Sunday sampler

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High Point: I can’t recommend this paper because the story is behind a paywall, but I’m struck that it appears to take a haunted house story seriously. But there are several good stories from today’s front pages.

Greensboro: Nancy McLaughlin of the News & Record tells the compelling story of a man with cancer who undertook a risky — phenomenal, really — surgery for survival. I and many in Greensboro happen to know the man — Bob Cone — but this is the first I knew of his operation. A compelling read.

Raleigh: A key question in the gubernatorial race involves education. Have the state’s schools improved under his watch? How about teacher pay? The N&O and the Charlotte Observer take a shot at answering those questions and more. As you might expect, it’s complicated.

Fayetteville: If you’re interested in an analysis of N.C. voting patterns, the Observer’s story might help you. It takes a while to get started, though. Most interesting yet  least surprising conclusion: “One point Wrenn and Pearce do agree on is that race has played the biggest role in shaping North Carolina’s political landscape. ‘Race is the most important thing in North Carolina politics. Always has been, probably always will be,’ Pearce said.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times examines poverty in its area. In a capsule, nearly 17% of the city population lived in poverty in 2015, 32% more than a year earlier. Beyond that, the anecdotes are tough. “In a city where a developer has plans for studio apartments renting for more than $800 a month across the street from a homeless shelter, Asheville’s poor are increasingly being hidden in plain sight.”

“There’s nothing in this newspaper”

In the news:

Wells Fargo’s new CEO apologized Tuesday to the institution’s employees for the banking scandal. What contributed to the cause of the scandal? Employees “racing to meet aggressive sales goals.”

Also Tuesday, a federal judge approved VW’s $14.7 billion settlement for its emissions cheating scandal. It’s unclear if VW’s action were motivated by anything more than greed, but there is a culture that expects uncommon results regardless of the means to get them.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is talking layoffs. So is Gannett. So is the Tampa Bay Times. There are others; Google “newspaper layoffs.” I wouldn’t mention it except that I know that the announcements are usually accompanied by executives talking about doing more with less, and championing local content, and being second to none when it comes to serving customers.

Next shoe dropping: Story quotas. fewer reporters being asked to write more stories, and fewer editors editing them. And, by the way, let’s add digital and social media duties. The only thing that’s not changed and has never changed is the amount of time available.

Hold up! That’s not true in a lot of newsrooms because the copy editing and design functions among several papers in the same ownership group have been consolidated, meaning that deadlines may come earlier in the night.

So, often, less time.

Journalists, racing to meet aggressive goals.

They won’t commit crimes to meet the goals, but they’ll be tempted to cut corners to make story quotas. They’ll be forced to choose stories that are easy to get and require less reporting. Investigative, enterprise reporting that makes a difference in civic life will be done by fewer reporters and papers. More mistakes will creep in because editing is too often too quick.

The paper will be filled because quotas will be made and goals met.

Meanwhile, readers will continue to say, “there’s nothing in here.”

Investigative reporting benefits society

I haven’t read James T. Hamilton’s book, “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism,” but I sure plan to. I’m inspired by this Q&A with Hamilton by Laurie Beth Harris at the American Press Institute. One of his three case studies is the work of the News & Observer.

Some highlights:

  • “I find that for each dollar invested in an investigative story, there can be over $100 in benefits to society.”
  • His lessons for journalists are: Pursue government records, and team up and partner, and provide transparency of your work.
  • “When The News & Observer did an investigative series on the probation system that decreased murders in North Carolina, if the paper had been able to capture just 10 percent of the net benefits to society from that series, they could have hired more than 90 new reporters. Going to individual donors or foundations to support the public goods provided by accountability reporting could generate more investigative work.”
  • “When you tell important stories that are unique, you develop a brand for quality and a reputation for offering what cannot be easily found elsewhere.”

 

 

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of Rae Carruth’s son, Chancellor Lee Adams, who has cerebral palsy and brain damage as a result of his mother’s murder when he was still in her womb. Carruth, a player for the Charlotte Panthers, was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill her. He is scheduled to be released from prison in two years. It’s a moving story of pain, heartbreak and forgiveness…and absolutely nothing from Carruth. Read it.

Greensboro: Gov. Pat McCrory is proud of his so-called Carolina Comeback. The News & Record takes a look at whether he should be. It’s a mixed bag.

Raleigh: Seventeen dams failed – burst is the word the N&O uses today – in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. It’s one reason that so many roads were washed out. The N&O examines the condition and maintenance of the 3,200-plus dams around the state. There is no big reveal or terrible malfeasance uncovered, but the story is interesting nonetheless. Like our bridges, some dams are in trouble.

