papers are dominated by a story headlined “Trump country” with a large photo of two women standing next to a cutout of President Trump. The story is about a pro-Trump parade in Mooreville. “Being a big Trump supporter, I wanted to get the word out here as much as we can, especially with North Carolina being a swing state,” the organizer of the rally said. The papers essentially said: We’ll take care of that for you.

Greensboro: This one is a misdemeanor compared to the above two. The News & Record’s front page is dominated by a story about a $300 milliion school bond issue on the ballot Tuesday. It has helpful information. I know that I — and probably tens of thousands of early and absentee voters — would have found it helpful BEFORE we voted.

Now to the better stories:

Kinston: Alamance County is also the lead in a story in the Kinston Free Press about Asian Americans as an “emergent voting bloc” in the state. “The billboard can be seen by drivers passing through Alamance County along Interstate 40. One moment, it flashes ‘NC Chinese Americans for Biden’, and then, on the same electronic screen, the blue background turns red and the text becomes ‘Chinese Americans for Trump 2020.'”

Charlotte: The Observer tells us which four N.C. counties are bellwethers in the presidential election: Jackson, Hyde, Caswell and Robeson. That’s judging based on how voters there voted in the past three presidential elections.

Raleigh: The N&O sent one of its top reporters around the rural areas of the state to take voters’ temperature. “There is no suspense surrounding how the state’s largest cities and counties, most of which lean heavily Democratic, will vote. Outside of the Triangle and Charlotte, though, and outside of places like Greensboro and Asheville, voters in more rural communities will play an especially important role in the election.” Based on the reporting, Trump is well ahead.

Charlotte: The Observer also has a good story about the need to do more in jails to protect inmates from COVID-19. Some don’t issue masks or require them. Some don’t quarantine new inmates for 14 days. And social distance? Forget it.