Raleigh: The N&O also has a fascinating piece about how well-off North Carolinians are and aren’t. You’re reading this because you have internet access; 20 percent of the state’s residents don’t. Meanwhile, our air quality is better than it was, and violent crime is down. But drug abuse is up. A quick and easy read in which you can learn about your state.

 

Sunday sampler

A lot of Hurricane Matthew mop-up, which makes sense given the amount of devastation it’s done in Eastern North Carolina. Also a lot of election coverage, which also makes sense. (Thank god that we get a new story in three weeks.)

Charlotte: The Observer has an incredible series on the discrimination, bigotry and worse that LGBTQ people face in North Carolina. (The paper put it online late last week, but it’s on the front page this morning.) Titled “Permission to Hate,” it ties the instances of hate crimes directly to HB2. “Public records and interviews across the state suggest that targeting of LGBTQ residents is so commonplace that many take it for granted as a sad – and sometimes dangerous – fact of their lives.” Its power is in its reporting; it’s filled with examples from dozens of counties around the state.

Raleigh: How is N.C. doing protecting the health of its most vulnerable citizens? The News & Observer answers that question in typical strong N&O fashion: with data, anecdotes and justifications from politicians. (Answer: “Finally, North Carolina’s percentage of people without health coverage, once better than the U.S. average, is now more than two points worse. That statistic is related to the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid. States that chose to expand saw a 42 percent drop in their uninsured rates from 2013 to 2015. In North Carolina, the drop was 28 percent. About 13 percent of non-elderly adults in the state remain uninsured, compared with 10 percent nationwide.”

The ROI on investigative journalism

Donald Trump’s hot mic story is certainly the hottest story of the day and perhaps the campaign season.

But the story behind the story should be more interesting for journalists.

David Fahrenthold, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, broke the story Friday afternoon. Fahrenthold covers the 2016 presidential campaign, but mostly he’s been investigating Trump’s taxes, his charitable contributions and the Trump Foundation. He’s been public and transparent, particularly on Twitter. And that brings us to Friday’s story.

From the Post’s story about the story: Reporter David Fahrenthold got a phone call around 11 a.m. Friday from a source with a tip about Donald Trump. The source asked: Would Fahrenthold be interested in seeing some previously unaired video of Trump?

My belief is that Fahrenthold’s source knew Fahrenthold from his investigative work. The guy’s a tough-minded, courageous reporter. If you have a bottle of nitro that is going to explode, you want to give it to someone who knows what to do with it. Someone who disn’t going to wilt under pressure. The source found the right guy and the right publication. Worth noting: NBC had the same tape, but didn’t use it until after it heard Fahrenthold was on the story.

The lesson for journalists and, more important, owners of news organizations: Invest in long-term investigative reporting. Oh, investigative reporting is expensive? You need to see a ROI?

There’s this: Fahrenthold’s story proved to be the most concurrently viewed article in the history of The Post’s website; more than 100,000 people read it simultaneously at one point on Friday. The interest was so heavy that it briefly crashed the servers of the newspaper’s internal tracking system.

What are the news media doing well? Freakin’ weather and traffic?

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Conservative Republicans say the most negative thing the news media do is report biased news. Conservatives have said it for years, and it is one of Donald Trump’s primary talking points. Many news organizations have taken steps to address this concern to little avail. I’m convinced there’s no way other than total transparency to address it, and even that won’t matter much.

More interesting to me is the answer liberal Democrats give: that news organizations too often make poor choices in the news they cover and how they cover it.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? If the news media were smarter in what they wrote/broadcast and chose smarter, more relevant topics, we wouldn’t be seeing such a steep decline in circulation and viewership.

Or would we? Well, it might slow it a bit. But the paper and broadcast would be a helluva lot much more fun to produce and consume.

I’ve said that if I were running a newspaper now, I’d focus the staff on investigative enterprise and “good news” stories. One is to reveal stories about institutions that are important to people and that they won’t get anywhere else. The other is to remind them that the community where they live is a pretty good place with pretty good people.

Would that get more people to buy the paper? I doubt it, but it would make a difference in their lives in a different way than newspapers do now. Look at newspapers around the state, as I often do with the help of this site, and you’ll notice that all but the largest newspapers feature stories on routine government meetings and festivals in town. Perhaps those stories are in great demand by a broad swath of the community, but I doubt it. Now, watch your local TV news — you tell me if it’s coverage is what  you want.

I know that newspapers write those stories because they’re easy to do, don’t take long and fill the pages. In all the feedback from readers and research I got when I was an editor, I can’t remember anyone saying that readers want more coverage of festivals and meetings. On the other hand, I can’t say that they asked for investigative enterprise stories, either. But, at least if you cover them, you will be adding to the public good, and that’s something.

Most newsrooms don’t have enough journalists to cover their communities properly. That means editors must be ruthless in choosing what to cover, which is what liberal Democrats are telling Pew Research. Be original, relevant and important.

I’m not alone, either. From John Avlon at CNN:

“Amid sprawling spin and superficiality, the value in news today comes from edgy, original reporting pursued without fear or favor. News organizations should be non-partisan, but not neutral — hitting targets on the right and the left, as the facts dictate. We need to be happy warriors who love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites on either side of the aisle.”

Personally, if I were still running a newsroom, I’d skew toward more opinion pieces that guide the community and that call BS more aggressively. (I’d also devote more attention to distinguishing the digital report, but that’s another topic.)

But here’s the other shoe that Pew Research dropped: What topics did respondents say they liked most?

“Three-in-ten describe the media’s most positive attribute as simply doing their job of reporting the news, whether in general or on a specific topic. (Weather and traffic tops the list of subject areas, named by 11% of U.S. adults.)”

Weather and traffic.

Sunday sampler

You missed me last Sunday, didn’t you? That’s cool because papers saved up some good stuff for today.

Charlotte: Best story of the day, by far. The Observer investigates state lottery winners — a story that’s been simmering for years — and how some are gaming the system. And if you don’t think “playing” the lottery is a fool’s game then you’re a fool. “Most big-prize winners won once or twice. But the number of repeat big winners – some of whom won on 15 or more scratch-off tickets in a single year – has surged since the lottery began in 2006, far outpacing the growth in total winners.”

High Point: The Enterprise has what appears to be a good story about a local man who, as a soldier in Iraq, shot and killed Iraqi prisoners, and was charged and convicted of a war crime. He says he was following orders. He’s out now and talking about it. Unfortunately, it’s behind the paywall.

Greensboro: The News & Record reminds us of the unspoken victims of crime and incarceration: the children of the jailed. “Shaquan McManus, her oldest child, was only 12 when his mother went to prison. His brother Malik McManus, her youngest, was 5. ‘Back then, most of the people I knew either had their mother or they had both their mother and father (at home),’ Shaquan McManus said. ‘It was very rare that I saw any with their father and no mother.’”

North State Journal: The front page has a huge, somewhat confusing, graphic showing the demographics of North Carolina. The web story, though, breaks it down into easily digestible bits. Worth it if you’re interested in who your N.C. neighbors are.

Charlotte and Winston-Salem: Almost lost amid the presidential chaos is the fact that N.C. voters have a Senate race to contend with. The Observer has a decent piece outlining Burr’s accomplishments — and the criticism of — his role in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. For several years leading up to this election, Burr has essentially ignored print media in N.C., any time he speaks out is worth noting. Meanwhile, the Journal looks at the recent negative TV ads in the Senate race, which don’t make Burr look particularly senatorial, but perhaps that’s what he’s learned in D.C.

 

Sunday sampler

I was out of town yesterday, but that’s not going to stop the Sampler. My apologies for being a day late; the newspapers are far from a dollar short.

Raleigh: The N&O has a four-part series, which started Saturday, deep diving into the UNC athletic-academic scandal and why it has dragged out so long, who pressured whom and what it all means. There haven’t been bomb shells so far, but the detail is impressive and the story is well-told. And sad and frustrating for anyone who loves the state university system. (I know my UNC friends like to demonize the N&O for its aggressive coverage; I think the paper and Dan Kane have acted exactly as good journalists should.) “Newly released records show many key officials refused to believe that such a scandal could have endured in Chapel Hill – and reveal their consistent efforts to downplay the importance of many of the revelations that emerged. ‘I don’t think the article changes anything,’ Ross wrote to Brent Barringer, a former board of governors member. ‘…The University needs to be focused on fixing the problem. I don’t think they learn anything by going back in time.'”

Fayetteville: There are 150 inmates on death row, and there is little chance they will be put to death any time soon. The Observer: “Legal challenges to North Carolina’s capital punishment laws pending in state and federal courts have forced executions to grind to a halt. And most death row inmates filed claims under the now-repealed Racial Justice Act, which allowed them to claim discrimination in their sentencing….’Nobody can tell you how long it’s going to be, but I would expect, given all these different levels of litigation, it’s probably going to be years before we would have any executions,’ said retired University of North Carolina law professor Richard Rosen.” Good.

Greensboro: In case you’ve believed the BS Gov. McCrory and the GOP legislators have been pushing that the revenue losses from HB2 are minimal, the News & Record is here to straighten you out. “In an email Friday to local legislators, Henri Fourrier, the chief executive officer of the Greensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau, cited $29.5 million in economic losses based on such cancellations….The News & Observer of Raleigh reported last week that the ACC football championship, which had been scheduled to be played in Charlotte in December, had an economic impact of $32.4 million last year.” The legislature’s disregard of revenue makes you think they might be Democrats!